What are hormones?
Hormones are often referred to as chemical messengers. They are released by endocrine glands directly in the bloodstream to carry messages throughout the body to specific organs and tissues, telling them to carry on with their functions.
Hormones are like messengers in your body that give orders to your cells to carry out specific actions. They help your body parts function in a coordinated way. Hormones control your body activities such as growth, development, energy production, sexual function, and reproduction.
Hormones may be grouped according to the functions they control. These functions include the way the body uses food, growth, sex, and reproduction. They can perform various actions on many different targets. The complex interaction between the glands, hormones and other target organs is referred to as the endocrine system.
What do hormones do?
- make people grow or stop growing
- speed up or slow down the metabolism
- increase or slow down appetite
- make people feel happy or sad
- start puberty
- start menopause
- regulate sexual response
- increase or reduce fertility
Hormonal Imbalance and Infertility
If you have an imbalance in your hormone level, you may well have an irregular, short or long menstrual cycle or even an absent menses. This may also make it difficult to predict when you’re ovulating especially when trying to conceive.
Let’s look at some hormones which may be crucial to fertility
Oestradiol is a powerful reproductive hormone that has a wide range of actions in both men and women.
Oestradiol is a steroid hormone made from cholesterol and is the strongest of the three naturally produced estrogens. It is the main estrogen found in women and has many functions; one of its major functions is to maintain the female reproductive system.
Estrogen is the hormone responsible for the healthy development of your female sexual characteristics such as your breasts, vagina, your menstrual cycle, body shape, and hair growth. It also regulates the release of the female eggs and works with progesterone to stop the ovulation cycle during when you become pregnant.
Oestradiol levels vary throughout the monthly menstrual cycle; it is highest at ovulation and lowest at menstruation.
Men also produce oestradiol which is made in the same pathway as testosterone. Oestradiol levels in men are much lower than in women.
High levels of oestradiol in women can cause loss of libido and depression. Some more severe effects can include uterine and breast cancer, weight gain and infertility.
High levels of estradiol in men can cause sexual dysfunction, loss of muscle tone, increased body fat and development of female characteristics, such as breast tissue.
Low levels of oestradiol can cause depression, fatigue, mood swings, interrupted or absent menstrual cycle and infertility in women. In menopausal women, oestradiol production falls naturally and causes many of its symptoms such as night sweats, hot flushes, vaginal dryness, and mood swings, while in the long-term she is more likely to develop osteoporosis.
Progesterone is a hormone released by the corpus luteum in the ovary. It plays important roles in the menstrual cycle and in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy.
During the menstrual cycle, when an egg is released from the ovary at ovulation, the remnants of the ovarian follicle that enclosed the developing egg form a structure called the corpus luteum. This releases progesterone and, to a lesser extent, oestradiol. The progesterone prepares the body for pregnancy in the event that the released egg is fertilized. If the egg is not fertilized, the corpus luteum breaks down, causing progesterone production to fall and a new menstrual cycle begins.
If the egg is fertilized, progesterone stimulates the growth of blood vessels that supply the lining of the womb (endometrium) and stimulates glands in the endometrium to secrete nutrients that nourish the early embryo. Progesterone then prepares the tissue lining of the uterus to allow the fertilized egg to implant and helps to maintain the endometrium throughout pregnancy.
During pregnancy, progesterone plays an important role in the development of the fetus. It stimulates the growth of maternal breast tissue, prevents lactation, and strengthens the pelvic wall muscles in preparation for labor. The level of progesterone in the body steadily rises throughout pregnancy until labor occurs and the baby is born.
If your progesterone level is elevated within a certain range during the luteal phase, it means you are ovulating. Levels of progesterone do increase naturally in pregnancy beyond just the luteal phase of your cycle.
Higher levels of progesterone than normal can be caused by adrenal cancer, ovarian cancer or a condition known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia.
Low levels of progesterone can cause irregular and heavy menstrual bleeding, no period, not ovulating, endometriosis, PCOS, PMS, menstrual cramps, blood clotting, swollen breasts, fibrocystic breasts, loss of libido, obesity, depression, water retention, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness. If you are already pregnant, low levels of progesterone are associated with recurrent early miscarriage, fetal death, and toxemia of pregnancy.
Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH)
Follicle stimulating hormone is produced by the pituitary gland. It regulates the functions of both the ovaries and testes, stimulating the growth of the ovarian follicles in women and semen production in men.
High levels of follicle stimulating hormone in women are a sign of malfunction in the ovary. This condition is called hypergonadotrophic-hypogonadism, and is associated with primary ovarian failure.
High levels of follicle stimulating hormone in men are a sign of malfunction in the testis, which is associated with testicular failure.
In menopausal women, follicle stimulating hormone levels also start to rise naturally, which explains a reduction in the function of the ovaries and decline of estrogen and progesterone production.
Low levels of follicle stimulating hormone lead to poor ovarian function, which indicates that ovarian follicles do not grow properly and do not release an egg, thus leading to infertility in women. Adequate follicle stimulating hormone action is required for proper production of sperm; low levels can result in limited sperm production (oligozoospermia) and infertility.
Luteinizing Hormone (LH)
Luteinizing hormone is produced and released by cells in the anterior pituitary gland. In men luteinizing hormone regulates the function of the testes, while in women it regulates the function of the ovaries.
In men luteinizing hormone regulates the function of the testes by stimulating Leydig cells in the testes to produce testosterone, which in turn support sperm production.
In women luteinizing hormone regulates the function of the ovaries by stimulating the ovarian follicles in the ovary to produce the female sex hormone, known as oestradiol, in weeks one to two of the cycle. A rise in luteinizing hormone levels causes the ovarian follicle to tear and release a mature egg from the ovary, around day 14, a process known as ovulation. The remnants of the ovarian follicle form a corpus luteum which is then stimulated by luteinizing hormone to produce progesterone which is required to support the early stages of pregnancy if fertilization occurs.
High levels of luteinizing hormone in the bloodstream can indicate decreased sex steroid production from the testes or ovaries such as premature ovarian failure.
A common condition in women associated with high levels of luteinizing hormone is polycystic ovarian syndrome and reduced fertility.
Low levels of luteinizing hormone cause infertility in both men and women. A lack of luteinizing hormone in women means that ovulation does not occur. An example of a condition in men where low levels of the luteinizing hormone are found is Kallmann’s syndrome, while an example of a condition in women which can be caused by too little luteinizing hormone is amenorrhea (absent menses).
Prolactin is the hormone that stimulates milk production and is a major contributor to sexual satisfaction. Prolactin interacts with the breasts and ovaries causing the growth of the mammary glands during pregnancy and the stimulation of milk production after childbirth.
Prolactin is a hormone produced in the pituitary gland and has been shown to have more than 300 functions in the body. These functions include reproductive, metabolic, regulation of fluids, regulation of the immune system and behavioral functions.
High levels of prolactin cause hyperprolactinemia which may inhibit ovulation.
Low levels of prolactin cause hyperprolactinemia which can lead to insufficient milk production after childbirth.
Human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG)
Human chorionic gonadotrophin is a reproductive hormone that is essential for establishing and maintaining early pregnancy.
Human chorionic gonadotrophin is a hormone produced by the cells that surround the growing human embryo; these cells will eventually go on to form the placenta. This is the hormone measured when confirming pregnancy by means of a urine sample or blood test. Human chorionic gonadotrophin can be detected in the urine from 7-9 days if fertilization occurs.
High levels of Human chorionic gonadotrophin do not cause any direct negative consequences as there is no strong evidence but very high levels of human chorionic gonadotrophin can indicate hyper-proliferation of the placenta (also referred to as hydatidiform moles or molar pregnancies) which can lead to cancer (choriocarcinomas) in some cases.
Low levels of Human chorionic gonadotrophin cause miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies where the embryo implants outside of the uterus.
Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH)
The gonadotropin-releasing hormone controls the production of luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland.
The gonadotropin-releasing hormone is released into tiny blood vessels that carry it from the brain into the pituitary gland where it stimulates the production of follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone.
Extremely high levels of Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone can cause pituitary adenomas (tumors), this can be rare but when this happens, it increases the production of gonadotrophins leading to overproduction of testosterone or estrogen.
Low levels of Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone in childhood leads to loss of development of the testes or ovaries and infertility. Also, any trauma or damage to the hypothalamus can cause a loss of gonadotropin-releasing hormone secretion which will stop the normal production of follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone causing loss of menstrual cycles (amenorrhoea) in women, loss of sperm production in men and loss of production of hormones from the testes and ovaries.
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