Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Estrogen hormones are female sex hormones that are primarily produced in the ovaries. Estrogen is found in both women and men (where they are thought to play a role in sperm maturation and male libido), but are produced in much higher levels in women of childbearing age.

These steroid hormones are primarily responsible for the growth and development of female sexual characteristics, regulation of the menstrual cycle, and management of the reproductive system. Scientists now understand that estrogen is vital to brain function and health, particularly as they relate to aging.

The Importance of Estrogen

Estrogen production impacts women’s health in a variety of ways, from protection against memory loss and dementia, to management of sleep cycles, to reproductive health. American women experience menopause at an average age of 51.

What role does estrogen play in the brain?

Estrogen bolsters learning and memory through the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain on which estrogen and progesterone both act. The hormone also protects emotional well-being—when estrogen plummets in menopause, anxiety and depression often result. It offers neuroprotective qualities, helping the brain heal after a stroke or traumatic brain injury and guarding against degeneration that can lead to cognitive decline and dementia. 

What role does estrogen play in the body?

Many systems in the body are in part governed by estrogen. The hormone regulates the menstrual cycle, libido, and vaginal functioning, such as lubrication and elasticity. It helps maintain strong bones and prevents cardiovascular disease. It also contributes to the health of the  urinary tract, breasts, muscles, and skin.

article continues after advertisement
When Estrogen Fluctuates

During a woman's lifetime, estrogen levels will often fluctuate, rising during puberty and remaining at healthy levels until her 40s and 50s, or the beginning of menopause. At this point, estrogen production significantly drops, signaling the end of natural fertility and impacting the brain in ways that may be associated with mood changes, anxiety, depression, memory loss, and diminished neuroprotection.

Menopause, and its associated drop in estrogen production, can inflict sudden and sometimes severe health problems on women. Research shows that infusions of estrogen can treat depression and other challenges that sometimes accompany menopause. But not all menopause treatments are created equal, and it’s crucial to be able to explore and identify effective treatments.

What happens when estrogen levels are low?

In the years leading up to menopause, the body begins to produce less estrogen. This can lead to a range of symptoms experienced in perimenopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, lower sex drive, vaginal dryness, osteoporosis, insomnia, mood swings or depression, and impairments to memory and concentration. This is the most common time to experience low estrogen, but it can also affect young women for specific reasons such as an autoimmune condition or eating disorder.

What happens when estrogen levels are high?

Sometimes estrogen can become out of balance with progesterone and testosterone, such as when taking estrogen therapy. This imbalance can occasionally lead to mood swings, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, memory problems, bloating, swelling, and low sex drive, which may lead women to shift their treatment. 

Essential Reads