Oestrogen and Progesterone: The Low Down, the Good & Bad.

By Julie Dargan | Menopause

May 05

Throughout a woman’s childbearing years, every month her hormones are trying to work in harmony with the ultimate goal of creating life.

Oestrogen and progesterone work in opposition in order to create the perfect environment for the developing foetus should conception take place.

For many women, these monthly cycles were harmonious with very little side effects. For others,  mood swings, abdominal swelling, cramps may have been experienced. Some women gained relief once bleeding occurred, while for others this only made their symptoms worse.

As you approach menopause many women cheer that the end is in sight to their monthly woes, only to find out that peri-menopause may bring its own challenges.

Alternatively, you may have never experienced much monthly interruptions during your fertile years but once you hit perimenopause your hormonal harmony becomes a hormonal nightmare.

Too much oestrogen can make you irritable and anxious, while too little can make you depressed and confused. It is the rise and falls in oestrogen, as well as oestrogen being out of harmony with progesterone, that affects your mood. The more erratic your hormonal fluctuations, the more unsettling symptoms you will experience, particularly during peri-menopause.

In this blog, I am going to breakdown and discuss the two major female hormones : oestrogen and progesterone and the effects these hormones can have during menopause.


Theoretically oestrogen is not just one hormone, but a group of hormones that include oestradiol, oestrone and oestriol. Each hormone works in different ways in the female body.

  1. Oestradiol: from menarche to menopause, the primary oestrogen is oestradiol (E2).

This is the active form of oestrogen.

Oestradiol is the strongest form of oestrogen, meaning that it is the most effective for the least quantity.

It is produced by the ovaries and promotes the deposit of peripheral fat around the hips and thighs at the time of puberty.

  1. Oestrone: At menopause, the primary oestrogen is oestrone (E1).

Oestrone is weaker than oestradiol, therefore the body requires more of it to be effective.

Oestrone is not as active as oestradiol but can be readily converted to oestradiol to be utilised by the body.

Oestrone is primarily produced by the ovaries (50%)  but only while the ovaries are fully functioning.

Once you reach menopause oestrone is produced from your fatty tissue (particularly belly fat), liver and the adrenals.

Because oestrone is not produced cyclically after the menopause, the rate of formation of oestrone does not fluctuate the way it did during peri-menopause.

  1. Oestriol (E3) is a metabolic waste of oestradiol metabolism (as well as being made from the placenta).

It is the weakest form of oestrogen.

It is the job of the liver to convert oestradiol and oestrone and oestriol in order to be excreted from the body.

A high fibre diet and regular bowel movements help decrease oestrogen being recirculated into the body.

Perimenopause to Menopause Transition

During the menopause transition, the female body makes a transitions from ovarian production of oestrogen (oestradiol) to adrenal production of oestrogen (oestrone). Oestrone is converted from androstenedione in fatty tissue, so women with more body fat produce higher doses of oestrone.

During early peri-menopause some women may experience initially high levels of oestradiol in response to higher FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) levels. High oestradiol levels may cause symptoms such as breast swelling, breast tenderness and bloating. The elevated and erratic levels of oestradiol may also cause heavy and unpredictable vaginal bleeding. A concern for a woman with high oestradiol levels is the development of fibroids or increased risk of endometrial cancer.

It makes sense then that overweight women have more oestrone circulating in their bodies due to the increased oestrone being released from their fat stores in relation to slimmer women. Larger women are therefore somewhat protected from osteoporosis as well as symptoms associated with low oestrogen.

The more fat cells you have, the more oestrogen is being produced. This also relates to men and which is why overweight men tend to develop “man boobs”. The negative side effect of this includes a higher incidence of PCOS, breast cancer but has a positive side effect of protection against post-menopausal osteoporosis.

Why am I retaining water and look like a bloated walrus at times?

(As expressed by Sammi!)

Oestrogen has an effect on the retention of water that occurs naturally as part of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Women tend to retain more in the days leading up to menstruation as a result of the rising oestrogen levels. When oestrogen levels become erratic during perimenopause, so does the incidence of water retention, which then leads to bloating and hence the “bloated walrus” feeling.

Increased oestrogen levels leads to increased serotonin levels leads to production of aldosterone by the adrenal glands which has an effect on kidney function and causes a water/salt imbalance leading to feeling of bloating and retention of water.

Why are my stools so hard and dry on the odd days?

(Asked by Jamile)

Oestrogen influences the production of bile, a substance produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder that aids in digestion. Bile acts as a lubricant in the intestines. When oestrogen levels decrease as a result of menopause, this in turn leads to a decrease in bile production. Stools in the small intestine can become dry, hard, and accumulate due to the lack of lubrication, leading to the sensation of constipation and bloating.

Proper metabolism and excretion of oestrogens is important. Oestrogens can be metabolised into two pathways. More on this is discussed in the Liver Chapter.

Oestrogen and progesterone need to be in balance with each other as they both enhance the action of the other as well as offset the action of the other.

Oestrogen dominance is a term you may have seen. This is not a reflection of having too much oestrogen, but simply where oestrogen action is greater than progesterone.This can be the case whether oestrogen and progesterone levels are both high, low or normal.


Progesterone is produced by the ovaries in the second half of the menstrual cycle and is also produced at a high level by the placenta during pregnancy.

In the ovaries, progesterone is the precursor of oestrogen. It is also made in smaller amounts by the adrenal glands in men and women and by the testes in males. It is also the precursor of testosterone and adrenocortical hormones. Corticosteroids are essential for stress response, sugar and electrolyte balance and blood pressure regulation.

Whereas oestrogen role is to store energy as fat as well as adds weight by increasing water retention, progesterone turns fat into energy and relieves excess fluid. Progesterone is a natural diuretic and helps relieve excess fluids in the body. If oestrogen levels are disproportionately high to progesterone, women can become bloated and retain fluid. Ankles swell and rings may become tight on your fingers. Other symptoms include tender & painful breasts, and headaches. This loss of hormonal balance can also lead to fibroids and heavy bleeding.

If you are progesterone deficient you will most likely be irritable, agitated, tired, depressed and experience unpredictable behaviour and anger outbursts.

If you find yourself angry after an alcoholic drink or two it could be due to low progesterone levels. Alcohol is detoxified by the liver and if you are not able to break it down effectively anger outbursts can be suffered.

Decreased progesterone can also affect bones and the development of osteoporosis. Progesterone stimulates osteoblast-mediated new bone formation. Progesterone stimulates the growth of new bone tissue thus assisting in halting the progression of osteoporosis.

Lack of progesterone can lead to new osteoblasts not being created, potentially lead to an increased incidence of osteoporosis.

Stress negatively impacts on progesterone production. When the body is under stress, progesterone is converted into cortisol at the expense of oestrogen and progesterone. The consequent lack of progesterone thus accelerates stressful conditions.

When ovulation stops, no more progesterone is produced.


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About the Author

Julie Dargan RN, ND, BHSc works with Successful, Busy, Menopausal Women find relief from hot flushes and night sweats, & lose weight gained in their middle years, through diet and lifestyle changes.

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