There are many different hormones and each contributes to different processes over time, including growth, physical development and sexual function.
The key reproductive hormones are estrogen and progesterone for women and testosterone for men. They’re all required for good sexual health and reproduction, but they can also affect things like energy level, weight and mood.
These hormones need to be balanced to work well, but their levels decrease as you age. This often causes many physiological changes.
How estrogen and testosterone work
Estrogen and progesterone are produced mainly by the ovaries “in a cyclical fashion, which results in a monthly period,” said Dr. Caitlin Dunne, an infertility specialist at the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Vancouver.
“Beyond pregnancy … estrogen is essential for building and maintaining strong bones and for keeping women’s arteries healthy to avoid heart disease,” she said. “[It] also plays an important role in cognitive functioning, moods, sexuality, breast development and breastfeeding, to name a few.”
However, women are born with a finite number of eggs that decreases over time. As the eggs disappear, so does the source of a woman’s estrogen and progesterone. When she has no eggs left, she enters menopause.
“On average, that occurs at age 51,” said Dunne.
Similarly, the pituitary gland controls the production of testosterone by the testes in men.
As men age, the testes can slow down or stop producing testosterone altogether. This is known as andropause, or male menopause.
How your body could change
The sudden drop in estrogen levels can lead to menopausal symptoms like “hot flashes, night sweats and changes in mental functioning,” said Dunne.
However, it has been known to also cause more subtle side effects.
“Some menopausal women describe difficulty concentrating, memory issues and mood changes,” she said. “Weight and body composition changes can also occur.”
Dunne said menopausal women have a propensity to lose muscle and gain fat tissue, especially around the waist and hips.
Men continue to make sperm for the rest of their lives, but the decrease in testosterone can have other effects.
These can include fatigue, erectile dysfunction, loss of muscle mass, low libido and low sperm production.
It’s not uncommon for men to lose body hair, muscle and strength as they age. Body fat may also increase over time.
Managing the changes
Both men and women are advised to maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
Women should concentrate on “weight-bearing and balance exercises to offset the effects of bone loss and the risk of fractures or falling,” said Dunne.
Calcium and vitamin D can also help to support bone maintenance.
“Heart disease is consistently one of the top threats to women in our society, particularly after menopause,” she said.
“Having a healthy body weight and avoiding high blood pressure and diabetes are some of the most important things we can do to mitigate this risk.”
There’s also the option of hormone therapy for both men and women.
Testosterone replacement therapy can be done several ways, including using gel or patches that you put on your skin.
It can improve “sexual interest, erections, mood and energy, body hair growth, bone density and muscle mass,” according to the Hormone Health Network.
Hormone therapy for women is considered one of the most effective treatments for bothersome hot flashes and night sweats, Dr. Lindsay Shirreff previously told Global News.
“We aim to individualize treatment and offer women the lowest hormone therapy dose to provide relief from her symptoms,” said Shirreff, an obstetrician/gynecologist at the Mature Women’s Health and Menopause Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
She said that as long as a woman has no contraindications to starting hormone therapy and is within 10 years of her last period, this type of therapy is safe and effective.
“Women who still have their uterus are typically prescribed estrogen and progesterone,” she said. “The estrogen is often given through the skin in the form of a patch or gel to decrease the risk of blood clot and heart attack that was previously attributed to hormone therapy.”
The treatment, however, has gotten a bad reputation because of associated breast cancer risks. However, Dunne said these have often been misinterpreted as much scarier than they really are.
“I would suggest that women who are suffering with hot flashes should see their doctor to have an informed discussion,” she said.
“In general, when we use a low dose of hormone therapy for a short duration of time, it carries minimal (if any) increased risk of breast cancer and it can help make women’s lives more manageable.”
— With files from Arti Patel