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Understanding Hormones: Estrogen vs Progesterone

You may have first heard about estrogen and progesterone in the fifth or sixth grade. Yet these terms will continue to impact you up until menopause and even after that. If estrogen and progesterone can have that much effect on you, you might do yourself a good turn by digging a bit deeper about these two. Read on to discover more about these hormones that may stay with you—through their highs and lows—for the rest of your adult life.

Estrogen and progesterone are steroid hormones that play a crucial role in reproductive health. Although men also have these hormones in their biological systems, they are primarily female sex hormones, so we’ll focus more on how they affect women. 

If your reproductive cycle were to be likened to a beauty pageant, estrogen and progesterone would be the queens, lording it over everyone else. And true to the stereotypical nature of beauty queens, they can be frenemies. They can’t stand each other during ovulation, and estrogen levels diminish as progesterone increases. Or they can come together strong during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle to thicken the walls of the uterus for possible fertilization. Let’s take a closer look at how each of these hormones functions.

Estrogen vs Progesterone: Their Roles in the Reproductive Cycle


Estrogen is also called the female sex hormone, not because it’s the only one in our anatomy, but because it is the most dominant. This hormone is critical to the normal development and maintenance of our reproductive cycles and female characteristics, such as our breasts and pubic hair. In short, it helps prep the body for courtship, sexual intercourse, and, “if the stars align,” maternal care.

The four main types of estrogen hormones are: estrone (E1), estradiol (E2), estriol (E3), and estetrol (E4).


Estrone is responsible for developing sexual functions in females, such as sexual desire and arousal. It’s most abundant in post-menopausal women.


It is the strongest of all estrogens, dominating your reproductive years in terms of amount and activity as it develops and maintains your system. It is estradiol that causes a follicle to mature and release the egg and prepare the womb for pregnancy.


Like estrone, estriol is also a weak estrogen. It is the primary estrogen for pregnancy, stimulating the growth of the uterus and preparing the woman’s body for pregnancy. It also helps control menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness and hot flashes.


Estetrol is yet another weak estrogen. This hormone is present during pregnancy and may function to insulate the fetus from the maternal hormones.


Progesterone mainly serves to thicken the innermost lining of the uterus. It does this by secreting proteins, lipids, and other helpful substances to nourish the anticipated embryo, maintaining pregnancy. It also helps strengthen the embryo’s attachment to the uterine wall.

Estrogen vs Progesterone: What are the differences?

In addition to their functions, the two female sex hormones vary in the following:

  1. Estrogen is produced by the Graaffian follicle in the ovary, a mature cavity filled with liquid that ruptures to release an egg during ovulation. On the other hand, progesterone is produced in the ovary by the corpus luteum, a normal cyst that forms in the ovary every month during the childbearing age.
  1. Estrogen is regulated by the FSH or follicle-stimulating hormone (which develops the eggs in the ovary). But progesterone is controlled by the LH or luteinizing hormone (which tells the ovaries to release the mature egg).
  1. The ovaries release estrogen before ovulation. However, progesterone is released after ovulation.
  1. Estrogen peaks right before the mid-follicular phase, while progesterone levels are highest at the middle of the luteal stage.
  1. Estrogen enlarges the breast ducts (or milk ducts) while progesterone increases the size of the breast lobules (or milk glands).

Estrogen vs Progesterone: What happens if there’s too much or too little?

Although estrogen and progesterone levels are expected to surge or dip according to the usual reproductive cycle, there can be hormonal imbalances because of normal processes like puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. But there may be other reasons that can trigger problematic levels, such as poor gut and liver health, stress, excessive dieting, strenuous exercise, and underlying conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, and taking certain medications.

Estrogen excess can cause or contribute to:

  1. Increased risk of blood clots and stroke
  2. Higher chances of thyroid dysfunction
  3. Weight gain
  4. Fatigue
  5. Fibroids
  6. Irregular or heavy periods
  7. Dense breast tissue (makes breast cancer difficult to detect with mammograms)
  8. Bone loss
  9. Worsening of conditions like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, insulin resistance, uterine cancer, and tumors on your adrenal glands and ovaries

Estrogen deficiency can cause or contribute to:

  1. Hair loss or thinning hair
  2. Vaginal tightness (reduction of vaginal fluids)
  3. Loss of sex drive
  4. Obesity
  5. Osteoporosis
  6. Cardiovascular disease

Progesterone excess 

Too much progesterone typically isn’t a cause for concern. But it may also be possible that you have ovarian cysts or molar pregnancy, an abdominal growth that mimics pregnancy. If it’s the latter, it can be serious, perhaps even lead to cancer.

Progesterone deficiency can cause or contribute to:

  1. Irregular menstrual cycles
  2. Heavy bleeding during menstruation
  3. Miscarriage or early labor in pregnancy
  4. Infertility
  5. Fibroids

Keeping  your hormone levels normal

To find out whether your estrogen or progesterone are within acceptable limits, your doctor can perform blood, saliva, or urine tests for you. Or you may also opt to use at-home hormone tests, usually with saliva. Your physician can then provide you with the necessary treatment options.

At the same time, there are several things you can do to help regulate your hormones. One is through proper exercise. Keep it, though, from becoming excessive by seeking the guidance of a fitness professional.

Boost your diet with probiotics or enzymes and avoid fast food to maintain your ideal weight and a healthy gut microbiome. Also, increase your water intake to keep your hypothalamus, that part of your brain that regulates hormones, from becoming dehydrated. As for supplements and adding phytoestrogenic foods to your diet, it may be best to consult with your ob gyne first.

Lastly, ensure you get enough R & R. The right quality and amount of sleep will help regulate cortisol, the stress hormone that can also affect estrogen and progesterone levels. Practice relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises to reduce your anxiety and stress levels.

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