Understanding and Addressing Sexual Health Issues in Women

What Works In Schools: Sexual Health Education | DASH | CDC

Hormones. You can’t live without them, but you sometimes feel like you can’t live with them either. They’re chemical messengers transported in the bloodstream, telling your body and its parts what to do.

Men and women both have hormones and, in fact, produce the same ones, including progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen. It’s where they’re produced, their concentrations, and how they affect the body that differs.

Like women, men’s hormonal production changes as they age. They just don’t suffer the often unpleasant physical symptoms of hormonal change. When it comes to that, men simply aren’t in the same league.

Changes in hormonal production in women from puberty through post-menopause change their lives. Understanding why those fluctuations occur and what you can do to address them is key to your quality of life. Here are a few things you should know.

Coming of Age

Hormones related to sexual health and reproduction are at low levels after birth and up to puberty. Once a girl approaches puberty, levels of luteinizing and follicle-stimulating hormones rise. That ramps up production of sex hormones, including estrogen.

Estrogen leads to the maturation of the female reproductive features, including breasts, uterus, vagina, and ovaries. With that development comes physical changes in the appearance and function of the body. Body fat increases, especially around the hips and waist, and the menstrual cycle begins. So do cramps.

The accelerated production of hormones also leads to another common puberty event — acne. Hormones cause an overproduction of oils that trap dead skin cells, dirt, and bacteria in pores. The result is the redness and swelling caused by inflammation, as plain as the blemishes on your face.

Ironically, research has shown that one of the best ways to fight the rise of hormones during puberty is with hormones. Sprintec birth control, for example, is a combination pill containing estrogen and progestin. More than a pregnancy preventer, it has been approved to treat acne as well as painful, irregular, and lengthy periods.

Periods and pimples can also wreak havoc on a girl’s mental health. Adolescents are exceptionally prone to suffer from anxiety, depression, eating and behavioral disorders, among others. Some teen girls may need therapy, with or without medications, to help them cope with this difficult phase of their lives.

Good sleep, exercise, and eating a healthy diet are proven treatments for acne, painful periods, and mental health issues. It can be tough to do any of these as a teen. But foods like green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, certain berries, nuts, and fatty fish are inflammation fighters. And drinking sufficient amounts of water and avoiding sugary drinks will also help the mind and body.

Reaching the Peak and Starting Your Descent

Women who want to have children are waiting longer to get started. They’re marrying later or not at all and focusing on building careers rather than families. Even though these trends are relatively recent, hormones wait for no one.

The prime reproductive years begin in your late teens and end before you blow out 30 candles on your birthday cake. That doesn’t mean you can’t conceive in your 30s or 40s, but the odds skew out of your favor. Couple fewer eggs with certain conditions that affect fertility, such as uterine fibroids or endometriosis, and conception chances wane.

The release of eggs during menstruation and the shedding of the uterine lining necessary for conception are driven by hormones. Women unable to conceive can consult with fertility specialists who can identify why and recommend treatment.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) often makes its unwanted appearance in a woman’s 20s with symptoms like bloating, cramps, irritability, back pain. For some women, the condition is debilitating physically but also emotionally. Diagnosed as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), this severe form of PMS can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.

PMS and PMDD are caused by fluctuating hormones. Combination birth control is often prescribed to sufferers to alleviate the symptoms for either. However, PMDD may also require antidepressants, psychotherapy, or even surgery to remove the ovaries.

Stress, sensitivity to hormonal fluctuations, and pregnancy can affect women’s physical and emotional symptoms as they slide into perimenopause. A healthy diet, regular exercise, drinking plenty of water, not smoking, and avoiding excessive alcohol can help. Getting your hormones, mind, and body under control may make the transition to menopause a smoother event.

The Departure of Aunt Flo

You may think that once you stop menstruating, all these hormone-related health issues will stop as well. But wait. There’s more.

Most women begin experiencing perimenopause in their late 40s. That’s the roughly four-year transition into full-blown menopause. Hot flashes, irregular periods, and heavy bleeding are hallmarks of this time. Staying on combination birth control may alleviate some symptoms.

The thyroid produces hormones that control metabolism. Although production begins slowing in a woman’s 20s, it may become noticeable as they approach menopause. For some women, hormonal production actually increases, putting them at higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease. You should talk to your doctor about a blood test that measures thyroid function.

The changes in hormones during perimenopause and menopause can cause more than those infamous hot flashes. Vaginal dryness, fatigue, bone loss, crepey skin, and incontinence are common. So are mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and even cognitive decline.

Lubricants will help women suffering from vaginal dryness keep sex pleasurable. Replacement of estrogen via hormone therapy, low-dose antidepressants, anti-seizure medication or some high blood pressure medication may alleviate severe hot flashes. Medications including oral bisphosphonates and vitamin D supplements may stop bone loss.

Of course, a healthy diet, exercise, quality sleep, and water consumption ease the symptoms of menopause. So, too, might relaxation techniques, meditation, and Kegels to strengthen the pelvic floor. Aging gracefully isn’t as easy as it may appear.

It’s a Balancing Act

Hormones are necessary for many important physical, emotional, and reproductive functions in a woman’s life. How they work is subject to a variety of factors, including age, pregnancy, genetics, medications, health issues, and environmental factors. Although you may not be able to control most of what affects your hormones, take note. Putting them back in balance may not be as difficult as you think.  

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