Hormones are chemical messengers in the body that are created in the endocrine glands. These messengers control most major bodily functions, from basic needs like hunger to complex processes like reproduction. Reproductive hormones are responsible for sexual development and reproduction in both men and women. Estrogen is widely recognised as a female sex hormone, but it also plays a crucial role in men’s health. In men, estrogen — alongside other hormones like testosterone, cortisol, follicle stimulating hormone, and prolactin — contributes to numerous biological functions, affecting bone health, brain health, sexual function, and fertility. Read on to learn more about the importance of estrogen in men, as well as potential signs of a hormonal imbalance.
What are androgens and estrogens?
Androgens and estrogens are important categories of reproductive hormones. While present in both men and women, they have distinct roles and different levels of concentration depending on sex. Androgens, which include testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), are often considered “male hormones”. They are produced in larger amounts in men and are responsible for male physical characteristics and reproductive activity. Androgens are primarily produced in the testes, adrenal glands, and ovaries (in women) (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). They help regulate the development and maintenance of male characteristics, such as body hair, muscle mass, and a deep voice.
Estrogen refers to a group of sex hormones that are predominantly associated with female sexual and reproductive development (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). These hormones are primarily produced in the ovaries in women, but are also produced by men in smaller amounts There are three types of estrogen: estrone, estradiol, and estriol. Estradiol is the main form present in women during their reproductive years, and is also the form of estrogen that plays a role in men’s health. It’s important to note that despite being classified as a “female hormone,” estrogen is essential for many processes in the male body as well.
How Men Produce Estrogen
In men, estrogen is produced in a slightly different way than in women. The process begins with the production of androgens in the testes and adrenal glands. The androgen testosterone is then converted into estradiol, the most biologically active form of estrogen, in the testicles, brain, adipose tissue (body fat), skin, and bones (Cooke et al, 2017). This conversion is facilitated by an enzyme called aromatase.
What is the function of estrogen in men?
Estrogen is a key player in several vital biological functions in men. Estrogen plays a role in:
- The reproductive system: Estrogen is essential in maintaining the health of the male reproductive system, contributing to fertility and sexual function (Schulster et al., 2016).
- Bone health: Estrogen helps regulate bone density in men, playing a pivotal role in preventing bone loss and conditions like osteoporosis (Cauley, 2014).
- Cardiovascular health: Estrogen is important for heart health, helping to regulate cholesterol and protect against heart disease. Researchers have found that men with heart disease had lower estrogen and testosterone levels (Bajelan et al., 2019).
- Brain health: This hormone contributes to brain health, function, and cognition in both women and men (Luine, 2014).
Understanding Hormone Imbalances in Men
While sufficient estrogen is needed for optimal health in men, too much of this hormone can cause a variety of adverse symptoms. High levels of estrogen can result in issues like gynecomastia (breast tissue enlargement), erectile dysfunction, and infertility (Haghighi, 2020).
Low estrogen in men is usually not cause for concern, but can sometimes cause symptoms that require further investigation. Low estrogen can be the result of hypogonadism, a condition that occurs when the body’s sex glands (gonads) do not produce enough hormones. Low levels of estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones due to hypogonadism can cause some of the same symptoms as high estrogen, including low libido, infertility, depression, and fatigue (Jewell, 2023).
Causes of high and low estrogen in men
High estrogen in men can be caused by medications, including certain antibiotics, herbal supplements such as ginseng, and phenothiazines (a medication used to treat various mental health conditions). Increased estrogen can also be influenced by different health conditions, including stress, obesity, certain liver diseases, and diseases that impact hormone production, such as hypogonadism or adrenal tumours (Jewell, 2023).
Hypogonadism that causes low estrogen in men can be caused by a variety of conditions, including autoimmune conditions, kidney or liver conditions, certain genetic disorders, rapid weight loss, malnutrition, a tumour near the pituitary gland, or testicles that do not descend (Jewell, 2023).
Managing estrogen levels in men
Maintaining balanced hormone levels is important for overall health and wellbeing. There are a number of medical conditions that can cause hormone imbalances, and treating the root cause under the guidance of a healthcare provider is the most effective way to restore hormone levels to normal. In addition to medical treatment, limiting alcohol intake may also be beneficial for healthy hormone levels, as excessive alcohol can negatively impact liver function and alter hormone balance, including lowering testosterone (Yafi et al., 2016). Finally, a healthy lifestyle that prioritises regular exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet are beneficial for both hormone balance as well as overall health.
If you have concerns about hormone levels, be sure to speak to your healthcare provider. They can provide personalised advice, testing, and treatment that can help get to the root cause of your symptoms and return to feeling your best.
Bajelan, M., Roodi, N. E., Daloee, M. H., Farhangnia, M., & Kuchaksaraei, A. S. (2019). The Effect of Low Testosterone and Estrogen Levels on Progressive Coronary Artery Disease in Men. PubMed, 8(2), 168–171. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31832441
Cauley, J. A. (2015). Estrogen and bone health in men and women. Steroids, 99, 11–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.steroids.2014.12.010
Cleveland Clinic. (2021, October 24). Androgens. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22002-androgens
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, February 8). Estrogen. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22353-estrogen
Cooke, P. S., Nanjappa, M. K., Ko, C., Prins, G. S., & Hess, R. A. (2017). Estrogens in Male Physiology. Physiological Reviews, 97(3), 995–1043. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00018.2016
Haghighi, A. S. (2020, November 9). What to know about estrogen in men. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/estrogen-in-men
Jewell, T. (2023, March 16). Risk Factors of Having High or Low Estrogen Levels in Males. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/estrogen-in-men
Luine, V. N. (2014). Estradiol and cognitive function: Past, present and future. Hormones and Behavior, 66(4), 602–618. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2014.08.011
Schulster, M., Bernie, A. M., & Ramasamy, R. (2016). The role of estradiol in male reproductive function. Asian Journal of Andrology, 18(3), 435. https://doi.org/10.4103/1008-682x.173932
Yafi, F. A., Jenkins, L., Albersen, M., Corona, G., Isidori, A. M., Goldfarb, S., Maggi, M., Nelson, C. J., Parish, S. J., Salonia, A., Tan, R. B., Mulhall, J. P., & Hellstrom, W. J. (2016). Erectile dysfunction. Nature Reviews Disease Primers, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrdp.2016.3
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