Both women and men can suffer from elevated cholesterol levels that significantly impact cardiovascular disease, strokes and heart attacks. However, women have a protective mechanism in their bodies from the hormone estrogen that remains in effect through their childbearing years. However, once perimenopause and menopause have arrived, the protective effect of estrogen declines.
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What is Estrogen?
Estrogen is a major female sex hormone that is produced in the ovaries. While women rely on the production of estrogen to balance their reproductive organs, estrogen is also produced in lesser amounts in men, according to MayoClinic.com. There are estrogen receptors in the cells of the brain, bone, blood vessels, liver and reproductive tract of both men and women. However, women produce much more estrogen in their bodies than do men and the major role that estrogen plays is in the support of pregnancy.
High Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is produced by the liver and also ingested with certain foods, according to KidsHealth. Cholesterol is required by the body to make vitamin D after the skin is exposed to UV light from the sun and to produce some hormones, build cell walls and help you digest fats. Your liver produces enough cholesterol to meet the needs of your body every day. Cholesterol is also found in foods that originate from animal sources, such as meat, eggs and whole-fat dairy products. High levels of cholesterol in the blood stream can increase your risk of coronary artery disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attack. Some of the factors that lead to high cholesterol are obesity, gender, heredity, diet and age.
Relationship Between Estrogen and Cholesterol
Physicians at the Mayo Clinic state that declining estrogen levels during menopause and peri-menopause can lead to an increase in LDL cholesterol, commonly called "bad" cholesterol. This increase in the bad cholesterol and concurrent decrease in HDL cholesterol, or the "good" cholesterol, increases the risk of heart disease. Estrogen appears to have a protective effect on the vasculature of the body against diseases. Estrogen stimulates the release of nitric oxide and decreases the contraction of smooth muscle cells. This relationship appears to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels while estrogen levels remain high during a woman's childbearing years.
After the Protection of Estrogen Disappears
Once a woman reaches perimenopause or menopause, the American Heart Association states that some women benefit from postmenopausal hormone therapy to treat osteoporosis and other medical conditions. However, they do not recommend use exclusively to prevent cardiovascular disease. Supplementation with estrogen after menopause does not appear to offer a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. In women with a personal history or family history of endocrine related cancers, such as breast cancer, supplementation increases their risk of developing cancer. Instead, the American Heart Association recommends cholesterol-lowering drug therapy for women at increased risk of heart disease, in combination with lifestyle changes and dietary changes as well as weight management, physical activity and smoking cessation.