Nearly 14 million -- that's how many people ages 50 and up are expected to have osteoporosis by 2020, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. That statistic can be a motivator to make bone health a priority in your life. Evaluating your calcium intake is likely one of your first considerations. Yet you may not realize that the hormone estrogen also plays an important role in keeping your bones healthy and reducing your risk for bone loss.
Both men and women produce and need estrogen in their bodies, but the hormone is of particular importance to the female reproductive system. Produced in the ovaries, estrogen is essential to ovulation and menstruation. It's also key in the development of secondary sex characteristics, which are the physical changes that are associated with being female. These include genital changes, body hair growth, breast development and changes in body shape. Beyond reproductive functions, estrogen affects the bones, heart and cognitive function. Although often used in the singular, the term estrogen actually refers to a group of hormones, such as estradiol.
Calcium is one of the most important minerals in the body. The majority of it is found in your teeth and bones, but it is also involved in muscle function, blood clotting and nerve function. You can get a considerable amount of calcium from the foods you eat, particularly dairy products; nuts; fortified foods; and dark, leafy greens. In some cases, however, your doctor may recommend a supplement to increase your calcium level. Having a low level puts you at risk for brittle bones and muscle problems.
Estrogen & Calcium Connection
Their involvement with bone health is central to the relationship between estrogen and calcium. Maintaining an appropriate level of calcium is important not only for bone growth over time but also for protecting bone strength. Estrogen supports this activity by aiding in intestinal absorption of calcium. Having low estrogen levels negatively impacts your body's ability to make use of the calcium you consume. This, in part, explains why you are at more at risk for osteoporosis if you're female, according to Dr. Margery Gass of the University of Cincinnati. Gass points out that women with conditions affecting their estrogen levels, such as early menopause, are at risk for bone loss.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
For women with low estrogen levels, particularly those going through menopause, hormone replacement therapy has been a controversial treatment method. Research appearing in 2004 in "Obstetrics and Gynecology" revealed that wearing a low-dose estrogen patch significantly increased bone mineral density in older women's hips and spine. Yet it's unclear how safe long-term use of estrogen therapy is because the participants wore the patch for just two years. HRT has long been a debatable topic in the medical community due to its potential health risks including cardiovascular disease and cancer. If you're considering HRT to improve bone health or for any other use, talk with your doctor to see if it is suitable for you.
- National Osteoporosis Foundation: Prevalence Report
- E.Hormone: Estrogens
- ExtoNet FAQs; What Is Estrogen?; Bernadene Magnuson, PhD; 1997
- University of Arizona Cooperative Extension; Calcium Supplement Guidelines; Scottie Misner, PhD; September 2002
- NetWellness; Osteoporosis; Margery Gass, MD
- "Harvard Women's Health Watch"; Ultra-Low Dose Estrogen Patch Improves Bone, Appears Safe for the Uterus; January 2005
- National Institutes of Health MedlinePlus: Hormone Therapy