The control of reproduction in females is more complex. As with the male, the anterior pituitary hormones cause the release of the hormones FSH and LH. In addition, estrogens and progesterone are released from the developing follicles. Estrogen is the reproductive hormone in females that assists in endometrial regrowth, ovulation, and calcium absorption; it is also responsible for the secondary sexual characteristics of females. These include breast development, flaring of the hips, and a shorter period necessary for bone maturation. Progesterone assists in endometrial re-growth and inhibition of FSH and LH release.
In females, FSH stimulates development of egg cells, called ova, which develop in structures called follicles. Follicle cells produce the hormone inhibin, which inhibits FSH production. LH also plays a role in the development of ova, induction of ovulation, and stimulation of estradiol and progesterone production by the ovaries. Estradiol and progesterone are steroid hormones that prepare the body for pregnancy. Estradiol produces secondary sex characteristics in females, while both estradiol and progesterone regulate the menstrual cycle.
The Ovarian Cycle and the Menstrual Cycle
The ovarian cycle governs the preparation of endocrine tissues and release of eggs, while the menstrual cycle governs the preparation and maintenance of the uterine lining. These cycles occur concurrently and are coordinated over a 22–32 day cycle, with an average length of 28 days.
The first half of the ovarian cycle is the follicular phase shown in the figure below. Slowly rising levels of FSH and LH cause the growth of follicles on the surface of the ovary. This process prepares the egg for ovulation. As the follicles grow, they begin releasing estrogens and a low level of progesterone. Progesterone maintains the endometrium to help ensure pregnancy. The trip through the fallopian tube takes about seven days. At this stage of development, called the morula, there are 30-60 cells. If pregnancy implantation does not occur, the lining is sloughed off. After about five days, estrogen levels rise and the menstrual cycle enters the proliferative phase. The endometrium begins to regrow, replacing the blood vessels and glands that deteriorated during the end of the last cycle.
Which of the following statements about hormone regulation of the female reproductive cycle is false?
- LH and FSH are produced in the pituitary, and estradiol and progesterone are produced in the ovaries.
- Estradiol and progesterone secreted from the corpus luteum cause the endometrium to thicken.
- Both progesterone and estradiol are produced by the follicles.
- Secretion of GnRH by the hypothalamus is inhibited by low levels of estradiol but stimulated by high levels of estradiol.
Both progesterone and estradiol are produced by the follicles.
Just prior to the middle of the cycle (approximately day 14), the high level of estrogen causes FSH and especially LH to rise rapidly, then fall. The spike in LH causes ovulation: the most mature follicle, like that shown in the figure below, ruptures and releases its egg. The follicles that did not rupture degenerate and their eggs are lost. The level of estrogen decreases when the extra follicles degenerate.
Following ovulation, the ovarian cycle enters its luteal phase, illustrated in the figure above and the menstrual cycle enters its secretory phase, both of which run from about day 15 to 28. The luteal and secretory phases refer to changes in the ruptured follicle. The cells in the follicle undergo physical changes and produce a structure called a corpus luteum. The corpus luteum produces estrogen and progesterone. The progesterone facilitates the regrowth of the uterine lining and inhibits the release of further FSH and LH. The uterus is being prepared to accept a fertilized egg, should it occur during this cycle. The inhibition of FSH and LH prevents any further eggs and follicles from developing, while the progesterone is elevated. The level of estrogen produced by the corpus luteum increases to a steady level for the next few days.
If no fertilized egg is implanted into the uterus, the corpus luteum degenerates and the levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease. The endometrium begins to degenerate as the progesterone levels drop, initiating the next menstrual cycle. The decrease in progesterone also allows the hypothalamus to send GnRH to the anterior pituitary, releasing FSH and LH and starting the cycles again. The figure below visually compares the ovarian and uterine cycles as well as the commensurate hormone levels.
Which of the following statements about the menstrual cycle is false?
- Progesterone levels rise during the luteal phase of the ovarian cycle and the secretory phase of the uterine cycle.
- Menstruation occurs just after LH and FSH levels peak.
- Menstruation occurs after progesterone levels drop.
- Estrogen levels rise before ovulation, while progesterone levels rise after.
Menstruation occurs just after LH and FSH levels peak.
As women approach their mid-40s to mid-50s, their ovaries begin to lose their sensitivity to FSH and LH. Menstrual periods become less frequent and finally cease; this is menopause. There are still eggs and potential follicles on the ovaries, but without the stimulation of FSH and LH, they will not produce a viable egg to be released. The outcome of this is the inability to have children.
The side effects of menopause include hot flashes, heavy sweating (especially at night), headaches, some hair loss, muscle pain, vaginal dryness, insomnia, depression, weight gain, and mood swings. Estrogen is involved in calcium metabolism and, without it, blood levels of calcium decrease. To replenish the blood, calcium is lost from bone which may decrease the bone density and lead to osteoporosis. Supplementation of estrogen in the form of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can prevent bone loss, but the therapy can have negative side effects. While HRT is thought to give some protection from colon cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, macular degeneration, and possibly depression, its negative side effects include increased risk of: stroke or heart attack, blood clots, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, gall bladder disease, and possibly dementia.
Career Connection: Reproductive Endocrinologist
A reproductive endocrinologist is a physician who treats a variety of hormonal disorders related to reproduction and infertility in both men and women. The disorders include menstrual problems, infertility, pregnancy loss, sexual dysfunction, and menopause. Doctors may use fertility drugs, surgery, or assisted reproductive techniques (ART) in their therapy. ART involves the use of procedures to manipulate the egg or sperm to facilitate reproduction, such as in vitro fertilization.
Reproductive endocrinologists undergo extensive medical training, first in a four-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology, then in a three-year fellowship in reproductive endocrinology. To be board certified in this area, the physician must pass written and oral exams in both areas.