Do Female Hormones Reduce the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in Women?

The hormones produced in women during their regular menstrual cycle have been thought to give protection from the risk of cardiovascular disease. This would explain why the risk of heart attack generally increases at an older age in women than in men. This factor is known as "premenopausal hormonal protection" and is generally attributed to the levels of hormones including progesterone produced in pre-menopausal women.

To further support the case, women with lower levels of progesterone have been found to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Debate of Hormone Therapy on Menopausal Women

In the past, many women were routinely recommended ovarian hormone therapy (OHT) during the menopause to lower the discomfort of night sweats, hot flashes and mood swings. However OHT was later found to considerably increase cardiovascular risk, which was of great concern to doctors and women considering hormone therapy. This OHT has largely been discontinued as a treatment for the symptoms of the menopause.

More recently, clinicians found that oral micronized progesterone could be used alone to reduce the discomfort of hot flashes and night sweats. This progesterone therapy appeared to have less risk on the cardiovascular system. Clinical trials were run to check the effects of taking progesterone post-menopausally.

Evidence suggested that maintaining premenopausal levels of the hormone estradiol along with normal levels of progesterone throughout the menopause may provide cardiovascular protection for women in later life.

Clinical Trial

A randomized, double-blind trial was conducted on 133 healthy early postmenopausal women. All the women were aged between 51 and 59 and within 1-11 years of their final period. They were non-smokers, not using any other hormone therapy and did not suffer from hypertension, heart disease or diabetes. The three month long trial was conducted in Vancouver to discover the effects of progesterone therapy upon the endothelial function and cardiovascular risk factor. The participants were either given progesterone therapy or a placebo to compare results.

At the end of the study all participants were compared to see the effects of the progesterone therapy on endothelial function (the cells lining the entire circulatory system), weight, blood pressure, blood coagulation, metabolism, inflammation and lipid levels.

The results of the trial showed that the progesterone treatment slightly improved the women's endothelial function giving some additional cardiovascular system safety in healthy early postmenopausal women. Although their lipoprotein levels were lower in those on progesterone compared to those on the placebo, blood pressure, total cholesterol, waist measurement, inflammation levels and blood coagulation all remained unchanged in all participants.

The study concluded that taking progesterone had a short-term benefit of lowering the risk of cardiovascular risk. It also showed that the use of progesterone is a safe treatment for the discomforts of hot flashes and night sweats which often accompany the menopause. 

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