The Curious Relations Between Androgens and Estrogens in Women

( Adapted excerpt from "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos" )

Nelson Soucasaux

Nelson Drawing 1977

The purpose of this article is to introduce and comment some aspects of the very curious relations existing between male and female hormones in the female sex. As I have observed in my book "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos: Forma, Função, Símbolo e Arquétipo" ("The Female Sexual Organs: Shape, Function, Symbol and Archetype"), in women, due to an intriguing biochemical peculiarity, the female hormones ( estrogens ) are produced having male hormones ( androgens ) as precursors. In a way, we can regard this physiological event as being somewhat "problematic" for women, since it is one of the factors responsible for the phenomenon of follicular atresia or death. From early childhood up to the age of 50, follicular atresia is the main cause for the depletion of the ovarian follicular population that finally culminates with menopause.

The fact that the estrogens are produced by the ovaries having androgens as precursors obliges women to first produce male hormones in order to subsequently transform them into female ones. As I have already said, this biochemical peculiarity seems to be an important cause for the atresia ( death ) of the great majority of the ovarian follicles that begin their growth, leading, over the years, to the complete ovarian depletion about the age of 50. In the ovarian follicles, the accumulation of androgens produced by the theca cells when they are not adequately turned into estrogens by the granulosa cells seems to exert an inhibiting effect upon the follicular structures, causing the follicles to become atretic and die ( Note 1 ). Now, let us see the main stages of the sexual hormones synthesis in the ovaries:


As we can verify, the first important sexual steroid that is formed is progesterone. The androgens ( dehydroepiandrosterone, androstenedione and testosterone ) arise in an intermediate stage, while the estrogens ( estrone and estradiol ) only make their appearance at the final one. The estrogens are formed directly from the androgens, that is, the androgens androstenedione and testosterone are directly turned into the estrogens estrone and estradiol.

The relations between the respective biological potency of the androgens and estrogens involved in this complex biosynthetic chain and the positions they occupy in it are also very important here. Dehydroepiandrosterone is an androgen that possesses a very low biological potency. Androstenedione, which is the immediate precursor of testosterone, has 20 percent of testosterone's potency. Testosterone is the most important androgen produced by the ovaries ( Note 2 ). Thus, we can verify that the biosynthesis of the male hormones follows an increasing order of biological potency and activity. Nevertheless, the estrogens that arise immediately afterwards ( estrone and estradiol ) are already endowed with an enormous biological potency. Comparing their respective biological activity, we will see that estrone and estradiol are much more potent than their precursors androstenedione and testosterone ( Note 3 ).

It is easy to understand why estrogens are so potent. Since the ovaries do not suceed in transforming a considerable part of androstenedione and testosterone into estrone and estradiol, this very high biological potency of the estrogens becomes a biological need of women. We can say so because the female nature has to defend herself against the risk of an insufficient transformation of androgens into estrogens. Regarding this, another women's "defense mechanism" lies in the capability their fatty tissue has of performing the peripheral transformation of the androgen androstenedione into the estrogen estrone. Because of this, a variable part of the estrone produced in women's bodies does not come from the ovaries but from their fatty tissue. Therefore, the fatty tissue contained in the female body plays an important role in women's endocrine physiology, and this is one more reason for advising them to keep their weight within the normal ( Note 4 ).

As to our main subject, philosophically we can say that, at the exclusively hormonal level, the estrogens are the main endocrine manifestation of the female principle, and the androgens the main endocrine manifestation of the male one. In this way, there are indications that, in women, the complete endocrine manifestation of the female principle that characterizes them as women depends, paradoxically, on a subtle endocrine manifestation of the male principle.

From the standpoint of archetypal psychology, perhaps the fact that the estrogens are produced having androgens as precursors may also be one of the explanations for the old mythological idea according to which women would have been created from men.

Note 1: In the growing ovarian follicles the estrogen synthesis occurs in two basic stages, the first one taking place in the theca cells and the second in the granulosa cells. The androgens are produced by the theca cells under the LH ( luteinizing hormone ) stimulation. The granulosa cells, under the FSH ( follicle stimulating hormone ) stimulation, turn the androgens produced by the theca cells into estrogens. ( Each growing ovarian follicle consists of an oocyte surrounded by several layers of granulosa and theca cells that proliferate around it and produce the sexual hormones. )

Note 2: There is a peripheral transformation of androstenedione and testosterone into another androgen, which is dihydrotestosterone. This transformation takes place in the tissues sensitive to the male hormones. Dihydrotestosterone is the most potent of all androgens and the one that really stimulates the majority of the androgen-receptors in women's and men's bodies. As both in women and men dihydrotestosterone is an exclusive result of peripheral transformation, there is no gonadic and adrenal secretion of this androgen.

Note 3: We must remember that there is a weak estrogen circulating in the female organism, estriol. Nevertheless, estriol already is a final product of the estrogen metabolism.

Note 4: On the other hand, the typical distribution of the subcutaneous fatty tissue along the woman's body is due to the estrogens, and is a very important female sexual feature. As to women's fatty tissue, there are also some recent studies trying to establish a correlation between the age of menarche and the percentage of this tissue in the adolescent's body.

Nelson Soucasaux is a gynecologist dedicated to Clinical, Preventive and Psychosomatic Gynecology. Graduated in 1974 by Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, he is the author of several articles published in medical journals and of the books "Novas Perspectivas em Ginecologia" ("New Perspectives in Gynecology") and "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos: Forma, Função, Símbolo e Arquétipo" ("The Female Sexual Organs: Shape, Function, Symbol and Archetype"), published by Imago Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 1990, 1993.

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