Estrogen is the primary sex hormone in women and it functions during the reproductive menstrual cycle. Women have three major types of estrogen: estrone, estradiol, and estriol, which bind to and activate receptors within the body. Researchers discovered the three types of estrogen over a period of seven years, contributing to more detailed descriptions of the menstrual cycle. Each type of estrogen molecule contains a slightly different arrangement or number of atoms that in turn causes some of the estrogens to be more active than others. The different types of estrogen peak and wane throughout women's reproductive cycles, from normal menstruation to pregnancy to the cessation of menstruation (menopause). As scientists better explained the effects of estrogens, they used that information to develop oral contraceptives to control pregnancy, to map the menstrual cycle, and to create hormone therapies to regulate abnormal levels of estrogen.
The figure depicts three different molecular structures of estrogen found in mammals’ that differ by the arrangement of bonds and side groups. The molecular structures of the three estrogen molecules differ by the arrangement of chemical bonds and side groups attached to the core steroid structure, cholesterol, which contains three cyclohexane rings and one cyclopentane ring.