A Physicist’s View of Hormones: Estrogen and Entropy

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Michio Kaku, a well known theoretical and astrophysicist wrote several popular books about physics. In one of his recent books, “Physics of the future”, he discusses not only technical aspects of the future, but also many issues related to biology and medicine. He writes about stem cells, gene cloning, gene therapy, and possible ways to cure cancer, biological clock and solutions to the problems of aging.

He proposes some interesting predictions for the future of medicine. Kaku believes that in the future, reprogramming one’s genes can be done by using a specially programmed virus, which can activate genes that slow the aging process. Nanotech sensors in a room will check for various diseases and cancer, nanobots will be able to inject drugs into individual cells when diseases are found, and advancements in extracting stem cells will be manifest in the art of growing new organs. The idea of resurrecting an extinct species might also be biologically possible.

Surprisingly, he touches upon some aspects that are regularly discussed in this blog – hormones and their role in female body.

He cites, for example, Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who once said,

There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable and that it is only a matter of time before biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that this terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human’s body will be cured.”

Kaku places Feynman’s notion that death is not inevitable within the context of laws of thermodynamics. With thermodynamic theory, energy exists in many forms, but is conserved. Meaning that it can change form but never be destroyed.  The energy in the Universe is constant. The consequence of holding energy constant is the second law of thermodynamics: “in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.”

In biology the consequence of a closed system where no energy leaves the system is the buildup of genetic errors. The by-product of this law is that entropy or chaos always increases. This is why rusting, rotting, decaying, etc., are universal features of life. The second law is inescapable. Everything, from the flowers in the field to our bodies and even the universe itself, is doomed to wither and die.

He extrapolates the notion of entropy to the female physiology.

 “The second law can also be seen by the action of the female sex hormone estrogen, which keeps women young and vibrant until they hit menopause, when aging accelerates and the death rate increases. Estrogen is like putting high-octane fuel into a sports car. The car performs beautifully but at the price of causing more wear and tear on the engine. For women, this cellular wear and tear might be manifested in breast cancer. In fact, injections of estrogen are known to accelerate the growth of breast cancer. So the price women pay for youth and vigor before menopause is possibly an increase in total entropy, in this case, breast cancer. (There have been scores of theories proposed to explain the recent rise in breast cancer rates, which are still quite controversial. One theory says that this is in part related to the total number of menstrual cycles a woman has. Throughout ancient history, after puberty women were more or less constantly pregnant until they hit menopause, and then they died soon afterward. This meant they had few menstrual cycles, low levels of estrogen, and hence, possibly, a relatively low level of breast cancer. Today, young girls reach puberty earlier, have many menstrual cycles, bear an average of only 1.5 children, live past menopause, and hence have considerably more exposure to estrogen, leading to a possible rise in the occurrence of breast cancer.)”

Aside from some of the errors he makes in endocrinology (estrogen is not an endogenous female hormone but rather refers to the group of hormones with estrogenic activity), I find this quite an interesting view from a person who doesn’t deal with human physiology all that often.

Are the estrogens or other cycling hormones the price we pay for youth and beauty?  Does the long-cycling female have more of a risk of cancer than her almost always pregnant counterpart of yesteryear?  Is cancer the entropic trade off for living longer?  What would be the male equivalent?  Or do the laws of thermodynamics fall short in biological systems?

Unorthodox and thought provoking questions. What do you think?

 

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