Follicle stimulating hormone

Follicle stimulating hormone is produced by the pituitary gland. It regulates the functions of both the ovaries and testes. Lack or insufficiency of it can cause infertility or subfertility both in men and women.

Alternative names for follicle stimulating hormone

FSH; follitropin (pharmaceutical preparations)

What is follicle stimulating hormone?

Follicle stimulating hormone is one of the gonadotrophic hormones, the other being luteinising hormone. Both are released by the pituitary gland into the bloodstream. Follicle stimulating hormone is one of the hormones essential to pubertal development and the function of women’s ovaries and men’s testes. In women, this hormone stimulates the growth of ovarian follicles in the ovary before the release of an egg from one follicle at ovulation. It also increases oestradiol production. In men, follicle stimulating hormone acts on the Sertoli cells of the testes to stimulate sperm production (spermatogenesis). 

How is follicle stimulating hormone controlled?  

The production and release of follicle stimulating hormone is regulated by the levels of a number of circulating hormones released by the ovaries and testes. This system is called the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis. Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone is released from the hypothalamus and binds to receptors in the anterior pituitary gland to stimulate both the synthesis and release of follicle stimulating hormone and luteinising hormone. The released follicle stimulating hormone is carried in the bloodstream where it binds to receptors in the testes and ovaries. Using this mechanism follicle stimulating hormone, along with luteinising hormone, can control the functions of the testes and ovaries. 

In women, when hormone levels fall towards the end of the menstrual cycle, this is sensed by nerve cells in the hypothalamus. These cells produce more gonadotrophin-releasing hormone, which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to produce more follicle stimulating hormone and luteinising hormone, and release these into the bloodstream. The rise in follicle stimulating hormone stimulates the growth of the follicle in the ovary. With this growth, the cells of the follicles produce increasing amounts of oestradiol and inhibin. In turn, the production of these hormones is sensed by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland and less gonadotrophin-releasing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone will be released. However, as the follicle matures, and more and more oestrogen is produced from the follicles, it simulates a surge in luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone, which stimulates the release of an egg from a mature follicle – ovulation.

Thus, during each menstrual cycle, there is a rise in follicle stimulating hormone secretion in the first half of the cycle that stimulates follicular growth in the ovary. After ovulation the ruptured follicle forms a corpus luteum that produces high levels of progesterone. This inhibits the release of follicle stimulating hormone. Towards the end of the cycle the corpus luteum breaks down, progesterone production decreases and the next menstrual cycle begins when follicle stimulating hormone starts to rise again. 

In men, the production of follicle stimulating hormone is regulated by the circulating levels of testosterone and inhibin, both produced by the testes. Follicle stimulating hormone regulates testosterone levels and when these rise they are sensed by nerve cells in the hypothalamus so that gonadotrophin-releasing hormone secretion and consequently follicle stimulating hormone is decreased. The opposite occurs when testosterone levels decrease. This is known as a 'negative feedback' control so that the production of testosterone remains steady. The production of inhibin is also controlled in a similar way but this is sensed by cells in the anterior pituitary gland rather than the hypothalamus.

What happens if I have too much follicle stimulating hormone?

Most often, raised levels of follicle stimulating hormone are a sign of malfunction in the ovary or testis. If the gonads fail to create enough oestrogen, testosterone and/or inhibin, the correct feedback control of follicle stimulating hormone production from the pituitary gland is lost and the levels of both follicle stimulating hormone and luteinising hormone will rise. This condition is called hypergonadotrophic-hypogonadism, and is associated with primary ovarian failure or testicular failure. This is seen in conditions such as Kallmann’s syndrome in men and Turner syndrome in women.   

In women, follicle stimulating hormone levels also start to rise naturally in women around the menopausal period, reflecting a reduction in function of the ovaries and decline of oestrogen and progesterone production.

There are very rare pituitary conditions that can raise the levels of follicle stimulating hormone in the bloodstream. This overwhelms the normal negative feedback loop and can cause ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in women. Symptoms of this include enlarging of the ovaries and a potentially dangerous accumulation of fluid in the abdomen (triggered by the rise in ovarian steroid output), which leads to pain in the pelvic area.

What happens if I have too little follicle stimulating hormone?

In women, a lack of follicle stimulating hormone leads to incomplete development at puberty and poor ovarian function (primary ovarian failure). In this situation ovarian follicles do not grow properly and do not release an egg, thus leading to infertility. Since levels of follicle stimulating hormone in the bloodstream are low, this condition is called hypogonadotrophic-hypogonadism.

Sufficient follicle stimulating hormone action is also needed for proper sperm production. In the case of complete absence of follicle stimulating hormone in men, lack of puberty and infertility due to lack of sperm (azoospermia) can occur. Partial follicle stimulating hormone deficiency in men can cause delayed puberty and limited sperm production (oligozoospermia), but fathering a child may still be possible. If the loss of follicle stimulating hormone occurs after puberty, there will be a similar loss of fertility

Last reviewed: Jan 2015