What is Estrogen?
The primary group of sex hormones in the female body is called estrogen or oestrogen. These chemical messengers influence the structural differences between male and female bodies making them responsible for the development of the female characteristics such as breasts, hair in the pubic and armpit areas, and wider hips. Estrogen works with other hormones, such as progesterone, to regulate the menstrual cycle and reproductive system. It is also the reason why females have more permanent hair on their heads.
Estrogen is produced mainly in the ovaries, the primary female reproductive organ where the ova or eggs are produced. During puberty, the ovaries start to release estrogen hormones aligned with monthly menstrual cycles. During the first half of each menstrual cycle, estrogen suddenly rises which triggers the ova to be produced for a suitable environment for fertilization, implantation, and nutrition of an early embryo. After ovulation, estrogen levels quickly decrease until the next monthly cycle begins.
In addition to the female reproductive system, estrogen is also involved in the development of many other bodily systems. As it travels through the bloodstream, it sends messages or instructions to these parts. Estrogen has an impact on the brain by maintaining body temperature and enhancing mood. It also preserves bone strength and prevents bone loss. Benefits also include cholesterol regulation and cardiovascular protection. To prevent aging, estrogen improves collagen and the quality of the skin.
Cause or Possible Cause of High Estrogen
While normal estrogen can vary amongst women, levels can rise too much causing irregular bodily functions. This imbalance is called estrogen dominance and can lead to a wide range of health issues, as well as undesirable physical changes. The following factors can lead to an estrogen spike:
Pregnancy: Estrogen levels naturally surge during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Overweight or Obesity: Estrogen is much higher in both children and adults who have higher fat mass, especially postmenopausal women. While premenopausal women synthesize estrogens in the ovaries, adipose tissue is the main source of estrogen biosynthesis in postmenopausal women.
Estrogen-Containing Oral Contraceptives: Birth control pills containing estrogen cause estrogen dominance.
Xenoestrogens: A number of hormonally active compounds expose the greater populations on a daily basis, thereby increasing estrogen levels within the body. These chemicals include the obvious pesticides, fungicides, mycotoxins, phthalates, bisphenol A (a plastics additive), and more. However, xenoestrogens are present in a number of common substrates such as public water systems, prepackaged foods, cosmetic products, cigarette smoke, and automobile exhaust.
Phytoestrogens: Many plant-based foods may increase estrogen levels. In their natural state, phytoestrogens exist within plants as a natural defense against plant predators. While these phytoestrogens are beneficial for human health in many ways, they may adversely affect health in other ways when eaten in excess.
Negative Lifestyle Factors: The body’s immunity is lowered with a poor diet, lack of exercise and sleep, and bad habits such as smoking and alcohol use. This leaves the body vulnerable to higher estrogen levels as the liver can’t metabolize these hormones fast enough.
Gut Microbes: In addition to the liver’s function of metabolizing estrogen, a collection of gut microbes called estrobolome also help with its circulation and excretion. If the gut doesn't have enough of these good bacteria, this can create an estrogen dominance.
What Estrogen Dominance Does to the Body
- Breast tenderness and swelling
- Fibrocystic lumps in breast
- Gyneocomastia (breast tissue growth in men)
- Irregular and/or heavy menstrual periods
- Low libido
- Erectile dysfunction in men
- Infertility in men
- Delayed puberty (boys)
- Mood swings
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Memory problems
- Nausea and vomiting (morning sickness in pregnant women)
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Cold hands and feet
- Trouble sleeping or insomnia
What Happens as Estrogen Dominance Progresses
High Blood Pressure: High estrogen levels generate excessive levels of a compound called superoxide that causes stress in the body, thereby raising blood pressure to dangerous levels. High levels of superoxide occur in an area of the brain that is crucial for blood pressure regulation.
Autoimmune Disease: High estrogen levels can increase inflammatory responses on the immune system for some autoimmune diseases. In turn, this inflammation increases antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues.
Cancer: Several studies have shown high estrogen levels increase the risk for several types of cancer. This include breast, endometrium, cervical, and ovarian cancers.
Risk Influence for Estrogen Dominance
Estrogen dominance can affect children going through puberty, as well as adult women and men. Overweight, obese, and postmenopausal women are at the highest risk for high estrogen levels.
Estrogen (and progesterone) levels decline gradually in women with age, but an imbalance remains for many. Typically, this decline takes place during perimenopause and menopause, usually around the ages of 35 to 50. During this time, progesterone is reduced by 75 percent while estrogen only declines about 35 percent. By menopause, total progesterone is extremely low, and estrogen is still present in the body by about half of its pre-menopausal level. This imbalance places women in this category of higher risk for estrogen dominance.
Conventional Treatment for Estrogen Dominance
In conventional medicine, estrogen dominance is usually treated with prescription medications such as hormone therapy. For those with estrogen-linked cancers, estrogen-blocking medications like Tamoxifen may be prescribed. Alternatively, a type of medication that stops the enzyme aromatase from converting androgens into estrogens, called aromatase inhibitor, may be prescribed. For cancers that are sensitive to estrogen, an oophorectomy may be recommended; this is a type of surgery that removes the ovaries which is the main producer of estrogen.
Because most pharmaceuticals have side effects that may cause other health problems, alternative medicine encourages a combination of lifestyle changes. This includes the incorporation of a nutrient-dense, non-genetically modified, and certified organic diet. Avoiding foods high in phytonutrients, processed foods, sugar, cigarettes, alcohol, and xenoestrogens will help keep your hormones balanced. Finally, a combination of botanical medicines and nutritional supplements will support the body by helping it detox and repair.