Have you ever heard of the the term Estrogen Dominance?
It is a term often thrown around in naturopathic offices, but something a medical doctor would not normally diagnose a patient with.
The term estrogen dominance, to some, implies that the problems are due to an estrogen excess. When your doctor runs your blood work, often this is not the case. So what exactly is estrogen dominance and how would you know if this is something you should be worried about?
The most common understanding of hormonal balance is that when you enter menopause, a lot of symptoms experienced (hot flushes, vaginal dryness etc.) are due to a decline in estrogen. This would imply that your estrogen actually decreases over time, so why would anyone ever have a problem of too much estrogen?
The reality is that things are a little bit more complicated than that.
Let’s start with the basics:
In women, estrogen is manly secreted by the ovaries. Many tissues have estrogen receptors, where it is able to exert it’s any effects, including: the intestine, brain, bone and adipose (fat cells). Estrogen has been shown to take part in many physiological processes including: nervous system development, bone health, heart health and even the progression of some types of cancer.
Progesterone promotes thickening of the endometrium (the inside of your uterus) to prepare the body for fertilization in the second half of your menstrual cycle.If pregnancy does not occur, estrogen and progesterone levels fall and the endometrium is shed during menses.Progesterone also works to inhibit the actions of estrogen, helping the two hormones work in balance of each other.
Symptoms of ‘Estrogen Dominance’
- Weight gain & water retention
- Period problems- bleeding that is too light or too heavy, irregular cycles
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Uterine fibroids
- Decreased sex drive
- Cyclical migraines or headaches
- Breast tenderness
What Is The Cause?
Cholesterol is the backbone necessary for the production of progesterone, estrogen, testosterone & cortisol (our stress hormone). If we are under a lot of stress, our body favours making cortisol OVER making progesterone, leaving us in a state of low progesterone. If our progesterone is too low, then there is not balance between estrogen and progesterone which causes an estrogen dominance state. Among the many other symptoms experienced from this kind of hormone shift, a woman will be unable to make enough testosterone to create an adequate sexual response, leading to low sex drive.
Xenoestrogens are chemicals found in many household cleaning products, makeup & plastics known to act like “fake estrogens”. These chemicals are often absorbed through the skin with use and many of these xenoestrogens are proven carcinogens.
Xenoestrogens have an ability to trick our cells into believing they are estrogen and can heavily interrupt hormonal balance.
One of the biggest culprits are pesticides & hormones found in and on most of our food products. Pesticides are stored in fat cells of fish, poultry and other food sources which increase in their concentration as they go up the food chain. Makeup and plastics are also products containing a large number of hormone disrupting chemicals. Makeup products are a huge source of xenoestrogens with many preservatives and sudsing agents being responsible for wreaking havoc on our hormones (& some even being studied to cause cancer). Plastics including water bottles and plastic containers are made with many chemicals that (even when not heated) can be absorbed by the body. The environmental working group has a great article on tips for buying safer products HERE.
A diet low in fibre can cause estrogen levels to be higher, as fibre helps to clear excess estrogen out of the body. The bacteria in your gut also make a huge difference when it comes to estrogen balance. Normally, our liver gets rid of our hormones (more on that below), however, an enzyme known as beta glucuronidase in the gut is responsible for “deconjugation” of estrogen into it’s active form. Beta glucuronidase is an important part of phase 2 detoxification in the liver, however, excessive levels in the body can wreak hormonal havoc. An diet high in meat, sugar, processed foods and alcohol has the ability to raise levels of beta glucuronidase. When this happens, estrogen is now “Free” to recirculate back into the body instead of being excreted like it should.
The alteration in circulating estrogens may contribute to the development of: obesity, cancer, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, fertility issues, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and impaired cognitive function.
When we do not have a diverse gut microbiota (due to stress, poor diet or lack of diversity, digestive conditions, antibiotics etc), this results in a an increase of circulating estrogens. Diversity in your gut bacteria is very important, since a more diverse gut microbiome contains the appropriate enzymes necessary to create substances such as butyrate. Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid that provides an energy source gut cells and possesses beneficial immune and anti-inflammatory properties contributing to high quality barrier in the digestive tract.
Our main detoxification mechanisms are located in the liver, but when these systems are overloaded, our detoxification processes can be slowed down or backed up completely. When we process estrogen in the liver, it is required to move through various steps before being excreted. These steps require enzymes which can be increased or decreased in their function due to various substances such as alcohol, the birth control pill, cigarette smoke, medications as well as stress. Certain foods, supplements and herbs can impact estrogen metabolism as well in both positive and negative ways. The excretion of estrogen further depends on the good bacteria residing in the gut, so if your digestion is off, you may be at risk for reabsorbing harmful estrogens!
Estrogen isn’t ALL bad though! The protective form of estrogen is known as 2-methoxyestrogen & the harmful forms are 4- and 16-hydroxyestrogens which are responsible for causing hormone dependent cancers. The main goal is to keep these hormones in a proper balance.
Healthy hormonal balance is complicated.
If estrogen levels stay unopposed, women may develop infertility, endometriosis, amenorrhea (skipped periods), heavy bleeding, fibroids, uterine cancer, heart disease and stroke, and decreased cognitive ability, among other conditions . .