If you’re struggling with PMS, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, fibrocystic breasts, or weight management issues, and if you have done any googling to find answers or gone to visit your naturopath, chances are you’ve come across the term ‘estrogen dominance.’
In the natural health world, estrogen dominance is thought to be the condition underlying most female-reproductive issues (there is a great table in this article, outlining some of the MANY possible signs and symptoms), and may also play a role in persistent weight gain/difficult weight loss that can start to creep in in middle age. Estrogen dominance can also affect men, and might be one of the reasons middle-aged men can start to develop more…womanly body parts.
We certainly NEED estrogen – there is no mistaking that. Estrogen is a key hormone in being a woman (though men have estrogen too!) – it supports the physical changes that occur during puberty, it’s an important player in your menstrual cycle (particularly the first half), and it helps keep skin youthful and hair soft & shiny. Perhaps less sexy, but certainly as important, estrogen is also crucial in bone strength and preventing bone loss.
But when we start to take in too much estrogen, or our estrogen-progesterone ratio is off, reproductive issues can surface. Interestingly, estrogen that isn’t balanced in the correct ratio with progesterone is sometimes called ‘unopposed’. I think there’s useful imagery in that description – unopposed means unchallenged, unhindered, unresisted. It’s estrogen without its corresponding checks and balances.
So it isn’t that estrogen is bad. Far from it. It’s just that, as with everything in the body, balance is essential.
HOW DO WE BECOME ESTROGEN DOMINANT?
There are three primary ways by which our hormone balance might skew towards being estrogen-dominant (all explained in greater detail below):
- We’re taking in/making too much estrogen
- We’re not effectively getting rid of the estrogen we have (and thus, holding on to it)
- We’re not making enough progesterone (to support that estrogen to progesterone ratio)
Taking in/Making Too Much Estrogen
- Estrogens from Chemicals: plastics with BPA, paints, conventional or factory-farmed animal products (lots of hormones there), pesticides, hormones in our tap water, certain chemicals in our body care products – all can mimic the effects of estrogen in our bodies, almost in more potent ways than our natural estrogen. These outside estrogens are referred to as xenoestrogens.
- Estrogens from Fat Cells: estrogen is primarily produced by your ovaries, with additional amounts coming from your adrenal glands and fat tissues. Yes, that means that more fat cells can mean upped estrogen production.
- Estrogens from Gut Bacteria: in addition, certain microbes in the colon (like candida, which thrives on a high-sugar diet) synthesize estrogen-like substances, which can also contribute to the effects of estrogen in the body.
- Estrogens from Poor Sleep: sleep and the hormone melatonin go hand in hand, and melatonin naturally opposes estrogens. Less quality sleep time = less melatonin = more circulating estrogens.
Not Effectively Getting Rid of the Estrogen You Have
- Liver Overload: a busy and overloaded liver might prioritize other metabolic tasks ahead of inactivating estrogen (like, detoxifying from alcohol, for example, or figuring out what to do with the chemicals and food dyes in a box of fluorescent breakfast cereal). Or, a liver might simply be sluggish and not be able to keep up. Either way, your liver is really important in helping to de-activate and send off excess estrogens, and if it’s not up to the task, excess estrogens can continue to circulate.
- Constipation: the colon is a key exit route for wastes/toxins, and while we don’t want wastes flying through at top speed (diarrhea), we do want a timely exit. Having too much time to spend in the colon offers more time for re-absorption, and with estrogen that is excess or has already served its purpose in the body, re-absorption isn’t desired. Fibre is a tremendous tool in ensuring regularity and in clearing excess estrogens, so it’s really important to ensure fibre-rich foods are part of your diet.
Not Making Enough Progesterone (aka STRESS)
- I’ll be writing more about Progesterone Steal soon, but for now, here is what you need to know: your stress hormone cortisol and your reproductive hormone progesterone share the same building blocks and the same ‘metabolic pathway.’ So if you’re chronically stressed out, or going through a particularly stressful period (and remember, stress can be external, but it can also be internal, like how not getting enough sleep ‘stresses’ the body or having a chronic disease puts stress on the body), then your body is going to invest its resources in making cortisol instead of progesterone. This means you have lower levels of progesterone, and lower levels of progesterone means you have more unopposed estrogens.
TO SUM UP…
If we boil all this down to a few takeaways, we can see some of the main factors in estrogen dominance are: chemicals/toxins, gut health, liver health, healthy elimination, stress management, and sleep. Any useful dietary and lifestyle changes should focus on those key areas. Blood sugar is also a factor, but I’ll be writing more about that soon.
Below I’ve provided some nutrition and lifestyle foundations that can help you start making positive changes today to work towards hormonal balance.
6 Steps to Take to Help Restore Hormonal Balance:
- Reduce exposure to chemicals: The fewer chemicals you take in, the fewer of those outside xenoestrogens mimicking estrogen in your body. And, fewer chemicals and toxins means less work for your liver, ideally leaving it more free to inactivate the circulating estrogen you already have. You could:
- Eat to support your liver: beets, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, bok choy, and all of your cruciferous vegetables contain indole-3-carbinole, which helps your liver do its detoxifying duty (especially as it relates to estrogen clearing). Avocado is also a good option. It’s rich in glutathione, an antioxidant that is protective of the liver and it contains beta-sitosterol, which recent studies have shown to be a natural estrogen-blocker. (Plus, good quality fats are always good for your hormonal health).
- Note: steam or lightly cook your cruciferous vegetables if you have any thyroid issues.
- Focus on fibre to avoid constipation: Eat lots of healthy fibre-rich foods like apples, chia seeds, ground flax, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, black beans (if you tolerate them well), and sweet potatoes. Try adding chia, flax, or tiger nut powder to your morning smoothie for a fibre boost; also, drink lots of water to help keep you system moving and keep that waste on its way out.
- Eat for optimal gut health: fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, fermented carrots and beets, and miso are great options for adding beneficial bacteria to your gut in order to crowd out the more ‘estrogen-producing’ strains. Start with 1-2 teaspoons per meal, and work up from there. If you’d like, you can also add a probiotic focused on women’s health to your daily supplement plan.
- Manage your stress: walking, meditation, running, tai chi, massages, venting with your partner or friends, spending time with pets, reading inspiring books, playing or listening to music, or watching TV or movies that make you laugh. Find some reliable stress reducers (even 1 or 2, to start) and try to actively incorporate them.
- Prioritize good quality sleep: Yes, this is easier said than done, especially when Netflix is calling (I hear its siren song too!). But a few quick tips:
- Avoid tech devices for an hour before bed
- Focus on calming activities before bed like reading, journaling, or listening to beautiful music
- Consider adding a magnesium supplement if you struggle with restless sleeping or relaxation (I found this personally VERY useful in helping me get better quality sleep) – magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer. Look for a (bis)glycinate or a citrate for best absorption.
I hope you find these steps helpful!
And remember: you didn’t become estrogen dominant in one day, and you won’t balance it in one day.
Pick 2 or 3 steps that feel manageable to you, work on them until they become habit, and then make 2 or 3 more tweaks.
Small steps add up to big changes!
© Emily Joldersma, R.H.N. Eat Well, Live Vibrantly