When Estrogen Becomes a Problem

In both women and men we naturally produces the hormone estrogen in your adrenal glands and stored fat tissue, as well as the ovaries in women and the testes in men. Estrogen is necessary for many important functions such as childbearing, keeping cholesterol in check, and protecting bone health. It’s when your estrogen levels get out of balance with your other hormones that it can lead to a number of issues in both men and women.

Symptoms of Estrogen Dominance

Conventional medicine tells us that it’s your lifelong exposure and total amount of estrogens that pose a problem and cause cancer. For instance, if you started your period at a young age, or had children late in life or not at all, you would be at a higher risk. However, that’s not entirely true. It’s really your lifelong exposure to bad metabolites of estrogen that increases your cancer risk. Let me explain.

Estrogen is metabolized by the liver through three different pathways. Depending on the pathway, estrogen will be converted into good or bad metabolites. The 2-hydroxy metabolic pathway is considered good as it has the lowest risk for cancer and other problems. Meanwhile, the 16-hydroxy and 4-hydroxy pathways are considered bad and associated with higher risks of breast cancer. Using the 2-hydroxy pathway, your body produces good estrogen metabolites, which support healthy mood, libido, breast tissue, and reproductive health. When your body is converting too many of your hormones using the 16-hydroxy and 4-hydroxy pathways, that’s when you experience estrogen dominant symptoms such as irritability, vaginal dryness, and PMS, and are at a higher risk of developing cancer.

So it’s not about your total estrogens. It’s about your total estrogen metabolites. Nutritional status, liver health, stress, diet, and sleep all determine which metabolic pathways are used. Gene mutations such as COMT and MTHFR also impair your ability to methylate and detoxify your hormones, as do a number of environmental and lifestyle factors such as toxins.

Health Risks Associated with Estrogen Dominance:

Hormonal Cancers

By far the biggest risk associated with estrogen dominance is hormone-dependent cancer including breast cancer in both women and men, uterine and ovarian cancers in women, and prostate cancer in men. Breast cancer specifically is more rampant than ever. One in eight women will get breast cancer in her lifetime.

Hormonal cancers are associated with stored fat, which produces the most potent form of estrogen, estradiol. This type of harmful estrogen is more difficult for your body to detoxify, leading to more circulating estrogen and “bad” estrogen metabolites.

Autoimmune Disease

In some autoimmune conditions, high levels of estrogen can enhance the inflammatory response of the immune system, increasing the antibodies that attack your body’s own tissues. However, it’s not entirely a clear-cut issue. Estrogen is actually protective for some autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). It seems to be the sharp fluctuations in estrogen levels (such as those that happen around childbirth and menopause) that contribute to autoimmunity. It also has to do with the types of estrogens in your system, and whether they are your natural hormones or the synthetic xenoestrogens that exist in our environment.

Because women tend to be more susceptible to estrogen dominance, this helps explain why autoimmune conditions and Breast Cancer are on the rise and are so much more common among women.

Hashimoto’s and Thyroid Dysfunction

Excess estrogen increases levels of thyroid binding globulin (TBG) which is the protein that allows your thyroid hormones to travel through your bloodstream. When thyroid hormones are attached to TBG they remain inactive, so your thyroid hormones can’t be stored in your tissues or converted to their active form in order to fuel your body and metabolic processes. 

Causes of Estrogen Dominance

Every day we are under constant attack by environmental toxins that lead to the creation of bad estrogen metabolites. Hormone-mimicking xenoestrogens combined with your own diet and lifestyle habits can all contribute to estrogen dominance.

 

  1. Food

By far one of the biggest sources of excess estrogen is our modern diet. Commercially raised animals are injected with growth hormones to make them grow bigger and faster or increase milk production. These hormones make their way into your food where they can disrupt your own natural hormone balance.

Plus, any of the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides found on conventional produce are known endocrine disruptors that interfere with your natural hormone activity and metabolism.While they may only exist in small quantities on individual fruits and vegetables, the cumulative effect quickly adds up and hasn’t been studied enough to determine what the long-term effects might be.

  1. Water

Unfortunately, our water has become heavily polluted with hormone-disrupting compounds including pesticides and fertilizers, synthetic and natural estrogens from livestock and prescription medications, and an unknown number of industrial chemicals from chemical plant runoff or the disposal of plastics and chemicals in landfills.

Coal-burning plants emit over 70,000 pounds of mercury in the into the air each year, which then settles into our water and impacts our hormonal levels (more on that below).

  1. Personal Care Products

Cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, soaps, toothpastes, and the numerous other body products we use often contain parabens, phenoxyethanol, phthalates and other compounds that all have estrogenic activity.9 And since the average person uses 10-15 body products a day, with a total of 126 different ingredients, this exposure can quickly add up!

You’d think that beauty products would be regulated for safety. However, you’d be surprised to learn that they are regulated by an internal review board, so they’re really just regulating themselves, leading to the inclusion of all sorts of hidden endocrine disruptors in these products you use every day.

Xenoestrogens in skin care products are especially harmful because they are absorbed directly into your tissues, and so never have the chance to be detoxified through your liver. Be wary of deodorants or other personal care products that contain an unspecified “fragrance,” as this can be virtually anything and it tends to be a catch-all term for hidden phthalates or other hormone-disrupting chemicals.

  1. Gut Dysbiosis

Your gut microbiome regulates circulating estrogen using an enzyme known as beta-glucuronidase. When your microbiome is out of balance, as in the case of Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth these enzymes can’t properly metabolize estrogens, which leaves you more susceptible to breast cancer and other conditions caused by estrogen dominance.

  1. BPA and Other Plastics

Plastic in all its forms, including in water bottles, food wrap, and storage containers, contain hormone mimicking xenoestrogens that can leach into what you’re eating or drinking and cause major problems for your health. Even products marked “BPA-free” are not safe, and in fact contain chemicals whose effects aren’t as well-known.

Microwaving, dishwashing, and exposing plastic to sunlight increases the estrogenic activity of plastic even more.

You may not be aware that every time you take a receipt from the store, you are dealing a blow to your hormones. Receipts printed on thermal paper are a major source of endocrine-disrupting bisphenol-A (BPA). People who handle receipts frequently have significantly elevated levels of BPA in their urine. And because these xenoestrogens are getting absorbed through your skin, it’s a more direct hit to your system.

  1. Heavy Metals

Similar to plastics, heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and mercury have estrogen-mimicking properties. It’s even been suggested that the presence of these endocrine-disrupting elements in our environment may be behind the earlier-onset puberty that has become the norm in our modern societies.

  1. Body Fat

Excess body fat (especially stored in the hips, waist, and thighs) is one of the leading causes of estrogen dominance. Not only does fat tissue absorb and store estrogen circulating in your bloodstream, it also synthesizes estrogen from your other hormones. Having high levels of estrogen cues your body to make more fat cells, which then produce even more estrogen, creating a vicious cycle.

  1. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and Birth Control

Hormone replacement therapy medications and most oral contraceptives contain estrogen without the necessary progesterone to maintain proper hormone balance. The hormones used in both HRT and birth control also tend to be toxic, synthetic hormones that are not easily metabolized by the liver, leading to DNA damage and an increased risk for breast and endometrial cancer.

  1. Chronic Stress

When you’re chronically stressed (as so many of us are), your body begins to use the sex hormone progesterone to make cortisol. Low levels of progesterone lead to estrogen dominance. This is why urinary and adrenal hormone testing is such a vital part in understanding yet driving overall delicate hormone balance. This is why DUTCH testing is so vital for addressing hormone imbalances. 

 

Author
Cynthia Preston, ND

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