Oestrogen dominance is a common hormonal imbalance that plays a role in PMS, endometriosis, PCOS, cystic breast disease, uterine fibroids, breast cancer & other non-reproductive conditions in women. In men, it contributes to larger hips, male breasts, crying, low testosterone & much more.
Oestrogen dominance is characterised by elevated levels of estrogen and/or an imbalanced progesterone/oestrogen ratio in women, or by imbalanced testosterone/oestrogen ratios in men.
Some common symptoms of oestrogen dominance in women include irregular or abnormal menstrual periods, PMS, breast swelling & tenderness, decreased sex drive, thyroid dysfunction, brain fog, insomnia, fatigue, weight and/or fat gain (particularly around the abdomen and hips), irritability, depression & headaches or migraines (especially with PMS). Men may experience some of these symptoms, as well as larger hips, male breasts, crying fits & below average muscle mass.
Many factors can contribute to the development of oestrogen dominance. In this article, we are going to look at some of the most common causes.
1. Chronic stress.
Stress plays a role in oestrogen dominance in both women & men. The adrenal glands are fundamental to our ability to handle stress & during periods of acute or chronic stress, they release various metabolites, one of which is the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has numerous important functions, particularly in combatting stress. However, prolonged, elevated cortisol (typically caused by chronic stress) impairs the liver’s ability to detoxify discarded oestrogen.
Stress additionally wreaks havoc on the gut & can create a state of ‘dysbiosis’ whereby there is an imbalance of bacteria within the gut. This dysbiotic state can result in reduced excretion of oestrogen via the bowels & an increased level of oestrogen reabsorption back into the body. Chronic stress can thus impair both the liver detoxification of oestrogen & the excretion of oestrogen via bowel, setting the stage for the development of oestrogen dominance.
2. Environmental Oestrogens.
Our environment is full of oestrogenic compounds (known as xeno-oestrogens) & chemicals that mimic the behaviour of our endogenous oestrogens in the body. Worryingly, xeno-oestrogens generally have stronger oestrogenic activity than our own endogenously produced oestrogen.
Constant exposure to these oestrogenic compounds in the air, water, and surfaces we touch has a profound effect on the body’s oestrogen levels & its ability to clear oestrogen properly, thereby setting the stage for the development of oestrogen dominance.
Regardless of whether or not you have oestrogen dominance, it’s important to minimise your exposure to environmental oestrogens. This is especially important for children.
The following tips will help you to reduce your exposure to environmental oestrogens:
1. Reduce the use of plastics whenever possible. Be particularly cautious not to microwave food in plastic containers or consume acidic drinks such as soft-drinks and juices in plastic bottles.
2. Choose organic, locally-grown and in-season foods or peel/thoroughly wash non-organic fruits & vegetables.
3. Eat organic meat & dairy (this is particularly important for more fatty cuts of meat and full fat dairy as the fat is where the greatest accumulation of xeno-oestrogens are).
4. Avoid all pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
5. Buy cosmetics and personal care products without phthalates.
6. Minimise your exposure to nail polish & nail polish removers.
7. Avoid conventional perfumes and fragrances by using natural fragrances such as essential oils.
8. Drink filtered water from a high-quality water filter.
9. Use tampons and sanitary pads made of organic cotton without chlorine (or even better, use a menstrual cup).
3. Poor Diet & Digestive Function.
The standard Western consists of high amounts of trans fats, an imbalanced omega 6: omega 3 ratio, too many sugars, excess refined carbohydrates & high levels of caffeine. This common dietary pattern is often paired with insufficient amounts of healthy fats, an inadequate protein intake and/or a lack of plant-based foods. All of these factors have a detrimental effect on hormonal production & regulation, potentially contributing to oestrogen dominance.
Another dietary factor that can lead to oestrogen dominance is the consumption of conventionally raised meat & dairy products as commercially raised animals are injected with growth hormones which make their way into your food where they can disrupt your own natural hormone balance.
Conventional produce is an additional concern as it is sprayed with pesticides, herbicides & fungicides that are known hormonal disruptors.
In addition to this, habits such as poor meal timing and snacking on sugar & caffeine-laden ‘quick-fix’ snacks negatively affect blood sugar regulation. Blood sugar dysregulation is a potent form of stress & as mentioned in part 1 of this series, chronic stress is a major contributor to oestrogen dominance.
Poor dietary habits, as well as a host of other factors such as high stress levels, toxin exposure, medication use & poor lifestyle choices can additionally create imbalances in the microbiome of the gut. Gut microbiome imbalances (aka dysbiosis) & the digestive issues that accompany this prevent the body from successfully eliminating unnecessary oestrogen. This allows oestrogen to continually re-enter the bloodstream, creating a state of oestrogen dominance. A nutrient-dense & whole food diet that promotes and establishes optimal gut health is thus key for supporting hormonal balance.
4. Poor Liver Clearance of Oestrogen.
Oestrogen is metabolised by the liver through 3 different pathways. Depending on the pathway, oestrogen will be converted into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ metabolites. The 2-hydroxy metabolic pathway is considered good as it has the lowest risk for cancer & other problems. Using the 2-hydroxy pathway, your body produces beneficial oestrogen metabolites that support healthy mood, libido, breast tissue & reproductive health. You can support oestrogen clearance down this pathway by increasing consumption of cruciferous vegetables or by supplementing with DIM or indole-3-carbinol (if considering supplementation, always work with a naturopath or integrative health practitioner to ensure it’s safe & that you are dosing correctly).
In contrast to the 2-hydroxy metabolic pathway, the 16-hydroxy & 4-hydroxy pathways are considered bad & associated with higher risks of hormonal-dependant cancers. When your body is converting too many of your hormones using the 16- & 4-hydroxy pathways, you’ll experience oestrogen dominant symptoms/conditions such as irritability, vaginal dryness, endometriosis, PCOS, cystic breast disease, uterine fibroids & PMS.
Further to this, if you have a ‘sluggish’ liver or suboptimal liver function, the overall rate of oestrogen clearance down any pathway will be slowed, thereby also contributing to oestrogen dominance. Signs that may suggest poor liver function include fatigue, weakness, poor digestion (particularly with fatty meals), constipation, loss of appetite, headaches, skin eruptions, dry/itchy skin, high cholesterol & triglyceride levels, easy bruising, and pain in the centre or upper right part of the belly.
The liver is central to optimal hormonal balance so if you think you need support in this area, get in touch so we can work together to correct this.
5. Hormonal Birth Control (aka the pill).
The rising popularity of the pill is a major cause of oestrogen dominance. It’s a common scenario that doctors prescribe the pill to regulate periods or control menstrual symptoms, & women stay on the pill for years without fully understanding long-term effects.
The pill contains synthetic versions of the body’s natural oestrogen & progesterone. Its use creates the perfect storm for oestrogen dominance. The symptoms that women are often prescribed the pill for (erratic periods, heavy bleeding, menstrual cramps, etc) are likely a result of oestrogen dominance to begin with. Prescribing the pill to manage these symptoms simply adds more oestrogen to the excess levels already present, thereby exacerbating the problem.
The synthetic oestrogen contained in the pill is actually stronger than the body’s natural oestrogen, thereby increasing the likelihood of causing oestrogen dominance. This synthetic oestrogen additionally damages gut bacteria which impairs oestrogen clearance from the body, thus further fuelling the likely development of oestrogen dominance.
Finally, the synthetic progesterone contained in the pill suppresses your natural progesterone production. Progesterone is needed to balance the effects of oestrogen & without enough, you end up with symptoms of oestrogen dominance.
Given this, as well as the fact that the pill depletes the body of vital nutrients & is associated with an increased risk of various health conditions, it is a medication you should think hard about before using – and that’s especially the case if you could be suffering from oestrogen dominance.
6. Excess Body Fat.
Excess body fat (especially stored in the hips, waist & thighs) is a common cause of oestrogen dominance. Not only does fat tissue absorb and store oestrogen circulating in your bloodstream, it also synthesises oestrogen from your other hormones. Having high levels of oestrogen cues your body to make more fat cells, which then produce even more oestrogen, creating a vicious cycle.
Excess body fat is also of concern to men as aromatase, an enzyme stored in body fat, turns testosterone into oestrogen. Excess fat raises aromatase levels and conversion of testosterone to oestrogen, thereby leading to unfavourably high levels of oestrogen in males.
If you currently are or are attempting to lose weight, it is extremely important to put measures in place to ensure your body can clear oestrogen. Fat loss will release stored oestrogen into the bloodstream, causing a temporary oestrogen dominance and necessitating an oestrogen clearance protocol.
For an analysis of your current hormonal status and/or the development of a comprehensive oestrogen clearance protocol, get in touch so we can work together to ensure optimal hormonal balance.