Estrogen has been a topic of discussion for as long as there have been women on this planet. Whether we are talking about breast or ovarian cancer risk, PMS, bioidentical hormones, or fertility, estrogen always seems to be lurking around. But what exactly is estrogen dominance and how do you know if you have unbalanced estrogen?
Estrogen Dominance 101: What is Estrogen?
A hormone is a substance that is produced in one tissue, released into the blood stream, and then travels to other tissues where the hormone then binds to receptors and will take effect.
Estrogen is a hormone predominantly produced in the ovaries, but can also be produced in other tissues such as the adrenal glands (which is why men have estrogen but at smaller levels). Estrogen receptors are present in many tissues—the kidneys, the brain, bone, heart, lungs, etc.
This is why many systems are affected by imbalances in estrogen. An estrogen dominant person has higher than ideal levels of estrogen in their body in relation to progesterone.
What’s The Deal With Estrogen Dominance?
Estrogen dominance can contribute to symptoms like breast tenderness, mood swings, food cravings, weight gain, migraines, irregular periods and more. Women with fertility-related concerns may also have hormonal imbalances that trace back to estrogen dominance.
Those with higher estrogen levels can also be at higher risk of developing more serious conditions like tissue overgrowth on reproductive organs (i.e. cysts, polyps, endometriosis) as well as breast and uterine cancers (6).
It should be noted that estrogen isn’t all that bad though—it’s required for healthy reproductive cycles, it maintains healthy bone density, contributes to a healthy heart, and can positively affect mood.
With menopause, estrogen levels decrease and the risk of developing osteoporosis, heart disease, and mood changes increases. So what can we do to make sure our estrogen levels are well balanced?
Maintaining Hormone Balance
Diet can play a big role in healthy hormone balance. When it comes to estrogen dominance, it is important to make sure that liver function and digestion are working optimally (4).
The liver is responsible for breaking down (metabolizing) estrogen, and the digestive system eliminates the broken down estrogen. Foods that promote liver function and a healthy digestive system include:
Leafy greens (dandelion root, kale, swiss chard, spinach, arugula)
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, bok choy)
Onions and garlic
Fiber-rich foods (berries, chia seeds, psyllium, etc.)
Plant-based foods that affect female hormones are called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are important as they tend to exert a weaker estrogenic effect than the estrogens produced in the body.
By claiming spots on estrogen receptors in other tissues, they prevent stronger estrogens from binding to those receptors and help lead to more balanced estrogen levels. Examples of foods that contain either lignans or isoflavones (the components that make phytoestrogens what they are) include (2,5):
Other seeds (i.e., pumpkin, sunflower)
Although moderate amounts of dietary phytoestrogens are viewed as beneficial with regards to healthy hormone balance, more recent research shows that soy, in particular, should be consumed with relative caution (1).
Besides including certain foods into your diet, it is also important to limit exposure to xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are synthetic compounds that look similar in chemical structure to naturally produced estrogens. Some xenoestrogens are especially dangerous to women as they have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
Xenoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors in various tissues and can elevate estrogen levels more than the natural estrogens in our bodies. Examples of places where harmful xenoestrogens can be found include cosmetics, lotions, plastics, and pesticides (3). More specifically, the components to look out for include:
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Lastly, physical activity and healthy body fat levels play a major role in maintaining optimal estrogen levels. Exercise not only helps to decrease estrogen levels, but it can also improve excretion of excess estrogen (4).
Get Hormone Help!
We can see that diet and lifestyle modifications can go a long way to improving hormone health. However, we also know that maintaining healthy hormone balance is rarely clear cut.
If you have concerns regarding your hormones, you should seek guidance from your primary healthcare practitioner.
A proper intake, physical exam, and laboratory investigations are required to see exactly what’s going on, rule out serious conditions, and decide which interventions might be necessary.
For example, estrogen dominance could be a result of too much estrogen, too little progesterone, or an issue with other hormones, and you might treat each scenario differently.
Bennetau-Pelissero, C. (2016, November). Risks and benefits of phytoestrogens: Where are we now? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27749767
Sturgeon, S. R., Volpe, S. L., Puleo, E., Bertone-Johnson, E. R., Heersink, J., Sabelawski, S., . . . Kurzer, M. S. (2010). Effect of flaxseed consumption on urinary levels of estrogen metabolites in postmenopausal women. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20099191
Konduracka, E., Krzemieniecki, K., & Gajos, G. (2014, April). Relationship between everyday use cosmetics and female breast cancer. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24694726
Sarris, J, and Wardle, J. Clinical Naturopathy. 2010. Elsevier, Australia.
Sirotkin, A. V., & Harrath, A. H. (2014, October 15). Phytoestrogens and their effects. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25160742
Fritz, M. A., MD, & Speroff, L., MD. (2005). Clinical Gynecologic Endocrinology and Infertility Clinical Gynecologic Endocrinology and Infertility. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.