Updated: Oct 3, 2020
Say you’re experiencing irregular periods, heavy bleeding, bloating, and breast tenderness...so you decide to make an appointment to see your doctor because, well, this can’t be normal, right?? Often times when women meet with their doctors to help with these symptoms, they are given a medication that does just that- treat the symptoms. This is usually in the form of hormonal birth control that helps ease the symptoms associated with our cycles, but unfortunately, doesn’t actually help with the root cause. So what is causing these symptoms?
The balance of our female sex hormones is quite delicate. When something (or multiple things) throw these hormones off balance, we can experience estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance is when a woman has either normal, deficient, or excessive levels of the hormone estrogen while also having too little progesterone to help balance out the estrogen level. Just as a reminder, estrogen has several key roles it plays within the female body. Estrogen is produced in the ovaries, along with small amounts in the adrenal glands and fat tissues. There are three types of estrogen:
Estradiol- this is most common type for women in childbearing years
Estriol- this is the main estrogen when a woman is pregnant
Estrone- this is the only type of estrogen made after menopause
Estrogen, along with progesterone, is typically low at the beginning of the cycle. With this drop in hormones, the endometrium sheds which results in your period starting. We then see estrogen begin to rise typically around day 8 of the cycle. Estrogen usually spikes between days 12 and 14. Progesterone is the dominant hormone between days 15 through 28, and we see the peak usually around day 21.
Estrogen and progesterone contribute to some other interesting roles in the body. Not only does estrogen help build up the lining within the uterus, but it can act as a stimulant causing feelings of anxiety and can contribute to insomnia. Progesterone, on the other hand, tends to have a calming effect on the body. It can help with patience and sleep. When we see these hormones out of balance with one another, or when they are too low, females can experience a whole host of symptoms and conditions (see chart below).
So I’m sure you are asking what contributes to estrogen dominance. Well, I’m glad you asked! When I came across the condition of estrogen dominance, it made so much more sense why I was experiencing symptoms of estrogen dominance!
Potential causes of estrogen dominance:
Xenoestrogen exposure- Xenoestrogens are synthetic chemicals that have been known to imitate the same actions of estrogen, which then can artificially raise the levels of estrogen. We can find xenoestrogens in plastics; personal care products that contain parabens, glycol, and sulfates; synthetic fragrances; pesticides; herbicides; fungicides; synthetic hormones (think birth control pills); household cleaning products; nail polishes; noxious gases; commercial meat and dairy products; and tap water.
Impaired Liver function- The liver performs over 200 functions within the human body. If the liver is not functioning optimally, it is possible that it is not clearing out estrogen quickly enough. There are several reasons why the liver may not be functioning properly, including excessive alcohol intake.
Eating foods high in phytoestrogens- phytoestrogens are plant-derived xenoestrogens. These are naturally occurring plant compounds that mimic estrogen in the body. While consuming these foods can have many health benefits, if you are struggling with estrogen dominance, considering limiting your intake of these foods may be wise. Foods that contain phytoestrogens include flax seeds, soy, dates, prunes, dried apricots, sesame seeds, peaches, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, wheat bran, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage.
Nutrient Deficiencies- Vitamins and minerals play key roles in how our body metabolizes hormones. A diet high in processed foods often lacks nutritional value and can leave the body deficient in vitamins and minerals. Being on hormonal birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy can also deplete the body of key nutrients (for an in depth guide to moving past the pill, I highly recommend the book Beyond the Pill by Dr. Jolene Brighten). When we see deficiencies in zinc, copper, magnesium, and the B complex vitamins, we also tend to see estrogen dominance.
Gut dysbiosis- You may have heard a lot of talk in recent years about how important it is to have a “healthy gut.” Having gut dysbiosis is when there is an imbalance between healthy and unhealthy gut bacteria. This can often be cause by the use of antibiotics, parasites, toxic metals, and medications. The gut microbes found within our gut help regulate circulating estrogen levels. If we have a healthy microbiome in our gut, then there is a correct balance of estrogen. When our gut isn’t healthy, we can see either too low or too high estrogen levels.
If you suspect that you have estrogen dominance, I highly recommend that you connect with your medical provider to test your hormones to see exactly what is going on. There are quite a few lab tests that you can take, and your doctor can help you identify which test(s) would be most appropriate for you based on your needs.
Next week I will share strategies to address estrogen dominance!