Estrogen Dominance…The Struggle Is Real
By Kyla Jacobo, DPT
Three letters of the English language that, when combined in the right order, have come to denote such strife. Emotional lability. Fatigue. Bloating. A cyclical time of the month that comes without invitation, often greeted by others with eye rolls, sarcastic jokes, or simply blown off as if “all in our heads”.
The reality is, these symptoms are not as nature intended. Many of these unwelcome symptoms such as anxiety and depression, mood swings, cramping and bloating, breast tenderness, and extreme fatigue that we have come to accept as normal, are in fact products of our environment and lifestyles. Yes, we do have a cycle each month, that is both necessary and beautiful. But no, we do not need to be inevitably miserable for days or weeks out of the month.
While PMS symptoms vary in severity, 75% of women have some type of physiological disruption due to their cycle each month. Debilitating conditions associated with menstruation are increasingly common and oftentimes misdiagnosed. This has been of particular interest to me, as I have struggled with symptoms of PMS for the past 20 years. I have researched and experimented, trying everything from supplements to special diets, even diagnosing myself with Premenstrual Dysmorphic Disorder, a condition in which PMS symptoms are even more severe. My physician suggested I try an antidepressant, which I found out was basically the same as Prozac. I was also encouraged to get on birth control pills, as they would balance out my hormones.
Because I lean towards holistic medicine, I did not try the prescription medications, other than a 3 day trial of birth control which wreaked havoc on my body. Many medications do a poor job of masking the symptoms, while creating a host of side effects and additional imbalances in the body.
Thus, my search for an answer continued…
That’s when I discovered the concept of Estrogen Dominance. Estrogen Dominance refers to having too much estrogen in the body, creating a hormone imbalance between estrogen and progesterone. We all have estrogen, and we all need estrogen for important functions in our bodies. It’s when these hormones are out of balance that we see health conditions arise. Dr. Elizabeth Bohan, Dr. Mark Hyman, and Dr. Amy Myers are a few of the Functional Medicine practitioners working to increase awareness of this condition and are showing great progress in the evaluation and treatment of these patients.
Symptoms of Estrogen Dominance:
- Weight gain (especially in hips, waist, and thighs)
- PMS (ie. mood swings, breast tenderness, fluid retention)
- Fertility problems (according to Dr. Elizabeth Bohan of the Cleveland Clinic, this affects 1 in 7 couples)
- Decreased libido
- Depression or anxiety
Associated Health Risks:
According to Dr. Amy Myers, a Functional Medicine practitioner, the greatest risk associated with estrogen dominance is hormone-dependent cancer, including breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer.
- Autoimmune Disease
While estrogen can have a protective effect on some autoimmune conditions, Dr. Myers states that extreme fluctuations in estrogen levels, such as those during childbirth and menopause, may contribute to autoimmunity. High levels of estrogen increase the inflammatory response of the immune system, which increases the antibodies that attack our bodies’ own tissues.
- Hashimoto’s and Thyroid Dysfunction-
Excess estrogen causes thyroid hormones, which would normally be released into the bloodstream, to be inactive. These hormones are therefore unable to elicit crucial metabolic functions.
- Candida Overgrowth
Excessive estrogen can lead to Candida overgrowth. Candida is a naturally occurring fungus that is found in the mouth and small intestine. Normally, it functions to aid in digestion and nutrient absorption. However, too much causes a breakdown in the intestinal wall, which releases this toxin into the body. This is referred to as ‘leaky gut’ and is associated with many different health conditions.
Causes of Estrogen Dominance:
- Chronic Stress
Our adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol. Chronic stress leads to high levels of cortisol in the body, which can lead to an array of problems including anxiety and depression, sleep disturbances, weight gain, and brain fog. Chronic stress also creates hormonal imbalances. Because the body is focusing all its efforts on producing cortisol, it is less effective in the production of progesterone, thus leading to estrogen dominance.
- Excess sugar
Diets high in refined sugar lead to insulin resistance. The excess sugar causes your pancreas to overproduce insulin in an effort to balance blood sugar levels. Overtime, this overwhelms the liver and creates insulin resistance. A person with insulin resistance is likely to gain weight, especially around the belly, which leads to an increased production of estrogen.
An occasional alcoholic beverage is not inherently bad, in fact, it may even have some health benefits. However, excessive intake can lead to health conditions such as liver toxicity, vitamin B deficiency and even cancer. Research has shown a linear relationship between alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer. Alcohol impairs liver function and reduces its ability to effectively detoxify the body and excrete estrogen, which we know increases the risk of hormone-dependent cancers.
Much of the excess estrogen in our bodies comes from the foods we eat. Factory farmed animals are injected with hormones to make them grow bigger, faster, and produce more milk. And even if we subscribe to a vegan diet, the pesticides and herbicides sprayed on our produce are known endocrine disruptors. Ingesting these hormones and chemicals on a regular basis can disrupt our natural hormone balance.
Additionally, the foods we eat play an important role in our ‘gut health’. Sugary, processed foods can lead to a condition called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). This affects the body’s ability to metabolize estrogen and makes us more susceptible to conditions related to estrogen dominance.
- Beauty Products
Many of the products we use everyday contain xenoestrogens, foreign estrogens that bind to estrogen receptor sites, including parabens, phthalates, plastics, and other chemicals commonly found in beauty products. As discussed in my article, Toxic Beauty, exposure to these endocrine disruptors can lead to an array of health conditions.
Xenoestrogens are also found in the environment. Unfortunately, many parks, playgrounds, and schools are frequently sprayed with toxic chemicals known to be endocrine disruptors. Even our own backyards can be chemical laden areas, depending on our gardening practices. It’s important to minimize, or avoid altogether, spraying these harmful chemicals. Non-toxic Neighborhoods is an organization whose mission is to make every park, athletic field, school, and neighborhood free of harmful and synthetic pesticides.
How to Resolve and/or Prevent Estrogen Dominance:
To prevent conditions such as leaky gut and SIBO, eat foods high in fiber, whole soy foods, and flaxseeds. Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and cauliflower, are a great source of fiber and give your good gut bacteria something to feed off of. Avoid excessive starch, alcohol, refined sugar, and processed foods as much as possible, as they introduce unhealthy bacteria into the gut. Try to balance your blood sugar at every meal by including protein, fiber, and healthy fat. Doing so will prevent the ups and downs of our blood sugar and help to maintain a constant, sustainable energy level.
When diet is not enough to reverse the significant imbalance and damage to our gut, supplementation may be necessary. I have found a supplement called Estroprotect, developed by Amy Myers, MD, to restore hormonal balance and decrease my PMS symptoms.
While some things in our environment are out of your direct control, make changes to where you can. Our home is the place where we tend to have the most influence. Whether you choose to do a clean sweep of toxic chemicals, or replace them with a healthier option as you run out, switching to non-toxic cleaning products can make a big difference in your health. Get back to the basics. A simple solution of water and white vinegar is sufficient to clean your floors!
In addition to cleaning products, take a look at your beauty routine. Before you apply lotion, make up, sunscreen, etc., make sure you know what is in those products. Surprisingly, there is very little regulation of the products we see on the shelves. Be an informed consumer. Use EWG’s skin deep database to research products. I use a line of beauty products called Beautycounter, which is a company dedicated to clean beauty.
Lastly, take a stance and be an advocate for your city. Non Toxic Neighborhoods is an organization working to eliminate toxic chemicals in our environment. They provide resources for people who want to make a change in their own communities. Speak up at your local town hall or join the Parent Teacher Association in an effort to spread awareness of what these chemicals are doing to our health.
In order to improve our hormone balance, we need to reduce our stress levels. As a full-time working mother, I am well aware of how stressful life can be. But it’s amazing what a little self-care can do for your mind and body. Try to get eight solid hours of sleep each night. Much of your body’s healing and regeneration occurs during this time. Block out an hour of time to yourself in the morning before the household wakes up. Journaling, meditation, and yoga are all effective ways to reduce stress. Diet and exercise also have a profound effect on your stress level, as well as your ability to deal with stress when it arises.
If you are struggling with symptoms of PMS or hormonal imbalance, try some of the strategies listed above. If it seems overwhelming, just start with one new change each week. Reach out to a functional medicine practitioner for more resources and support in those challenging areas. As you begin to see results in the way you look and feel, you will be eager to make additional changes. Others may look to you for advice, as they see the improvements you are making in your life. This is the domino effect we need in order to create a healthier more sustainable future.
Improve your health…improve your community’s health…improve the world’s health.