Estrogen dominance — the condition of having higher estrogen relative to progesterone levels — is one that plagues millions of women at all ages. It can occur during reproductive years, perimenopause, and menopause. It can also be coming from a wide variety of sources within a woman’s diet and lifestyle. This makes estrogen dominance a bit of a complex nut to crack. But a holistic approach to health should at least get everyone on the right track, and provide a proper learning environment in which you can figure out precisely where your dysregulation is coming from.
Estrogen dominance occurs when estrogen levels run too high, or on the flip side when progesterone levels run too low. There are some natural swings throughout a woman’s life that can make estrogen dominance more or less of a problem. Progesterone tends to fall during perimenopause, for example, so this can be the primary source of hormonal discomfort for women cresting age 35 or so. Progesterone levels also fall during menopause, though estrogen levels should be low at that time, too. The reasons estrogen may remain relatively high in a woman’s later years are largely to do with the same mechanisms that occur in the reproductive years. In each the reproductive years, perimenopause, and menopause, a woman is subject to be influenced by her dietary and lifestyle choices.
Estrogen dominance is a big deal. It can cause a wide variety of symptoms, as well as put us at greater risk for a wide variety of diseases and conditions. Symtpoms associated with estrogen dominance include:
High emotional sensitivity
Conditions we find more often in women with estrogen dominance and that may in fact explicitly develop as a result of estrogen dominance include:
Hypothyroidism (estrogen is antagonistic to thyroid hormone)
These aren’t problems we can just shrug off of our shoulders. In many ways, we can reasonably view estrogen dominance as contributing to the deaths of thousands of women every year.
The causes of estrogen dominance
The causes of estrogen dominance are wide and varied, but largely have to do with metabolic dysregulation and organ malfunction. Some dietary factors may also offset the balance.
1) Being overweight:
Fat cells perform a function called “aromatization” which converts testosterone to estrogen. The more body fat we have on us, then, the more and more our bodies tip their balances towards estrogen and away from testosterone.
Now, this doesn’t mean testosterone levels will be necessarily low in overweight women. To the contrary: testosterone levels also happen to climb the higher and higher insulin levels are. For this reason, a woman predisposed to insulin insensitivity will likely experience increases in both testosterone and estrogen levels. Progesterone receives no bump from weight gain, however: progesterone thus remains incapable of offsetting the estrogen increases associated with higher body fat percentages in overweight women.
2) Overburdening the liver:
The liver is responsible for clearing the body of “old” hormones, especially estrogen. If the liver is overburdened with a hyper-caloric diet, with high volumes of sugar, with high volumes of alcohol, or with high volumes of processing chemicals, then, it becomes sluggish in it’s ability to process everything. When the liver slows down, estrogen ends up becoming back-logged in a way, and wreaks havoc on the reproductive system as it waits for the liver to heal and to catch up in it’s bloodstream clearing capacity.
This effect is interestingly even more pronounced in men than it is in women, and it accounts largely for the development of breast-like fat deposits in heavy drinkers. Being overweight and being stressed may also contribute to this process in men.
Stress wreaks havoc on all of our bodily systems. Perhaps most pressingly for women, however, it decreases the production of progesterone in the body. When a woman is stressed, her adrenal glands “steal” the precursor to progesterone and instead use it to produce cortisol, the stress hormone. For this reason, high volumes of stress can yank the rug out from under progesterone, which can precipitously tip hormonal balance in favor of estrogen.
4) Consumptions of phyto and xenoestrogens:
Much as I have difficulty with soy in my own life, I typically preach caution when talking about soy. I honestly belieeve that it is a good therapeutic tool for some women, and each of us needs to use it appropriately.
In every single case, however, soy, flax, legumes, and other sources of estrogen outside of the body interfere with our bodies own production of estrogen. In the case of estrogen dominant women, it may be causing too much estrogen to be produced. Phytoestrogens can increase the aromatization process in fat cells that I described above. They can also simply just dump an increased estrogen load into the body, which automatically tips the balance. In a properly functioning metabolism, the liver should probably be able to clear out this increased estrogen load. But sometimes the load is too heavy or the liver not quite strong enough, and that becomes an impossibility.
5) A low fiber diet:
Estrogen is processed in the liver, but it is also processed partly by gut flora, and also excreted through the digestive track.
It has been shown time and time again that low fiber diets are associated with estrogen dominance. There are many cofounding variables that may play a role here, but the general idea is that estrogen can be reaborsed through the intestinal walls. With poor gut flora and with slow intestinal motility, estrogen sits too long in the gut and gets reabsorbed back into the bloodstream.
Fiber is generally correlated with improved digestive pace and motion, though not exclusively. A proper amount of fiber helps push things along in the digestive track. Too much fiber can obviously be damaging. It causes something health advocates like to call “roughage.” It is abrasive, and it can lead to gut deteriorating conditions such as diverticulitis. In any case, however, meeting a minimum requirement for estrogen processing such as regularly consuming fruits and vegetables can be quite helpful for gut motility and health.
Increasing fruit and vegetable intake can also, of course, increase nutrient status, which can boost liver function, hormone function, and the processing of all of these chemicals.
Moving beyond estrogen dominance
How do we mitigate estrogen dominance, then? We eat diets designed to cool inflammation, to support organ- and particularly liver- function, to minimize phytoestrogen intake, and to maximize nutrient status.
This means that we want to eat a paleo-template type diet, which includes animal products, both the protein and the fat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, coconut, starchy vegetables, and to some extent seeds and nuts. However, in an estrogen dominant system, seeds and nuts can act as phytoestrogens and tip the hormonal balance in favor of estrogen, so they should be carefully stepped around. Foods that support thyroid health such as seafood and seaweed should also be quite helpful for boosting metabolic health and hormone clearance. Foods to be avoided are of course all processed sugars, grains, omega 6 seed oils, phytoestrogens which include soy, flax, legumes, seeds, and some herbs, which I list in great detail here, and alcohol.
Foods to emphasize for estrogen clearing are the ones that are the most nutrient dense, particularly those that boost B vitamin levels, omega 3 levels (fermented cod liver oil!), choline (for the liver!), zinc, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin D. For that reason, eggs (choline), fish (omega 3 fats, iodine, selenium, and vitamin D), liver (vitamin A, B vitamins, and iron, zinc, manganese, etc), other organ meats, and high quality animal protein may be your best companions in this journey.
Some supplements have also been rumored to be helpful, and I thought Dr Hoffman (one of the estrogen dominance heroes) summarizes them well:
Lecithin (a phospholipid) and the sulfur-containing L-taurine and L-methionine amino acids are compounds that will promote bile circulation, which enhances estrogen’s excretion out of the body. These lipotropic formulas support the liver metabolism of estrogen. A typical formula might provide the following, sometimes in a base of liver-stimulating herbs like milk thistle, black radish, beet, or dandelion, for twice-daily consumption: choline (a concentrated form of lecithin), 500 milligrams; inositol, 250 milligrams; taurine, 250 milligrams; methionine, 250 milligrams.
Exercise should also be high on your list, since exercise can sharpen insulin sensitivity, boost weight loss, help mitigate mood swing problems associated with estrogen dominance, and reduce levels of stress hormones in the body.
Stress reduction is huge. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Without progseterone in our bodies, it is nearly impossible to rectify estrogen dominance. Every other aspect of estrogen mitigation can be in place. But without sufficient progesterone, symptoms of estrogen dominance may persist.
Estrogen dominance plagues a wide variety of women, and at all stages throughout the reproductive lifestyle. Supporting organ health, reducing stress, and generally focusing on healthful foods should get us most of the way there towards greater hormone balance. There are, of course, many other things you can to do help mitigate problems associated with estrogen dominance– for example, experimenting with neurotransmitter supplementation or boosting neurotransmitter health with diet and supplements in order to mitigate mood swing problems– but those are wide and varied and left for their own places in this blog at an upcoming time.
In the meantime: what is your experience? Does paleo help with these symptoms? What parts of your diet and lifestyle are best for keeping you hormonally balanced and healthy? What’s worked, and what hasn’t?