Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and over 200,000 women–1 in 8– in the U.S. are diagnosed every year. We’re seeing girls reaching puberty as early as age 8. Ask any woman, and she’s bound to say she’s experienced PMS, and maybe even endometriosis, fibroids, or ovarian cysts. The common thread in these conditions? Too much estrogen.
Estrogen is one of a woman’s two main sex hormones; the other is progesterone. Estrogen peaks in the first half of a woman’s menstrual cycle to trigger ovulation, then progesterone peaks in the second half of the cycle and continues to rise if there is a pregnancy, or falls to trigger menstruation.
(side note: Men have estrogen too. Too much estrogen in men contributes to gynecomastia (AKA man boobs).
In women, progesterone and estrogen should exist in a ratio of about 30:1, but when this ratio becomes skewed and a woman has a deficiency of progesterone and/or an excess of estrogen, that woman is in a state of estrogen dominance. Over 50 percent of women over 35 are estrogen dominant, and I see it so frequently in my practice. Typically, women will have very low progesterone, so even if their estrogen is in a normal range on lab work, that’s still estrogen dominant due to the low progesterone. Or, they may have high estrogen levels.
Symptoms of Estrogen Dominance
- painful periods, heavy bleeding or clotting
- sore, tender breasts
- swollen fingers and feet
- irregular periods
- ovarian cysts
- breast cancer
- fat gain
- hair loss
- dry skin & eyes
- early menarchy
- low thyroid function (hypothyroid)
What Causes Estrogen Dominance?
- xenoestrogens: chemicals in cosmetics, personal care products, pesticides, plastics, pollution, and our environment that are shaped like our body’s own estrogens and plug up estrogen receptors, contributing to our estrogen load
- CAFO (conventionally raised) beef and meats fed antibiotics and growth hormone
- soy, which contains plant-based estrogens, especially processed soy
- conventional dairy, which contains hormones and is naturally androgenic (promotes growth)
- HRT & birth control pills: the average low dose pill has 20 TIMES a woman’s natural estrogen levels!
- being overweight or obese: excess body fat can store circulating estrogens and actually synthesize estrogens.
- processed foods, corn syrup
- excess alcohol
- ovarian cysts or tumors that can produce excess estrogens
- liver congestion: your liver detoxes excess estrogens, and if congested, it can’t perform this function optimally
- B vitamin deficiencies
- BPA in can liners
Here is a classic pattern I see in my practice: busy career woman and/or mom hustling in her job and raising her family, eating too many processed or refined foods; drinking a lot of coffee as a pick-me-up; too much sugar to beat the energy lulls; grabbing fast food or take-out too frequently. She doesn’t have time to plan meals or cook and often picks up take-out pizza for the family on the way home. She drinks wine every night to unwind and help her sleep, but she ends up tossing and turning and wakes up feeling unrested. Eventually, this pattern causes weight gain, and she may notice a worsening in PMS, and her periods get heavier and more painful. Her breasts are very tender the week before her period. She may notice infertility issues, fatigue, and irritability. What’s going on?
In a word, stress. This woman is burning the candle at both ends, eating poor quality food, not getting quality sleep, not exercising, and drinking too much caffeine and alcohol. These are all stressors for the body, which contributes to increased cortisol, your main stress hormone. Your body churns out cortisol in response to stress, whether it be too much sugar or too much work or too little sleep, and it will begin to borrow reserves it would normally use to make your other hormones, like progesterone, to feed the excess cortisol.
Eventually, progesterone levels drop, but estrogen continues to rise due to chemical exposure from poor food and weight gain. Excess fat can convert to estrogen. This woman is now estrogen dominant and probably not feeling great. Add to this the cosmetics she’s applying to her skin, the alcohol that’s congesting her liver, which is in charge of detoxing excess estrogens (if it can’t perform that duty, the estrogens back in into the system and aren’t excreted), the environmental pollutants and pesticides she’s in contact with, and the lack of sleep (which raises cortisol), and we’ve got a hormone imbalance.
This cycle is exacerbated when a woman takes hormonal birth control pills, which artificially elevate estrogen levels and suppress progesterone to prevent pregnancy.
How to Rebalance Your Hormones and Prevent Estrogen Dominance
- First point of business: Clean up your diet. Eat organic meats, plenty of fiber-rich veggies, and good fats, which is what your body uses to make hormones. Avoid non-organic meats, dairy, refined sugar, inflammatory vegetable oils, alcohol, coffee, refined flours and carbs. Focus on the cruciferous veggies (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts), especially broccoli, which contain indole-3 carbinole that helps estrogen detox.
- Detox twice yearly: A happy liver is crucial to hormone balance, because one of the liver’s main jobs is metabolizing hormones and detoxing excess hormones from the body. Click here for an easy liver detox (and see below for more detail).
- Normalize your weight. Not only does excess body fat produce estrogens, excess estrogens cue the body to make more fat cells. A vicious cycle.
- Poop well. After your liver detoxes and sends excess estrogens to be excreted via stool, they must then be excreted from the body. If you’re constipated, the stool is immobile, and estrogens and toxins can be reabsorbed through the gut and back into your system. You don’t want that! Daily pooping will facilitate detox.
- Clean up your products: get rid of cosmetics with any ingredients you cannot pronounce, and stop putting chemical lotions on your skin. It’s all absorbed and filled with xenoestrogens. Here’s an example of my natural skin care routine, and I use chemical-free shampoo.
- Clean up your environment: use green cleaning products, or make your own. There are tons of DIY cleaning product recipes out there. Ditch the plastics!
- Drink clean, filtered drinking water.
- Address stress level by getting 8 hours or sleep, making time to prepare healthy meals (hello, crock pot), and exercise. Prioritize. Your health is worth it. Here are 10+ ways to build stress relief into your day.
- Exercise and yoga, stress relief
Supplemental Support to Help (can use this protocol when detoxing from hormonal birth control pills)
- Diindolylmethane (DIM) helps detox excess estrogen. Take 60-100 mg standardized extract 1-2x/daily
- Chasteberry (vitex) is an herb that regulates progesterone
- Wild yam or bio-identical USP progesterone can be taken from days 14-28 of the cycle to normalize progesterone levels, which peak in the luteal phase, or second half of the cycle. I do not recommend progesterone creams, because they can be stored in fat tissue and build up to unhealthy levels.
- B vitamins help to regulate stress level and hormones
- Liver detox supplements and herbs such as milk thistle, glutathione, N-acetyl-cysteine, methionine. Take a liver support tincture, or I highly recommend these detox support packets.
- I like this FemGuard supplement that helps normalize estrogen and progesterone levels.
- Anti-inflammatory supplements such as fish oil and turmeric. I like this turmeric tea for detox.
- If you’re transitioning off hormonal birth control and would like a natural, hormone-free method of pregnancy prevention, read this book. Here is my post on how to stop taking birth control pills.
I recommend saliva testing to measure stress hormones and estrogen and progesterone levels to see exactly what level of hormone imbalance exists. Then I design a personalized protocol using a combination of diet and supplements to help rebalance hormones. I also stress lifestyle habits like sleep, exercise, and addressing emotional well-being.
Want an easy program you can start right now to balance your hormones?
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Is This You?
- PMS, menopausal symptoms, trouble with hormone balance?
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- Bloated, gassy, heartburn, indigestion, constipation, been recently diagnosed with IBS or Crohn’s disease?
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Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.