“Hormone disruption.” “Estrogen mimicry.” You’ve likely heard these phrases used in the context of synthetic chemicals and why we should avoid them. But what do they actually mean? How do these toxins affect our hormones?
Everyone has both estrogen and testosterone. While they’re commonly referred to as “sex hormones,” they mediate all many different bodily functions, from metabolism to energy to libido to cognitive function. However, they exist in a delicate balance… and so, toxic chemicals can easily throw them out of whack. Add in the constant stress and convenience-based diets of modern life, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a rise in hormonal disorders.
One of the biggest problems is estrogen dominance. Both men and women can experience this condition, which is when the body has higher levels of estrogen than progesterone. This imbalance contributes to a wide range of health issues.
“Estrogen” actually refers to three different hormones:
Estrone (E1) occurs in adipose tissue (fat) after menopause.
Estradiol (E2) is produced in the ovaries and stimulates the reproductive cycle. It can be converted from testosterone or from estrone, which is converted from androstenedione.
Estriol (E3) mainly appears during pregnancy.
All types of estrogen can bind to receptors throughout the body. Alpha receptors promote cell growth, while beta receptors inhibit it.
Estrone breaks down into either 2-hydroxyestrone or 16-hydroxyestrone. These metabolites interact with other estrogen molecules, affecting how they function in the body. Because 16-hydroxyestrone boosts estrogen production, it has been associated with estrogen dominance and its symptoms, including weight gain and hypothyroidism. Exposure to toxic chemicals seems to promote 16-hydroxyestrone.
By contrast, 2-hydroxyestrone blocks stronger estrogens, giving it an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effect. The problem is that this beneficial metabolite is less active than the 16-hydroxyestrone pathway. As 16-hydroxyestrone protects against osteoporosis, it’s not entirely a “bad” estrogen. But as the “good estrogen,” 2-hydroxyestrone should be boosted whenever possible.
Unfortunately, many of our lifestyle factors and environmental exposures disrupt this 2-hydroxyestrone pathway.
Why is estrogen dominance on the rise?
Many people have begun to refer to our environment and lifestyle as estrogen-dominant. However, there is no conspiracy to “feminize” our species. It is simply that Our modern lifestyles expose us to a wide range of estrogens — or at least substances that mimic them — and encourage behaviors that reduce our body’s ability to remove estrogen.
High consumption of meat, dairy, and processed foods
Much of our bodies’ estrogen is metabolized in the gut. Thanks to our microbiome of beneficial bacteria, estrogen molecules are easily broken down and passed to the liver for excretion. But when our microbiome is imbalanced, digestive enzymes get out of whack and estrogen separates prematurely, allowing it to continue circulating rather than being excreted.
Also, those beneficial bacteria need fiber to grow. So when we eat a low-fiber diet, as many of us do, our gut health declines. Highly processed foods contain refined grains and simple sugars that harmful microbes love to eat. And there’s not enough fiber to feed the good bacteria.
In our fast-paced society, we often reach for convenience-based meals or snack foods. Processed foods often contain additives such as emulsifiers, which further decrease good bacteria. Studies have linked emulsifiers such as carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and polysorbate-80 (P80) to poor gut health and its associated disorders.
Worse, many meat and dairy products are produced from animals that were given hormone stimulants and antibiotics. Those residues often remain in the food, killing our gut bacteria and disrupting our hormone balance.
Considering all these factors, it’s little surprise that women on vegetarian diets tend to have lower estrogen levels.
Sedentary lifestyles and high-sugar diets
In addition to consuming lots of processed foods and meat, many of us consume high levels of sugar. Everything from boxed dinners to our favorite sodas contains corn syrup, white sugar, and other sweeteners. Cultural staples such as cakes, juice, cereal, and many sauces are usually laden with sugar.
We’re also given large portions at restaurants and encouraged to “super-size.” Add in our preference for to-go meals and fancy coffees, and it’s no wonder that obesity is on the rise in Western society. And with car-centric infrastructure and a heavy emphasis on desk jobs and TV time, we’re relatively sedentary compared to other cultures.
Estrogen is both produced and stored in fat cells, so the more adipose tissue you have, the greater your risk for estrogen dominance. Obesity also reduces levels of globulin that can bind estrogen.
A culture that encourages alcohol consumption
Many people enjoy a drink now and then, and research has suggested that red wine and beer may offer some health benefits. However, our society heavily endorses alcohol consumption, from daily happy hours to traditional alcoholic beverages for holidays and milestones.
Regular drinking puts more pressure on the liver, impairing its ability to filter out estrogen. Heavy alcohol consumption has also been linked to higher estradiol production, increasing the risk of estrogen dominance and breast cancer.
Xenoestrogens in our environment and products
Many different synthetic chemicals are molecularly similar to estrogen. When they enter the body, they confuse our receptors and contribute to imbalance. You’ve probably heard of the most common hormone disrupters:
Phthalates include a wide range of chemicals that are used to add fragrance to everything from skincare products to household cleaners. They have been linked to reproductive disorders, birth defects, and a greater risk of cancer.
Parabens are preservatives commonly found in cosmetics and personal care products, especially lotions and soaps. They are known estrogen mimics that have been associated with a higher risk of breast cancer.
Octinoxate is used as a sunscreen, but its ability to mimic estrogen may mean you’re trading one type of cancer risk for another.
While there are efforts to ban or restrict the use of these chemicals, it is often difficult to avoid them. Even if you choose greener products, toxins such as DDT linger in our environment, despite being banned years ago.
The effects of estrogen dominance
Estrogen receptors occur throughout the body. This means that estrogen dominance can affect more than your reproductive system. It has been linked to anxiety and depression, thyroid issues, digestive disorders, and more.
When there is too much estrogen compared to progesterone, a number of health problems can emerge:
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a complex endocrine disorder that is associated with high levels of both estrogen and androgen that converts to estrogen. PCOS causes irregular, heavy periods, acne, obesity, and excessive hair growth.
Endometriosis is a painful condition in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. As estradiol regulates uterine tissue to prepare the body for fertilization, high levels of E2 can disrupt this process.
Depression can be caused or exacerbated by a wide range of factors, but we know that gut health and hormonal balance both affect serotonin levels. Therefore, imbalance in gut bacteria and estrogen may contribute to depressive disorder and related conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, mood swings, lethargy, and low libido.
Estrogen dominance also shares a bunch of symptoms with thyroid disorders, including weight gain, fatigue, hair growth, and acne.
While you should consult with an expert to treat any medical conditions, there are absolutely some lifestyle choices that can reduce estrogen dominance.
Improve your gut health: If your microbiome is imbalanced, it won’t effectively eliminate used estrogen molecules. Consume plenty of probiotics and fiber to boost good bacteria and reduce harmful microbes.
Get lots of nutrients that support hormone production and metabolism: B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc.
Cruciferous vegetables boost testosterone production and the metabolism of estrogen. They stimulate the conversion of estrone into 2-hydroxyestrone while decreasing the conversion into 16-hydroxyestrone. Plus, the high fiber content feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut, and these veggies are often rich in magnesium and vitamins.
Seeds have been linked to 2-hydroxyestrone conversion as well as Flax is best, but pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds are also excellent sources of phytoestrogens, as well as zinc, selenium, and vitamin E to restore balance.
Enjoy some seafood: omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and insulin resistance that can enable estrogen dominance.
Reduce your stress: Cholesterol produces both cortisol and sex hormones. When you’re constantly stressed, your body’s innate fight-or-flight response kicks in. This is mediated by cortisol, which depends on progesterone. So when your cortisol levels remain elevated, the body is diverting its cholesterol toward that rather than sex hormones. Also, the high demand on progesterone reduces its availability to counterbalance estrogen.
Avoid fake estrogen in cosmetics, personal care products, and toiletries. Choose “paraben-free” and “phthalate-free” options whenever possible.
A note about phytoestrogens
While some people believe that plant-derived estrogens can contribute to estrogen dominance, this isn’t entirely true. Foods known as isoflavones (e.g. soy, flaxseed) contain phytoestrogens, but their effect is less intense than xenoestrogens. Moreover, they interact differently with the body.
Fake estrogens trick the receptors into believing there’s more estrogen than there is. But phytoestrogens are real estrogen. In many cases, consuming plant-derived estrogen can help restore hormonal balance. In fact, isoflavones have been shown to support higher levels of 2-hydroxyestrone.
Our environment and lifestyle may be estrogen-heavy, but you can improve your body’s ability to process and excrete estrogen. Restoring hormonal balance is the best way to reduce dominance and your risk of serious health conditions. It all starts with the gut: by eating well and avoiding the harmful preservatives, antibiotics, and sugary foods that disrupt our microbiome, we can reduce our levels of free estrogen.
This article is inspired by an interview with Kate Vazquez, a certified functional medicine practitioner and the author of Estrogen Is a B*tch.