“Estrogen dominance” is not a term typically used by the research or professional medical community. If the condition were described to them, however, they would be able to identify it. It is a real and common thing for women to have excessive estrogen levels. It just so happens that the natural health community is deliberate about addressing it.
The basic problem of estrogen dominance is that estrogen levels are too high relative to other hormones, specifically progesterone. Usually it occurs when estrogen levels go too high, though it can also happen when progesterone levels fall too low. It can occur at any time during life — during reproductive years, perimenopause, or even 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 (you can read my recommendations for women’s health in my best-seller, here) 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: symptoms
Estrogen dominance can cause a wide variety of symptoms, as well as increase the risk for a wide variety of diseases and conditions. Symtpoms associated with estrogen dominance include:
High emotional sensitivity
Conditions that appear to be more common 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.
Estrogen Dominance: Causes
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, the more the body tips the balance towards estrogen and away from testosterone.
Now, this does not mean testosterone levels are necessarily low in overweight women. To the contrary: testosterone levels tend to be high in overweight women. This is not always the case but is quite common: it’s because testosterone production is stimulated by insulin, and many overweight women have some degree of insulin resistance.
Woman predisposed to insulin insensitivity often 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. (To learn how to lose weight in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and hormone supporting, check out this resource)
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 its 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 body 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. This process is called “pregnenolone steal.”
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 believe that it is a good therapeutic tool for some women, and each of us needs to use it appropriately. Sometimes it can be helpful. More often than not I think it is probably harmful.
In every single case, however, soy, flax, legumes, and other sources of estrogen interfere with natural estrogen production.
Phytoestrogens can increase the aromatization process in fat cells that I described above. They increase the rate of testosterone and other hormones being converted into estrogen.
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.
Phytoestrogens are from plants. Xenoestrogens are from chemicals in the environment, such as BPA. Plastics and aluminums typically have BPA and you may ingest it if you aren’t careful. Here’s my favorite BPA free coconut milk, and an awesome bottle that I use for my water.
It is also entirely possible to become estrogen dominance as a result of birth control pill use – a process which I describe in great length in this PDF.
5) A low fiber diet
Estrogen is processed by the liver, but it is also processed partly by gut flora, and also excreted through the digestive track.
It has been shown many times 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 can sit too long in the gut and gets reabsorbed back into the bloodstream.
If you are constipated, this may be an issue for you.
So the answer is not necessarily fiber – fiber may not be what helps get rid of constipation for you – but it is one potential option.
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, regularly consuming fruits and vegetables can be quite helpful for gut motility… as well as the rest of the body.
If you are really struggling with constipation still you could always try paleo fiber. Though I believe magnesium (my favorite here) may be a healthier way to supplement for constipation. The best possible thing to do however may be to eat fermented foods like these or consider a probiotic supplement like this.
Estrogen dominance: treatment
The best possible thing for estrogen dominance is a natural, paleo-type diet. Cooling inflammation, supporting organ – and particularly liver – function, minimizing phytoestrogen intake, and maximizing nutrient status are all excellent, estrogen-managing aspects of paleo.
A paleo-template type diet includes healthy, grass-fed or wild-caught animal products (with both the protein and the fat), seafood, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, coconut products, 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 (if you do not consume seaweed regularly consider a small dose kelp supplement).
Foods to emphasize for estrogen clearing are those that boost B vitamin levels, omega 3 levels (fermented cod liver oil is an excellent way to meet the body’s need for omega 3 while also getting the rare but crucial vitamins A, D, and K), choline (for the liver!), zinc (here), magnesium (here), calcium, and vitamin D.
For that reason, eggs (choline), fish (omega 3 fats, iodine, selenium, and vitamin D), liver and other organ meats (vitamin A, vitamin K, B vitamins, and iron, zinc, manganese, etc), and high quality animal protein may be your best companions in this journey.
Foods to be avoided are 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.
Some herbs have also been rumored to be helpful. Personally, I don’t love to recommend herbs, especially ones that affect hormone balance, such as chasteberry. (Though chasteberry, and I did link to a good grand, has been rumored to be quite effective). They simply have not been studied to any significant depth. Everything we know about herbs and hormones comes from what people say – not science.
If you are still interested, the absolute best herbs I can recommend for estrogen dominance are ones that support liver health and may help support estrogen excretion. For that the absolute best are milk thistle and/or dandelion root, in my opinion. You can see a good milk thistle here and a good dandelion root here.
Additionally, L-taurine promotes bile circulation, which enhances estrogen’s excretion out of the body.
Exercise is incredibly important, as it can speed up the liver’s detox processes, sharpen insulin sensitivity, boost weight loss, help mitigate mood swing problems associated with estrogen dominance, and reduce levels of stress hormones in the body. You can read all about my exercise recommendations in this book.
Stress reduction is huge. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Without progesterone, it is nearly impossible to rectify estrogen dominance. They must be in balance. Even if every other aspect of estrogen mitigation is in place, if progesterone is low then estrogen dominance may persist.
Estrogen dominance: In sum
Estrogen dominance plagues a wide variety of women, and at all stages of life.
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.
Foods and supplements I have linked to above and which I have personally seen work really well with some clients:
Desiccated liver (in case you don’t like eating it!)
My favorite fermented foods for gut healing, healing constipation
cod liver oil for reducing inflammation and getting the important but rare A, D, and K vitamins
Milk thistle for liver support
Dandelion root for liver support
A great probiotic supplement like this
My favorite magnesium here
A list of my favorite fermented foods here
And that’s a wrap!
In the meantime: what is your experience? Does paleo help with these symptoms? Are you estrogen dominant? What parts of your diet and lifestyle are best for keeping you hormonally balanced and healthy? What’s worked, and what hasn’t?