Hormone Balancing Act
It’s very hot here this weekend and I really like being outside. However, I’m not a big fan of sunscreen for two reasons: 1) they’re full of toxic chemicals that mess with my hormones, and 2) they block the UVB rays that we need for producing the most bioavailable form of vitamin D. So I limit my sun exposure to just enough time mid-day to get a good, healthy dose, without burning or over exposing. There’s a fine line being getting your vitamin D and melanoma (skin cancer). Why? Well, it’s possible we burned away enough of the protective ozone layer that we now can’t rely on it to keep us, and crops, safe (even the EPA admits this).
What about reason #1, the toxic chemicals? Many sunscreens and other body care products are full of what’s called endocrine disruptors, or xenoestrogens. These are chemicals that mimic hormones. In doing so, they increase what the body sees as estrogen levels in the body. Excess estrogen in the body can lead to estrogen dominance and eventually lead to hormone driven cancers like breast cancer. If sunscreen were the only place these were found, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But it’s not. Other types of endocrine disruptors include:
- BPA in plastics like water bottles and the lining of cans for canned foods. It’s also found in thermal paper like the receipts you get at the store.
- Dioxins, which are the product of industrial processes, are found in our meats, fish, dairy and eggs.
- Herbicides like atrazine and organophosphates used in conventional farming (a good reason to go organic), which shows up in our water due to run-off from farming (a good reason to filter your water).
- Phthalates, found in plastics and the “fragrances” in personal care products.
- Perchlorate, a chemical in rocket fuel, is everywhere due to its dispersion into the atmosphere, especially in our food and water. (Again, filter)
- Fire retardants, found in clothing, furniture and other household items like carpeting.
- PFCs in nonstick cookware.
- Lead, mercury and arsenic
You can read more about endocrine disruptors and more ways to avoid them on the Environmental Working Group’s website. I’m going to cover what estrogen dominance looks like and provide some ways to address hormone imbalance.
Estrogen is a reproductive hormone more prominent in women, but also present in men. The other reproductive hormones are progesterone and testosterone. We all have them, they are just present in differing levels for different reasons in men and women. Progesterone and testosterone are the androgenic hormones; however, they are very important in women as well. Progesterone production is a crucial part of the menstrual cycle and necessary for the maintenance of pregnancy. For men, progesterone is the precursor of testosterone. Both men and women can become estrogen dominant, although women tend to be more susceptible. Signs of estrogen dominance include:
Estrogen dominance can increase your chances of thyroid dysfunction and estrogen dominance is present in at least 70% of people diagnosed with breast cancer. There are two ways estrogen can become dominant. The first is when there is too much estrogen, or estrogen-mimicking chemicals in the body. The second is when there is not enough progesterone in the body to balance out the estrogen. This is true for both men and women. As women age, and start to reach and pass through menopause, the body’s production of progesterone drops, as the body no longer needs progesterone for menstruation/reproduction and pregnancy. As men age, testosterone begins to decline, estrogen levels rise and progesterone falls. This can lead to some of the same symptoms women experience, in addition to increasing risk of prostate cancer.
Excess estrogen can be caused by a number of factors. I already discussed estrogen mimickers like chemicals. Research shows that weight is another factor. In premenopausal women, estrogen is mainly synthesized by the ovaries. In postmenopausal women, estrogen is synthesized by fat tissue. For postmenopausal women, being overweight increases the risk of hormone-dependent breast cancer. This occurs because the androgens we discussed earlier are converted by enzymes (aromatase) in fat tissue into estrogen. So our fat stores become generators of estrogen. Another factor in determining estrogen levels in the body is the gut.
Estrogen and the Gut
Estrogen is mainly metabolized in the liver, but we’re learning more and more about the estrobolome – the collection of bacterial genes in the gut that are capable of metabolizing estrogen. In fact, recent research looks at the estrobolome and its effect on post-menopausal, hormone dependent breast cancer risk. The bacteria in the gut can either send the estrogens (which arrive there via bile) out of the body via our stool, or send them back into circulation into the body. We want them to be sent out, not back in. In this way, the estrobolome supports the proper balancing of estrogen levels in the body. And here’s the kicker, everything we’ve talked about up to this point about gut health and the microbiome applies here as well. Anything that causes gut dysbiosis can contribute to estrogen dominance: stress, poor diet, overuse of antibiotics, and for women – birth control pills.
In many ways, this (our knowledge of the role of the estrobolome) is a good thing. By healing your gut and addressing any of the issues we’ve previously considered, you will also have a positive impact on estrogen levels. The study I just referred to found that the diversity of the gut microbiome is connected to how estrogen is handled in the gut. You can refer back to diversity and richness of the microbiome here.
No discussion on reproductive hormones would be complete if we didn’t cover testosterone as well. We tend to think of testosterone issues as only plaguing men, but this is not the case. In men, inflammation decreases testosterone, but in women, inflammation increases testosterone. When testosterone increases in women it increases the risk of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which we know increases the risk of diabetes. Improving gut health (for both men and women) can reduce inflammation in the body and the gut, and help to keep testosterone levels in balance.
Addressing Hormone Imbalance
We’ve already looked at some of the ways hormones can become imbalanced. Let’s take a look at some steps you can take to bring that back into balance.
- Limit exposure to endocrine disruptors and xenoestrogens; the chemicals that mimic hormones in the body. If this is an area where you can make a lot of change, you will notice improvements when you eliminate products that are contributing to hormone imbalance.
- Support the microbiome and balance blood sugar by avoiding processed foods, added sugar and artificial sweeteners; eat cruciferous vegetables regularly (read more about cruciferous vegetables and the thyroid here); get at least 35 grams of fiber daily (if you are nowhere near that, increase slowly); and add in fermented foods, probiotics (so long as you are not dealing with SIBO) and prebiotic foods.
- Support the liver by eliminating or minimizing alcohol intake, minimizing use of acetaminophen (has been linked to liver damage and is found in many other drugs), maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet (which you’ll be doing to support gut health anyways).
- Get regular, daily exercise, which also supports the liver, helps to maintain a healthy weight and reduce stress levels. Chronic stress can also wreak havoc on hormone levels.
- Stay hydrated with clean, filtered water. When you are dehydrated, your organs of elimination cannot do their job of eliminating what is sent to them. If you are not adequately hydrated, the toxins or excess hormones get put back into circulation and all your hard work will not pay off.
- Don’t use hormonal drugs without first being tested for your hormone levels. Hormones are not an area that you should guess about. I’ve had DUTCH testing done recently to know where I stand with my estrogens, testosterone, progesterone and cortisol levels. I am proud to say that I have been successful in balancing them out pretty darn well. My last step is to work on my phase 2 detox pathway, to increase my body’s ability to metabolize these products more efficiently for elimination.
Keep in mind that it’s not only post-menopausal women who are using hormonal drugs. Birth control pills are hormones. Although they may relieve PMS symptoms, like all drugs, they have side effects. I encourage you to work with a doctor who understands hormone imbalance and approaches your individual situation in a way that looks at diet and lifestyle first, and drugs as a last resort.
Yours in Wellness,