Understanding Estrogen

Updated: Nov 14, 2019


ESTROGEN IS ONE OF THE PRIMARY FEMALE SEX HORMONES. It plays a vital role in women’s reproductive health and is also required for other seemingly unrelated processes such as maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, bone mass density and supporting cardiovascular function. It is also involved in blood glucose metabolism and, as a result, reduced levels can impact on body fat accumulation and distribution.


Estrogen actually refers to three chemically similar hormones: estrone, estradiol and estriol. Estradiol is the most potent and the hormone produced predominantly in premonopausal women. It originates in the ovaries, although estrone, the form produced by the adrenal glands following menopause, can be converted into estradiol in certain conditions. Estradiol can also be produced by fat cells and this can be a major contributor to the pool of hormone in both men and women.


Estrogen is produced by males, although usually in much lower amounts, although it can be produced via conversion of testosterone; something that increases with higher body fat accumulation.


Estrogen production normally fluctuates throughout a woman’s life, beginning with increases during puberty and gradually reducing by the time a women transitions through menopause. Levels of estrogen can fluctuate dramatically during the years preceding menopause, known as perimenopause, and during this time women can experience very irregular cycles as well as other symptoms such as hot flushes, insomnia and anxiety that are cause by these fluctuations in estrogen. Although, we commonly hear women talk about being “in menopause”, it is actually only diagnosed after an absence of a period for 12 consecutive months. Of course, estrogen levels are also high during pregnancy, and during this time the fluctuations that normally occur over the woman’s monthly cycle are absent.


So, you’d be excused for thinking that when it comes to estrogen ‘the more the merrier right!’. Well no, too much of a good thing can cause harm and like many things in the body, it’s about balance and achieving this relies on our body functioning optimally to process and excrete estrogen.


Like many processes in the body, your liver plays a major role in the way that estrogen is processed. Many factors can impact this including nutritional deficiencies as well as genetic variations that mean the process does not work as efficiently as it should. The end result of this can be increased levels of active estrogen metabolites with some of these being less beneficial and, in fact, increasing the risk of developing hormone dependent cancers such as some breast cancer. They may also be associated with estrogen dominant conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids. Once estrogen has been metabolised by your liver, it is excreted by your bowel. This is where your gastrointestinal microbiome can support healthy estrogen excretion or cause it to be re-absorbed in its active form again, leading to an increased pool of hormone. The estrogen that is sent to your bowel combines with bile and that's when certain bacteria species can cause it to be re-activated and then absorbed back into circulation. These particular bacteria produce an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase and it is these that are able to undo the deactivation process carried out by the liver.


There are many things you can do to support liver and bowel health and to optimise the healthy metabolism and excretion of estrogen with the most important being consuming a plant-based, whole food diet. This ensures you will include plenty of fibre to support a healthy microbial diversity and reduce the activity of beta-glucuronidase. There are also particular foods that can support optimal liver detoxification processes including broccoli and all vegetables from the brassica family. These vegetables contain phytochemicals that increase estrogen metabolism to more beneficial forms with current research supporting their use in reducing breast cancer.


Along with estrogen that is produced by the body, known as ‘endogenous’ oestrogen, there are also multiple external sources that impact on both woman’s and men's estrogen pool including:· Oral Contraceptive Pill,· plastics,· cosmetics and food sources such as dairy and meat from animals (cows have hormones too!)·


Plant estrogen such as soy and linseeds can be helpful modulating estrogen dominant symptoms as well as estrogen deficient ones experienced by post menopausal women. For many years there has been a lot of confusion about whether we should be eating these foods as they may increase the risk of cancer development but the latest research recommends that consuming them as part of a whole food diet with up to 3 servings per week of soy products including tofu or tempeh are beneficial in supporting healthy estrogen These sources mimic our oestrogen but have a much weaker effect. This can be beneficial in high oestrogen states as they can dock on oestrogen receptors blocking the more potent estradiol. In low estrogen states, their effect may support healthy blood sugar metabolism, cardiovascular function, bone mass density and cholesterol.


In males, the predominant hormone is testosterone, however, with the incidence of obesity increasing, higher amounts of oestrogen are produced by men through the activity of an enzyme called aromatase that converts testosterone into oestrogen in fat cells. In fact, increased body fat leading to higher estrogen is not just limited to men with estrone, the primary hormone in post menopausal women being converted to the more metabolically active estradiol in fat cells.


One of the ways that the body tries to regulate the amount of free circulating estrogen is to bind it to a carrier known as Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (who thinks up these names!), think of SHBH as a tour bus that is taking all the party going estrogens on a trip. When they are in the bus they can’t cause any problems but once they get off who knows what will ensue. It’s the same for estrogen. Bound to SHBG it cannot exert any hormonal influence. Unfortunately, SHBG often cannot keep up with the increased demand and it is lowered in conditions where there is high insulin such as metabolic syndrome.


MY TAKE HOME MESSAGE about estrogen is that we need to be aware of the external sources of oestrogen that are influencing our total estrogen pool as well as ensuring that our body has the ability to metabolise and excrete it.


Here’s a couple of simple things you can do straight away to reduce your intake of chemicals that mimic oestrogen:


  1. reduce your usage of plastics and never heat them in microwaves.·

  2. Audit your cosmetics and any products you use on your skin or hair. There are plenty of safe alternatives on the market now.


We also need to support our body’s ability to metabolise and excrete estrogen. This starts with good nutrition to support liver detoxification pathways as well as healthy digestive function to reduce the activity of beta-glucuronidase so that oestrogen can be effectively excreted. If you would like to learn more about healthy hormones or how I can help you improve your health, please contact me or make an appointment.


Yours in Wellness,

Larissa


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