Estrogen is one of two female sex hormones made primarily in the ovaries. The other female sex hormone is called progesterone. These two hormones are responsible for healthy growth of the female body as well as secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts, body hair, and a normal menstrual cycle. Estrogen also helps create an optimal environment for fertilization and development of an embryo.
Estrogen is great when it is in balance with the other hormones and working properly. The problem is that it can get out of balance, leading to all sorts of health problems. Estrogen imbalance doesn’t always mean there is too much estrogen, it depends whether or not it is too high or too low compared with other hormones (mostly progesterone). The condition that occurs when estrogen that is too high in comparison is referred to as estrogen dominance. Luckily, there is a lot you can do to help rebalance estrogen and normalize your levels.
Causes of high estrogen
Although estrogen is primarily a female hormone, men do have estrogen as well and it can also get out of balance. For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on female estrogen dominance, which is more common.
Causes of estrogen imbalance include:
- Hormone-altering medications, such as birth control and hormone replacement therapy
- Certain antibiotics
- Tumors in the ovaries
- Liver disease or dysfunction
- Herbal remedies
- Phenothiazines, a class of medications for mental health disorders
- Excessive stress
- Poor gut health
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
As you can see, there are many causes of high estrogen, mostly related to medications and poor liver function. These causes will be important in helping rebalance estrogen back to normal levels.
Symptoms of high estrogen
Here are a few of the common symptoms of high estrogen:
- Unexplained weight gain
- Digestive issues
- Uterine fibroids
- Irregular periods
- Abnormal sex drive
- Swollen, tender breasts
- Mood swings, depression, anxiety
- Hair loss
- Brain fog
- Fatigue and lack of energy
Estrogen dominance is also linked to increased risk of thyroid disorder, autoimmune disorders, blood clots, and estrogen-related cancer, such as breast cancer.
Estrogen, the liver, & digestion
The liver and digestive system are the two organs that can help normalize estrogen levels. The liver is the primary detoxification site of the body. In order for the liver to clear out extra estrogen, it must be able to detoxify properly. When the liver is not working well, either because it is sluggish, fatty liver, or liver disease it can’t get rid of extra estrogen. Medications, alcohol, drugs, a poor diet, and environmental toxins can all impact the liver’s ability to detoxify.
The liver has a two-step detoxification process. In phase I, the liver turns excess hormones into free radicals, toxic substances that can cause even more damage. During phase II these free radicals are converted into inert water-soluble compounds and excreted via the urine or feces. Therefore, when either of these phases are not working properly, they can contribute to estrogen dominance or the development of disease. In addition, if you are not moving your bowels daily the estrogen can get recycled back into your system.
The liver also produces bile used to digest fat. Some estrogen is eliminated through the production of bile. When bile enters the digestive system, it gets trapped by dietary fiber, pulling out extra estrogen along with the bile. Therefore, one of the dietary recommendations to lower estrogen levels is to eat more fiber.
How to rebalance estrogen
If you think you have estrogen dominance, there is a lot you can do to rebalance your estrogen. The first is to eat a high fiber diet. Aim to eat at least 25-35 grams of fiber per day, primarily from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds (there are some great food journaling apps that can help you with this; my favorite is Nutritionix). Eating adequate fiber will help estrogen move into the digestive tract and be eliminated from the body. When you do increase your fiber, be sure to also increase your water intake to help move the fiber along.
The second step is to adopt an estrogen-friendly diet. You can read more about diet and estrogen in this previous post, including how soy impacts estrogen levels. The bottom line is to eat a real, whole food-based diet high in cruciferous vegetables and omega-3 fats.
You can also support your natural liver detoxification pathways with your diet. You can do so by avoiding substances that are toxic to the liver, such as drugs and alcohol. Alcohol is a liver toxin and also increases estrogen levels.
Foods to rebalance estrogen
Your liver needs the proper nutrients to use as raw materials necessary for detoxification. These foods include:
- Cruciferous vegetables: Brussel sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower
- Foods high in B-vitamins, such as red meat and green leafy vegetables
- Sulfur-rich foods: garlic, eggs, onions
- Foods high in choline, such as eggs
- High-antioxidant spices: turmeric and ginger
- Foods high antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins C, E, and A
- Detoxifying teas: dandelion, burdock, green, nettle leaf tea
- Organic liver: provides supportive nutrients to support your own liver
You also want to address and treat any underlying condition that might be causing the estrogen dominance. PCOS, pre-diabetes, thyroid disorder, and other hormonal diseases can all throw off estrogen metabolism. Gut health plays a major role in estrogen balance, so you want to address any underlying digestive problems as well.
Lifestyle factors that impact estrogen
Estrogen can be impacted by environmental toxins and chemicals called endocrine (hormone) disrupters. Beauty and homecare products can be a major source of these types of chemicals that can throw off estrogen levels. BPA and phthalates are the two biggest well-known hormone disruptors, so be sure check labels closely for those. The Environmental Working Group is an excellent resource if you want to know more about potential endocrine disruptors in your household and beauty products.
Finally, take a look at other lifestyle factors that might be impacting your estrogen balance. Stress is a major factor that we tend to ignore. Regular exercise, spending time in nature, and meditation can all help with stress management. Adequate sleep also plays a huge role in balancing hormone levels. Try to get at least 8 hours of quality sleep per night.
Rebalancing hormones may take a bit of time, but there is a lot you can do to take control of your hormones and your health.