Estrogen dominance is a hormonal condition that can cause several undesirable symptoms in both men and women—and lead to serious health complications down the road if ignored.
Simply put, estrogen dominance occurs when there’s too much of the female sex hormone, estrogen, floating around in your bloodstream. But before we get into more detail about what estrogen dominance is and how it may be destroying your health, let’s take a quick look at the role of hormones in your body and why it matters to you.
How Do Your Hormones Make or Break Your Health?
The importance of hormones to your health (and how much of a specific hormone is in your body) cannot be understated. All of your hormones work together in specific ratios to perform every function in your body. Your hormones are in charge of whether you gain or lose weight by regulating your metabolism. They’re also in charge of your energy levels, digestive function, and whether or not you have mood swings once a month. In men, hormone imbalance can cause low libido and erectile dysfunction. And if you’ve ever heard of man boobs, hormones are the culprit there, too.
Struggling to lose weight? Unable to focus? Chances are, your hormones are out of whack.
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Since all of your hormones work so closely with one another to perform specific functions, when one hormone’s ratio is higher than it should be, the rest of your hormones are negatively impacted. This is when a hormone imbalance occurs and undesirable symptoms, such as unexplained weight gain, relentless bloating and stubborn acne, can result. In contrast, when your hormones are functioning optimally, you have plenty of energy, your skin stays clear and your digestive system is happy.
What is Estrogen Dominance?
As mentioned above, estrogen is a sex hormone that’s present in the female reproductive system, although men produce a small amount of estrogen, too. The primary role of estrogen is to promote growth and development. Estrogen is also the hormone that gives females their unique characteristics, such as a menstrual cycle and breasts. Estrogen works with the hormone progesterone to promote fertility (1).
Estrogen and progesterone are needed in a delicate balance to perform their functions efficiently. So, when estrogen levels become too high, the balance of progesterone is also disrupted—and that’s when estrogen dominance results.
What Causes Estrogen Dominance?
Estrogen dominance is becoming an increasingly common health condition. This is because we’re constantly being exposed to estrogen in our food supply and in our environment. Estrogen is present in the environmental toxins that we breathe through the air each day, as well as in the toxins found in household products such as cleaning supplies and cosmetics. Estrogen is also found in plastic containers and water bottles. Any type of estrogen found in our environment (that isn’t from a food source) can be classified as a xenoestrogen, which mimics estrogen in the body. This means that when we drink out of plastic water bottles, or apply chemical-laden cosmetics to our skin, we’re absorbing the xenoestrogens from these substances into our bloodstream (2).
Another source of estrogen that we’re exposed to in our environment is pharmaceutical drugs, such as the birth control pill. Even if you don’t personally take oral contraceptives, many pharmaceuticals are flushed down the toilet and can end up in our water supply. Therefore, tap water is another potential source of estrogen in your diet. It’s said that estrogen has only found it’s way into our tap water in the past decade (3).
Specific foods also contain estrogen, which are known as phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogenic foods include soy (such as soy milk, soy protein, edamame, soy sauce, tofu and tempeh), as well as beans and lentils.
Factory farmed animal products are another common source of estrogen in our diet. This is because factory farmed animals are given estrogen-containing growth hormones to help them grow abnormally fast and larger. And you guessed it—when we consume these animal products, we’re also ingesting the growth hormones they’ve been injected with. Factory farmed animals include fish, chicken, beef, turkey and eggs. Dairy products produced from any animal injected with growth hormones will also contain estrogen.
As you can see, estrogen comes at us from all directions each day. And the more estrogen we absorb from our environment, the higher our estrogen levels become (4). Since no one is exempt from breathing in environmental toxins, and most of us come into contact with plastic in some way each day, it’s impossible to avoid estrogen altogether. This explains why both men and women aren’t exempt from experiencing estrogen dominance.
A Note on Progesterone
Based on the close relationship between estrogen and progesterone, it should be noted that low progesterone levels can also cause estrogen dominance. By this, I mean that even if your estrogen levels are at optimal levels, you can still experience estrogen dominance if your progesterone levels are too low. For this reason, it’s also important to understand what causes low progesterone levels in order to determine if low progesterone could also be the reason for your symptoms.
Low progesterone levels are commonly seen in those who experience chronic stress, are exposed to estrogen on a regular basis, and have a diet lacking in essential nutrients. The best way to determine which hormone(s) are affecting your body is by getting your hormones tested by a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Common Symptoms of Estrogen Dominance
Although any type of hormone imbalance is dangerous to your health, estrogen dominance is particularly troublesome—and is now more common than ever. As the hormone that promotes growth, estrogen dominance can encourage the development of reproductive cancers, such as breast cancer (5). Estrogen dominance can also be a contributing factor to conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), ovarian cysts and female cancers. As mentioned above, excess estrogen upsets the progesterone balance, which can also cause infertility.
While serious long-term complications can result from estrogen dominance, there are other signs and symptoms of estrogen dominance that often show up first. The most common hormonal symptoms of excess estrogen can also be the most stubborn to get rid of.
Acne is one of the most common complaints of estrogen dominance, specifically the hard cystic bumps that set up camp on your jawline and on your chin. How estrogen dominance can cause acne is a bit of a science lesson and still requires more research. But what studies suggest so far is that high levels of estrogen can spike your androgen levels, which are a male sex hormone. It’s suggested this is because estrogen is synthesized from androgens (6). High androgen levels can cause acne because they signal to your body to increase sebum production (7). When your body produces excess sebum (oil), your pores can clog, which leaves you with acne as a result (8).
Bloating and Cramping
Digestive symptoms such as bloating and abdominal cramping can also stem from estrogen dominance. Although the exact mechanism is unclear, studies suggest that imbalanced progesterone and estrogen levels may contribute to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms if they typically occur within a week of- ahem- Aunt Flocoming to town (men, this doesn’t apply to you) (9).
Several online resources list midsection weight gain, fatigue, low libido and painful periods as additional symptoms of estrogen dominance. However, more fact based research is needed to explain exactly how excess estrogen can cause these symptoms.
5 Ways to Reduce Symptoms of Estrogen Dominance
While the symptoms of estrogen dominance can be stubborn to eliminate, the good news is that the root cause of estrogen dominance (which is having too much estrogen in your blood stream or low levels of progesterone) can be managed by making specific lifestyle and dietary changes. Here are 5 ways to begin reducing and eliminating symptoms of estrogen dominance that anyone looking to improve their overall health can benefit from.
1. Eat a Paleo Diet (and Choose Organic Animal Products)
As you may already know, a Paleo diet is void of the top phytoestrogenic foods: beans, lentils, soy products and low-grade dairy products. By leaving these foods out of your diet, you’ll help reduce your overall estrogen exposure and promote hormone balance.
Since a Paleo diet incorporates animal products such as chicken, fish, beef, turkey and eggs, I recommend always choosing organic, grass-fed animal products and wild caught fish wherever possible to avoid absorbing the growth hormones that can contribute to estrogen dominance.
2. Replace Plastic Containers with Glass or Stainless Steel
Since plastic contains the xenoestrogen chemical bisphenol A (BPA), it’s best to use a non-toxic alternative to plastic wherever possible (10). When food or water is stored in a plastic container, the BPA has the ability to leech into your food or water, which is then directly absorbed into your bloodstream. For this reason, replacing plastic with glass or stainless steel containers will help reduce your estrogen exposure.
3. Eat Liver Supportive Foods Each Day
Your liver is responsible for helping to remove all of the excess estrogen from your body. And while your body certainly has a detoxification system in place to deal with the excess estrogen, your liver is also in charge of hundreds of other functions and can become overburdened. For this reason, your liver can use all the support it can get to do its jobs more efficiently through certain liver-supportive foods.
The foods that help your liver detoxify more efficiently include dark leafy greens such as kale, Swiss chard, arugula, and dandelion (the more bitter, the better), herbs such as cilantro, garlic, omega-3 essential fatty acids from fish oil, avocado, and in particular, vegetables from the brassica family such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts (11).
4. Drink Plenty of Filtered Water
Now that you know tap water can be a potential source of estrogen, it’s important to prioritize drinking filtered water to avoid absorbing excess estrogen. Water is also required by the body (alongside fiber from fresh fruits and vegetables) to help promote detoxification and elimination of toxins, such as excess estrogen. This is why drinking an adequate amount of filtered water each day can help promote hormone balance.
The amount of water you should be drinking each day depends on your unique body composition, activity level and the type of climate you live in. A general equation to determine how much water you need each day is:
Your body weight in pounds / 2 = the amount of water you should be drinking in ounces.
For example, if you weigh 140 pounds, the average amount of water you should be drinking each day is 70 oz. An additional glass of water should be added for each dehydrating beverage consumed, such as alcohol or bulletproof coffee.
5. Prioritize Managing Your Stress Levels
Stress is a factor that can upset your entire endocrine system, which governs all of your hormones. This is because whenever you encounter a stressful situation, your body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. If you’re under prolonged periods of stress, your body will constantly be releasing these hormones, which may create an imbalance with the rest of your hormones over time (12)(13).
That being said, in addition to making dietary changes, stress management must be prioritized in order to help prevent and manage the symptoms of estrogen dominance.
A few simple ways to manage your stress that can make a big difference include gentle exercise such as yoga, taking time for creativity and the activities you enjoy, getting outdoors and adopting a regular meditation practice (even if it’s only for 5 minutes each day).
Estrogen dominance is a common condition that anyone, at any age, can experience. But when you address the early signs of estrogen dominance by making appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes, you can efficiently help clear up the symptoms such as digestive disorders, acne and low energy that reduce your overall quality of life. By managing symptoms of estrogen dominance, you’ll also reduce your risk of life-threatening conditions caused by excess estrogen, such as breast cancer.