Estrogen plays an understated but important role in our overall health. Thanks to this hormone, women develop certain female characteristics (hello, natural curves), have better sex lives, and have bodies naturally prepared for pregnancy. Estrogen also helps keep skin collagen-rich (or, as the glossies say, youthful), regulates cholesterol and blood sugar level, and helps your blood circulate properly.
But what happens if our bodies suddenly find themselves with too much of the hormone?
It’s natural for estrogen levels to fluctuate throughout your monthly cycle and your life, but having too much estrogen for a sustained period of time can cause problems and create ripple effects through other areas of your health.
The Common Causes of Excess Estrogen
Identifying the root of excess estrogen can be tricky. When you are at peak wellness, your body naturally shines at keeping everything in balance. But anything from lifestyle changes to health issues to psychological factors (we’re looking at you, stress) can hamper its ability to maintain hormonal harmony.
When it comes to estrogen, possible causes of an overabundance include:
Overproduction of estrogen: Sometimes, your body just produces too much of the hormone. This usually happens as a result of having too much fat tissue, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, or other factors.
Medication: High-dose contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy can increase your level of estrogen.
Changes in how estrogen is metabolized and excreted: Your liver is central to maintaining hormone balance, particularly because of the role it plays in ridding your body of old or excess hormones. But liver problems or drinking too much alcohol can affect the way your body metabolizes and eliminates surplus hormones from the body. When the body isn’t properly breaking down and eliminating estrogen, it can mess with the delicate balance.
Low progesterone levels: Estrogen works with another hormone called progesterone to support a healthy menstrual cycle and prevent the lining of the uterus from getting too thick. When healthy, these two hormones exist together in a delicate balance. But If your estrogen levels are normal but your body isn’t producing enough progesterone, estrogen dominance (also called unopposed estrogen) can occur and has the same effect on the body as having too much of the hormone.
Exposure to environmental chemicals: Synthetic xenoestrogens are a type of hormone disruptor that have similar effects to estrogen in the body and can therefore increase your estrogen levels. They can be found in certain pesticides, plastics, cleaning products, and skincare that contains phthalates, parabens, and benzophenone.
How Too Much Estrogen Can Affect Your Body
Excess estrogen can have an impact on nearly every area of your health. Some of the most common symptoms of having too much of this hormone are:
Irregular and/or heavy periods
Irritability and mood swings
Dense breast tissue or breast cysts
Low sex drive
High levels of estrogen are also associated with certain conditions, including endometriosis, breast and ovarian cancer, insulin resistance, and thyroid disorder, among others.
Phytoestrogens: Friend or Foe? It’s Complicated.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds found in a variety of foods, most famously soy. They get their name from the fact that their chemical structure looks like that of the estrogen naturally produced in the body. Because they look like estrogen’s twin, phytoestrogens can mimic the workings of estrogen in the body, which can exacerbate an existing hormonal imbalance.
For many years, phytoestrogens were associated with a myriad of health benefits, including a lowered risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, and menopausal symptoms.
But in 2008, a clinical case report from physicians at SUNY Downstate Medical Center found that a high-soy diet may have been associated with the development of several reproductive conditions in women aged 35-56, including abnormal uterine bleeding, painful menstruation, and secondary infertility.
And, thus, widespread confusion was born: are phytoestrogens good or bad for our health?
The truth is, it depends.
For most people, a diet containing moderate amounts of phytoestrogens from foods like soy is unlikely to cause health concerns. On the other hand, the benefits of eating phytoestrogens may also be overestimated.
For other groups, phytoestrogens can have big benefits or big downsides. For older people or those with high cholesterol, upping phytoestrogen intake may help to improve bone and cardiovascular health. For those who are struggling with excess estrogen or estrogen dominance, consuming these compounds may be harmful.
How to Fix an Estrogen Imbalance
The first step in addressing excess estrogen is confirming whether you have a hormonal imbalance. The primary way to identify if your estrogen levels are higher than normal is through testing. If a hormonal imbalance is identified, you can work with your provider to find the right form of treatment and management.
Depending on the cause of your imbalance, your provider may recommend one of the following treatment options:
Lifestyle changes: Getting a moderate amount of exercise, decreasing your body fat if you are overweight, implementing stress relief techniques, eating a healthy diet rich in fiber, and limiting your alcohol intake can help to balance your estrogen levels.
Change your medication: Changing the dose of your contraception or hormone replacement therapy may help to lower estrogen levels.
Avoid xenoestrogens: Eliminate or avoid exposure to xenoestrogens by buying organic produce (to eliminate exposure to pesticides), ditching plastic productions whenever possible, using mineral sunscreen (which will always be free of benzophenone), and buying hormone-disruptor free skincare (to cut out the parabens and phthalates).
Dealing with a hormonal imbalance doesn’t have to be a permanent struggle. Once you understand how to identify and address excess estrogen, you can rebalance your hormones, get control of your health, and watch some of those less pleasant symptoms of excess estrogen clear right up.