What do PMS, man boobs, middle age “spread” and certain hormonal cancers have in common? Estrogen levels. Why am I writing a post all about it? Last October, while attending a fitness class in Newry. At 6am! Lorraine (the coach) and I were talking about losing body fat and Charles Poliquin’s biosignature testing, and a supplement called DIM came up. As soon as I arrived home, I sat down at my desk and googled DIM to find out more and this blog post was started.
Why so keen? Relevant to our conversation, DIM is said to help women (like me) who hold body fat on their legs and arms, lose fat from these areas. What I found was all about estrogen metabolism and how the metabolism of this hormone relates to women's health.
Most pertinent for me was it’s connection to hormonal cancers influenced by excessive estrogen levels, such as breast, uterine and prostate cancer. I have a large instance of cancer in my family, my mother, father and some of my aunties and uncles have all had cancer at one point in their lives. So incorporating optimising hormones into my diet makes sense for me.
So, like most things I want to figure out and create a guideline for myself, I’m writing a blog post about it.
What is Estrogen?
Estrogen is a hormone that is produced primarily in the ovaries in women and in the testes in men. Estrogen is also produced in smaller amounts by fat cells, skin, bone and the brain in both men and women.
Estrogen circulates in our bloodstream and comes in contact with every cell in our body. But only certain target cells have receptors on their surface that bind to the estrogen, which results in certain reactions. For example, estrogen in your bloodstream binds with the receptors on your bone cells. The estrogen sends a signal inside the bone cell that makes your bone stronger.
What makes optimal Estrogen levels so important?
- Estrogen increases insulin sensitivity and is protective against diabetes. It is also growth promoting and can help women maintain bone density and muscle mass. Plus, having the right amount of estrogen improves fat loss because it decreases fat storage in the cells and can suppress appetite.
- Optimal estrogen levels are also essential for men. A small amount of estrogen is required for optimal reproductive health because estrogen keeps sperms cells from dying. High estrogen in men leads to the feminization of the body (man boobs) and increased body fat.
- For women, when estrogen levels exceed progesterone, its many frustrating symptoms kick in, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), unexplained and unfair weight gain, sore breasts, irregular menses, loss of sex drive, foggy thinking, irritability, and moodiness.
Fortunately, even though estrogen levels and overall hormone balance is different for men and women, you can optimise it in both genders with similar steps.
Limit Exposure to Environmental Xenoestrogens
Synthetic estrogens, called “xenoestrogens,” are man-made compounds that mimic estrogen if they are absorbed by your body. Avoiding chemical estrogens is the number one strategy for protecting yourself. Unfortunately, chemical estrogens are everywhere, pesticides, plastics, household cleaning products, personal care products, scented candles, and paper receipts, things we use every day. Some estrogen mimics bind to receptors and send a false signal inside the cell. Others block the natural hormone and keep it from binding to its receptor. If not metabolised properly, xenoestrogens can accumulate over time. So it takes time to excrete them.
Decreasing your chemical estrogen load is the easiest way to improve estrogen levels and metabolism because it means your body will have less to deal with. Because we cannot completely avoid contact with chemical xenoestrogens, you have to take responsibility for eliminating them from your own body and the bodies of your loved ones.
What to do:
- Avoid plastic containers, especially for food and water. Use glass jars etc and get a stainless steel water bottle and lunch box (if you take lunch to work). Use your own cloth bags when shopping instead of plastic. Use stainless steel cooking utensils (pictured).
- Avoid BPA, a petroleum-based chemical which mimics estrogen. Bisphenol A is a common component of plastic bottles and the linings of tin cans. It has been banned for use in baby bottles by the EU. Never microwave or heat food in a plastic container. Under high temperatures, BPA is most easily transferred from plastic to food. Use a plate or bowl instead.
- Say “no thanks” to receipts unless necessary. Another widespread use of BPA is in thermal paper commonly used for till/atm receipts.
- Eat organic meat and vegetables and avoid ingesting pesticides and growth hormones. Organics cost a bit more, but they’ll pay themselves back with a much better hormonal profile.
- Use natural cleaning products. Chemical cleaners contain toxins and estrogen mimicking compounds. Opt for plant-based cleaning products and laundry detergents. I love the Malones brand.
- Use natural personal care products such as moisturiser and conditioner. Parabens and phthalates are another chemical estrogens that are used in many personal care products. They contribute to excess estrogen levels. Look for DBP, DEP, DEHP, BzBP, and DMP in the ingredients; all are chemical estrogens.
- Avoid scented candles and air fresheners. I use an oil burner with pure essential oils and beeswax candles at home and in my studio.
- Use appropriate oral contraceptives and HRT (your doctor/specialist will be checking you for unbalanced levels of estrogens, and will manage your medications accordingly). Consider using a fertility monitor as contraception.
Improve Estrogen Levels and Metabolism
Now that your body is absorbing less synthetic estrogen, the next step is to support how your body handles the natural estrogen
you already have. When estrogen has completed its specific action, it is broken down (metabolised) by the liver, and then moved out of your body in urine and stool.
Like all substances metabolised in the liver, estrogen is broken down into “metabolites” through certain pathways. Estrogen can be metabolised by three different pathways in the liver, resulting in different metabolites. One is the 16-hydroxy pathway that results in metabolites responsible for many of estrogen’s undesirable actions, including excess weight gain and an increased risk of gynaecological and prostate cancers, the second produced in lesser amounts, and the third is the preferable 2-hydroxy pathway which results in beneficial, or “good,” estrogen metabolites.
Many of the benefits traditionally ascribed to estrogen (protection from heart disease, supple younger looking skin, building strong bones, and better memory) may actually reside with its beneficial metabolites. Almost 20 years ago, H. Leon Bradlow, Ph.D., a renowned breast cancer investigator, discovered that women with breast and uterine cancer made too little of the 2-hydroxy or “good” metabolite of estrogen and too much of the 16-hydroxy or “bad” variety.
This is where the previously mentioned DIM comes in. DIM stands for diindolylmethane, it is a natural plant compound found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussel’s sprouts, kale, collards, mustard greens, radishes, watercress, bok choy, kohlrabi and rutabaga.
DIM improves estrogen balance by stimulating the favourable 2-hydroxy pathway and reducing the unwanted 16-hydroxy, resulting in healthier estrogen metabolites and restored hormonal balance.
Some Benefits of these Good Metabolites:
- Having higher levels of the “good” estrogen metabolites are important in preserving the activity of the small amount of testosterone present in all women. Testosterone promotes the building of new protein. This leads to significant improvements in the ability to build muscle and prevent muscle breakdown after exercise. Part of the protein-building effect of testosterone is to gear up the cellular enzymes needed to burn fat, helping you to achieve a more active fat-burning metabolism. The accumulation of fat around the arms, belly, hips and buttocks is partly due to excess estrogen levels combined with falling testosterone levels.
- The “good” estrogen metabolites assist the specific fat-burning hormones called catecholamines that are produced during exercise to release stored fat to be used as a primary energy source.
- Preserving this activity of testosterone allows you to enjoy it’s other benefits including better mood, increased stamina, endurance and sex drive and may also help to reduce the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome such breast pain, water retention, heavy painful menstrual cycles, or irritable, anxious moods.
- The beneficial pathways help to metabolise pregnenolone sulphate, a hormone important for memory, but which causes anxiety if levels are too high.
- The “good” metabolites have important antioxidant activity exceeding the potency of Vitamin E. Antioxidants fight damage from free radicals.
Therefore, broccoli can help you achieve peak exercise efficiency, resist ageing, reduce PMS and get the most from weight loss efforts! I always wondered why fitness competitors ate endless amounts of broccoli to get lean.
Ensure Complete Elimination of Estrogen
Once you reduce your exposure to xenoestrogens, shift your estrogen elimination to the beneficial pathway, you have to make sure it is excreted from the body. Poor gastrointestinal health and liver health can inhibit this in the following ways. As estrogen is heading out of the intestines, it needs to be bound to glucuronic acid. When an enzyme, called B-glucuronidase, breaks estrogen apart from the glucuronic acid in the large intestine, it then re-enters circulation and is not removed from the body, effectively raising estrogen levels in the body. This enzyme is contained in “bad bacteria”. To avoid this, you must support the “good” bacteria in your gut by eating plenty of probiotic and prebiotic (resistant starch) food and/or taking a daily probiotic supplement.
A healthy diet with adequate dietary fibre in the form of lignans, such as flax seeds and leafy greens, can bind to estrogen in the digestive tract so that it will be excreted from the body. Dietary fibre also reduces the amount of the enzyme that uncouples estrogen on its way out of the body.
The liver plays a principal role in both fat and estrogen metabolism. It converts excess estrogen (both natural and chemical) into compounds that can be excreted by the body. The liver does this efficiently as long as you don’t overload it with compounds from alcohol, artificial sweeteners, prescription medications, painkillers, and so on.
Alcohol increases estrogen levels and decreases testosterone levels. It also increases aromatase. Alcohol is detoxified in the liver just like estrogen. Alcohol detoxification causes oxidative stress, compromising liver functioning in the long term.
You can promote liver health by eating adequate protein. The amino acids, lysine and threonine, have been shown to support liver function. Lysine and threonine are found in meat, fish, beans, eggs, and some seeds (sesame, fenugreek). Egg yolks also provide choline, which helps the liver metabolise fat for weight loss.
Decrease Body Fat and Increase Muscle Mass
Decreasing body fat and building lean mass are key. The more fat you have, the more natural estrogen you’ll have because body fat is a source of more active aromatase enzymes that converts testosterone to estrogen. Those with a higher body fat percentage will have more aromatase and therefore have higher estrogen levels and lower testosterone levels. High estrogen levels lead to weight gain, so as bodyfat increases the cycle of falling testosterone and rising estrogen picks up steam and the cycle compounds upon itself.
For men, reducing body fat is critical because aromatization of androgens into estrogens is one of the primary causes of elevated natural estrogen that men face. The hormone androstenedione will be turned into testosterone unless aromatase is present in which case it will be turned into estrogen. Then, aromatase will turn testosterone into estrogen as well.
Another way to protect the tissues from circulating estrogen is to keep it bound to sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). Flaxseed hulls are especially good at increasing SHBG.
Nutrients that have a proven effect on aromatase include vitamin D, selenium, melatonin, zinc, and citrus flavanones found in orange and grapefruit rinds along with tomato skins. Get your vitamin D level checked, consider a supplement if you live somewhere with little daily sunshine.
What to eat: fish and shellfish (selenium), green tea, citrus fruits, tomatoes (with their skins), fenugreek (a spice), beef (carnitine), tart cherries (melatonin).
Include foods with Phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that can beneficially influence estrogen synthesis and metabolism. They will take natural and chemical estrogens out of play in the body, just like SHBG. Phytoestrogens can bind to estrogen receptors, basically, take up the parking sport of the true estrogen and keep it from exerting its effect. They can increase SHBG levels, decrease aromatase, and shift metabolism of estrogen to the beneficial pathway.
Lignans and isoflavones are the main phytoestrogens. The best phytoestrogens to include in the diet are fresh soybeans, legumes, sesame, leafy greens, alfalfa, clover and liquorice root. Lignans are found in particularly high concentrations in flaxseeds.
When estrogen levels are low, as they are after menopause, isoflavones substitute for the body’s own estrogen. Adequate estrogen can possibly reduce hot flushes and may also assist in increasing bone mineral density, thus preventing osteoporosis in post-menopausal women.
Eliminate Added Sugar & Restrict Refined Carbohydrate Intake
Excess insulin in the bloodstream prompts the ovaries to secrete excess testosterone and reduces SBHG levels, thus increasing levels of free estrogen. Plus, to avoid excess body fat, you need to manage insulin, The reason is that both the glucose and fructose forms of sugar are metabolised in the liver. Eating too much of these forms of sugars causes the liver to metabolise them into fat, which has been found to shut down the release of sex hormone binding globulin (SHGB). SHGB binds to estrogen, making it unavailable to have its estrogenic impact. Lack of SHGB leads to unchecked estrogen circulation and also causes unfavourable imbalances between testosterone and estrogen.
The smart way to balance blood sugar and stabilise insulin is to eliminate sugar and other simple carbohydrates and get the majority of your carbohydrates from a variety of vegetables, legumes and whole grains and whole fruits. Favour cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and cauliflower for their DIM content and oily fish for their Omega3 fat content and healthy protein. This will provide the lignans and fibre needed for gut health.
Don’t Eat a Low Fat Diet, Make Sure You Eat Omega3 Fats
In women, estrogens are synthesised from cholesterol in the ovaries. Very low fat, low cholesterol diets lead to low hormone levels because the building blocks to make hormones are provided by dietary fat. Focus on getting a lot of omega3 fats as part of your diet. Omega3 fats, which are found in oily fish, also promote the beneficial pathway, particularly EPA omega3 fatty acids. Another benefit is that omega3 fats decrease aromatase activity.
Eat foods containing omega3 fats daily focusing on oily fish and omega3 eggs. Include small quantities ground flax seeds with the hull in your diet because they contain the omega3 fat ALA, which is another aromatase inhibitor.
Solve Nutrient Deficiencies:
The essential nutrients to help metabolise estrogen are the B vitamins, particularly B6, B12, and folic acid, zinc, omega3 fish oils, magnesium, selenium, and melatonin. Vitamin E is another potent antioxidant that aids estrogen elimination. Magnesium plays a role in muscle contractions, if you work out, have your levels checked.
Helping your body eliminate estrogen safely can help you lose excess body fat, build more lean muscle and beneficially influence estrogen balance and thus preventing estrogen related diseases and conditions. The solution is to live a lifestyle that both improves elimination of estrogen and minimises exposure to chemical estrogens. It takes time to implement everything, but once you do, it is easy to follow.
I hope you have enjoyed this article.
I am Emma McAtasney, founder of a boutique Pilates studio in Dundalk, Ireland. BASI trained Pilates instructor, BarreConcept instructor and prenatal and postnatal exercise specialist.
I developed the Body After Baby Core Restore Programme with the aim of helping women with diastasis recti and pelvic floor issues get back into shape after pregnancy!
I love working with successful, courageous women from all over the world – like yourself – to give you clear, applicable information, support you in truly creating core strength, fall in love with your strong and healthy body and focus on living your best life!
Together, let’s create a lifestyle that gives us health and happiness for a lifetime!