Estrogen plays a vital role in reproductive development. However, if estrogen overload occurs through hormone therapy or the birth control pill, there are risks.
Hormones, the chemical messengers of the body’s endocrine system, work together in harmony to regulate many processes, from body temperature and blood pressure to governing sexual desire and fertility. We may not often think about having proper hormonal balance, yet it is essential for good health.
Women’s physical and emotional well-being depends largely on estrogen, a group of hormones our bodies produce naturally. In women, estrogen is produced primarily by the ovaries and to a lesser extent by the adrenal glands and in the fat cells.
Estrogens play an important role in sexual and reproductive development. They are also essential for the health of our heart, blood vessels, bones, breasts, skin, hair, brain, and urinary tract. During puberty, estrogen levels rise, bringing on the menstrual cycle and initiating the growth of pubic and underarm hair.
Aside from the estrogen our bodies produce, people today are exposed to estrogen-like compounds from drugs, the environment, and even food. This estrogen overload has serious consequences for the health of women today.
Replacement Therapy–End of an Era
Since the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s and the promotion of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopause, estrogen has been touted as a panacea for contraception; to prevent the effects of aging; and to ward off osteoporosis, heart disease, memory loss, low libido, depression, and a host of female health concerns.
The HRT panacea ended in July 2002 when one of the largest studies conducted on the benefits and risks of replacing hormones, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), was halted prematurely due to serious health risks.
Researchers found that use of estrogen plus progestin increased the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots, and urinary incontinence. Women taking HRT were 24 percent more likely to develop cancer of any kind compared to those taking placebo.
In addition, the WHI Memory Study showed that estrogen plus progestin doubled the risk for developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, in postmenopausal women age 65 and older.
The WHI Estrogen-Alone Study was stopped in February 2004 when the researchers concluded that estrogen alone increased the risk of stroke, blood clots, and urinary incontinence.
Another large epidemiologic study, called the Million Women Study, has reported increased risks of breast and ovarian cancer with estrogen replacement therapy in menopausal women.
Due to the mounting health concerns associated with HRT, use of these hormones has dropped significantly over the past few years. It appears that the reduced use of HRT has already had a positive impact on breast cancer rates. In 2003 the US reported the largest single yearly decline in the incidence of estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer among women aged 50 to 69.
The Pill and Its Price
The oral contraceptive (“the pill”) is a serious contributor to estrogen overload. The pill contains synthetic estrogens and progestins in varying amounts prescribed not only for contraception but for the treatment of acne, premenstrual syndrome, and perimenopause.
The pills used today contain much lower amounts of hormones compared to those used in the 1960s; however, they still provide about four times the estrogen level that a woman’s body would naturally produce.
While the pill is highly effective for contraception, its use may come with a price. Side effects of the pill include weight gain, migraine headaches, decreased libido, breast swelling and tenderness, nausea, vomiting, vaginal dryness, spotting, skin rashes, and depression.
Some of the less common but most serious concerns with the use of oral contraceptives include blood clots; increased risk of stroke; ischemic heart disease; and breast, cervical, and liver cancer.
Even if you don’t take oral contraceptives or HRT, you could be getting hormones in the form of xenoestrogens, estrogen-like compounds present in pesticides, foods, and plastics. For a list of environmental estrogens, see our web exclusive at alive.com.
These chemicals are structurally similar to estrogen, so they can bind to estrogen receptors in our body and mimic, block, or interfere with our hormones, leading to both physical and emotional symptoms, including heavy periods, fibroids, ovarian cysts, infertility, insomnia, irritability, and fatigue.
Food and Hormones
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, sex hormones are used in beef cattle in the form of slow-release implants to improve feed efficiency and growth.
Hormone implants contain any or all of the following: the natural hormones estradiol and progesterone or the synthetic hormones zeranol and trenbolone. A monitoring program is in place to test for these synthetic hormones, and the maximum allowable amount for zeranol and trenbolone is two parts per billion each, as established by Health Canada.
Neither growth hormones nor sex hormones are used in dairy cows in Canada. In the US bovine growth hormone is used in dairy cattle; however, this is not approved in Canada due to health risks to the animals.
Our fish supply offers another source of estrogenlike compounds in our diet. Several reports in both Canada and the US have revealed that salmon are contaminated with PCBs, dioxins, and the pesticide dieldrin.
The amount of these estrogenic compounds is highest in farmed salmon; however, even wild salmon contain some toxins. While Health Canada has not recommended restricting consumption of farmed salmon, other health agencies, such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, have issued warnings.
Once we start thinking about and recognizing the many sources of estrogens, we can take steps to ensure better hormonal balance–and better health.
Reducing Your Estrogen Load
There are many things that women can do to help reduce exposure to estrogens.
- Eat organically produced food as much as possible. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower) contain compounds that aid in the removal of harmful estrogens.
- Choose hormone-free meat and wild fish (not farmed).
- Wash fresh produce under running water and wipe dry to help remove any surface pesticide residues as well as dirt or bacteria.
- Don’t use pesticides on your lawn, homes, or on your gardens. Look for natural alternatives.
- Never burn wood that has been treated or painted, since burning materials that contain PCBs can create dioxins and furans.
- Minimize your use of plastics and never microwave or put hot liquids in plastic products. Use glass, stainless steel, or ceramic dishes.
- Boost your intake of fibre (through organic whole grains, vegetables, and fruits) or take a fibre supplement. Fibre aids in the removal of toxins.
- Drink plenty of purified water.
- Reduce your stress. Chronic stress can lead to adrenal exhaustion, which can impact hormonal balance.
- Regular exercise promotes good hormone balance. Aim for one hour of moderate-intensity activity every day.
- For birth control, use the rhythm method (avoiding intercourse during ovulation) and condoms, which also protect against STDs. (See page 62 for more on birth control.)
- Take care of your liver–it is your key detoxifying organ and is also responsible for producing cholesterol, which is the starting material for all sex hormones. Minimize alcohol and drug use, including acetaminophen, as all are hard on the liver.
- Consider supplements that aid detoxification of estrogens such as indole-3 carbinol, calcium D-glucarate, curcumin, milk thistle, and green tea.