Are we the estrogen generation?! How and why this is NOT what we want...
This article is a look at a very modern phenomenon: Estrogen Dominance: which is affecting both men and women and having a number of knock on effects, particularly when it comes to our ability to have healthy kids. We look at what the science argues are the most common causes and most importantly what you can do to counteract each one of these.
When I first sat down with one of Better Babies expert advisors Harley Street gynaecologist and obstetrician Mahantesh Karoshi he told me that one of the biggest trends he has seen develop and emerge over his multi decade career affecting women, men and fertility is estrogen dominance.
Even more interesting? I would bet good money that you’ve noticed it yourself without even realising…
Twenty years ago if you’d said the word ‘Moobs’ no one would know what you meant. Roll forward to today and we all know exactly what that means and see it regularly on the beach!
Question is: where does it come from and why does this matter?
Estrogen is usually seen as a woman’s hormone (despite the fact that men have it too albeit it in lower quantity) but, its rise through society is impacting both men and women. In fact it is is one of the reasons being linked to the enormous fall in sperm count (more than 50%!), motility and quality that has happened over the last forty years. It is certainly the reason behind the growth in the man boob or Moob. Men are even now getting surgery and puberty is coming on earlier than ever before.
So, what on earth is going on?!
To understand what is happening here and how important this is, we need to look at what is driving this, how, signs you may be impacted and ultimately why this is something we really don't want. Especially when it comes to having a healthy conception, pregnancy and baby.
Taking a step back - hormones are one of the most important aspects of human health. They are the body’s signalling devices and they are fundamental to everything. Not just to reproduction.
Normally there is no better regulator of this than our own body. Think of your body as the world’s most advanced biocomputer constantly adjusting to keep in optimal balance. The problem is that nowadays we throw so much at it that it is struggling and imbalances are occurring.
The problem with Estrogen Dominance:
Hormonal imbalance has more knock on effects than we can probably appreciate and certainly more than there is space to write an article on. If you want to understand think about the Butterfly Effect - knock one thing off and it has a ripple effect. Particularly for the thyroid hormones.
However, the most obvious and immediate issue when you have too much estrogen are things like: heavy periods, PMS, endometriosis for women, fibroids, cysts, low libido, irregular periods, headaches, weight gain and infertility. For men: obviously you have your Moobs, mood/energy levels and ultimately issues with sperm count, motility, libido and sexual function.
Causes: and why it is so much worse in our modern era:
So why has there been such a rise that is apparently dominating our society and causing issues with conceiving and having healthy babies? The best way to look at it in two parts. The external forces from our environment and the internal forces within our own bodies.
Starting with the external/environmental factors:
There are several terms for these external estrogen-like or mimicking hormones: xenoestrogen is one you may have heard of. Or in plant form: phytoestrogen. Anyway, the point is - they are now everywhere - take a look at the list below and you will start to understand why we have such a problem...
FOOD: We have many issues when it comes to modern farming techniques but when it comes to hormones and hormonal balance the issue we have is that a lot of our animal related produce is now pumped with artificial growth hormones, steroids to fatten up cattle and artificial hormones to maximise milk production. This is not without effect. In fact one study reported that ‘diet is the most important human exposure route to estrogens’ (1) with the main source of animal-derived estrogens (60-70%) in the human diet being milk and dairy products (1)
Best Remedy: when eating animal products: milk, meat, eggs prioritise organic. The pushback of course is cost and availability which are both fair points. However consider it this way, it is better to eat less of better quality than more that will disrupt your body and cost you more in the long term.
It is not just animal products however. We are also being trapped somewhat by ‘healthy trends’. ‘Free from’, ‘vegan’ etc where various ingredients are substituted for soy based products. These are known as Phytoestrogens: which are compounds found in certain plants that mimic estrogen:
‘Plant isoflavonoids especially in Soybean products or other legumes are converted by intestinal bacteria to hormone-like compounds with estrogenic activity.’ (1)
I love nut milk but it is a major culprit. The trouble is that many manufacturers use Soy as a bulking agent in ‘milks’ labelled as from another nut. Click here for more and how to avoid this. Try and keep soy intake in check.
PESTICIDES: There are many problems with the extensive use of pesticides - click here for much more. However, one of the issues is the disruption of hormones. If you want to really understand it (in brief) all you need to do is look at the feminised frog study which looked at the effect of a particular Pesticide (Atrazine which luckily is banned in Europe but still used in other parts of the world) and what it did to the frogs in the pond that it leached into. In a nutshell: it started to switch Male frogs in to female. Now, before you say - ok well that pesticide has been banned - alas it is not that simple….
‘Many chemicals that have been identified as endocrine disruptors are pesticides. About 105 substances can be listed...of these, 46% are insecticides, 21% are herbicides and 31% are fungicides.’ The reality is that worldwide consumption of pesticides for agricultural use is constantly increasing, rising from 0.49kg/ha in 1961 to 2kg/ha in 2004’ (2).
To understand exactly the science of how they work on hormones click here. In a nutshell they work generally speaking by imitating or disrupting existing hormones (3). Boys watch out. Based on epidemiological studies since 2000, the study concluded that pesticide exposure may affect spermatogenesis leading to poor semen quality and reduced Male fertility.’ (2)
For those that argue they are only in small quantities. The problem is the frequency. In fact, the individual residues are usually present in low concentrations, mostly below their individual maximum residue levels, but they have been shown to act additively. Leading to the conclusion that most pesticides tested even at low concentrations elicit estrogen is effects. (3)
Best remedy: Three things. Firstly of course if you can buy organic that's great. However, it is not always available and it is expensive so secondly prioritise. The Environmental Working Group’s updates lists: Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen will help you pick what you need to spend on and what you can save on. Finally - back to our old friend Activated Charcoal. Wash your non organic produce in this to eliminate some of the excess residue.
WATER: Unfortunately pesticides (above) and the modern day wonder the birth control pill amongst other things has inevitably made their way into our water supply over time.
Best remedy: water filtration wherever you can. Even if it is just an at home basic water filter it is better than nothing. Interestingly enough most of the water filtration cartridges are based around our friend Activated Charcoal - as if we need any more reason to love it!
PLASTIC: On the subject of water (and what we drink it from) plastics are another major culprit. BPA is a known endocrine disruptor and specifically an estrogen mimicking hormone. Click here to read much more. The unfortunate reality is that it is everywhere and there is more BPA produced annually than any other chemical! Watch out for plastic bottles, food packaging, toys, canned food and beverages in particular. In fact 93% of the US population is said to have measurable amounts of BPA in their urine.
Best remedy: avoid at all costs drinking or eating food from plastic containers and whatever you do, do not reuse/refill or heat up as these have all been shown to cause more of the concerning factors to seep in to what we are eating and drinking. Use glass wherever you can. It's also better for the environment.
BEAUTY AND PERSONAL CARE: this is unfortunately a minefield as it is also so unregulated. Not to mention the fact that we all use them. In fact a study conducted by the EWG showed that on average we use 9 products with 25% of women using as many as 15 and several times a day! Click here for much more, but the main thing to watch out here is Phthalates. To keep it simple think anything with an added fragrance. Even if it is labelled ‘natural’ which usually means very little. If in doubt go fragrance free. They have been linked to Endometriosis. Watch out particularly for DBP and DEP.
Best remedy: first and foremost go for as few ingredients as you can. Be wary of claims like ‘natural’ and absolutely avoid added fragrance. You smell sweet enough! Click here for the quick ‘loo break version’ of cosmetic and personal care dos and don'ts.
ALCOHOL: unfortunately in excess this has an effect. Sorry! In fact, I learnt that alarmingly a glass of red wine contains 0.5-2 ug of estrogen equivalents. The other issue (more to come below) is that if the liver is busy detoxing alcohol from the body it is less able to break down estrogen in the body in an appropriate manner and excrete excess. It also has an effect on the gut (again more to come). In fact: ‘daily alcohol consumption increases serum estrogen levels.’ (4)
Best remedy: it's very simple. Moderation.
Now: on to the issues within your body that can be causing problems:
There is nothing better than your own body at regulating things as they should be. The trouble is that factors like those described above amongst many others have begun to erode our body’s ability to do this important job. Here are some that are associated with this issue of estrogen dominance:
WEIGHT: it has become very un-PC to talk about the problems associated with being overweight and obese, however, they have some very real health consequences. When it comes to estrogen in particular, it is a real problem.
Fat or ‘Adipose’ tissue in the body plays a very real role when it comes to estrogen. ‘Adiposity (fat) has been associated with higher circulating estrogen levels. Approximately 35% of the adult world population is either overweight (BMI > 25-30kg/m) or obese (BMI > 30kg/m), with a rising incidence’ (4).
It does this in many ways. Estrogen gets stored in fat and it also appears to play a role converting testosterone to estrogen. Not good for the guys out there as lower levels of testosterone have been associated with sperm issues:
‘A study of obese males showed that body mass index had a negative correlation with the concentration of testosterone and a positive correlation with Estradiol’. (5)
Best remedy: There are many reasons to keep focus on a healthy BMI and not just when it comes to a health conception, pregnancy etc. This is yet another. It plays a very real role in hormonal balance and fertility.
THE LIVER: the organ of detox. In very simple terms, our livers generally have to deal with a lot more load these days (see above for that!). This means that it often has to prioritise what is really important and other normal functions can get pushed down the pecking order. That includes processing excess hormones.
The reality is this process is quite complex - but in basic form - the liver needs to process excess estrogen in to a form which the body can then excrete it (methylation). Once this has happened it can be passed out of the body in normal way. If this doesn't happen - it can get reabsorbed. That’s when we get more of the hormone than we need circulating in our systems.
Why would it not happen?
Well - excess toxins are one obvious reason. The other is not enough of the right nutrients. Here are two important ones to be aware of that can support the body’s ability to excrete it appropriately:
Indol-3-Carbinol: sounds complicated! However, it is something that is found in cruciferous vegetables: think broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, sprouts etc. It is known as a phytonutrient. Essentially it stimulates enzymes to promote metabolism of estrogens in to milder forms. Obviously when you don't have enough - you can have a problem and ultimately that can mean too much remaining in your body. (7)
Glutathione: another one of my favourites. This powerful antioxidant (click here for more as to why you need this in your life) plays a role in allowing the proper excretion of estrogen. ‘Glutathione conjugation is the process in which Glutathione is added to estrogen for easy excretion’. (7). Foods such as avocado, walnuts and asparagus are rich in Glutathione and Vitamin C stimulates the body to produce more of it. The trouble with alcohol and other toxins is that they compete for Glutathione and when you’re out you’re out and it is used up. That means less available to allow for excretion of excess estrogen and more reabsorbed into the body.
Best remedy: once again, although the above can seem complex it is actually pretty simple. Avoid toxic exposure that can burden your liver. That includes fatty processed foods, preservatives and additives, pesticides and herbicides. Eat more cruciferous vegetables and support your body’s own production of Glutathione. Click here for more on this. Finally - drink lots of water to help your body’s elimination functions!
THE GUT: is there no end to the power of this organ?! The trouble is that our modern lifestyles, diets etc are causing big imbalance in the gut bacteria within - this is known as gut dysbiosis. Click here for much more - but in a nutshell science as it stands suggests that we need to aim for a diverse mix of bacteria without imbalance. An imbalance can have a knock on effect to many things - but in this case it can really impact our hormones.
‘Experimental evidence for a central role of gut bacteria in estrogen metabolism was noted decades ago’. In fact when bacteria was introduced in to the gut’s of germ free mice it had a dramatic effect on the estrogen cycle in females and sperm counts in males’. With diversity being crucial. (4)
When it comes to estrogen specifically it is also linked to the liver and our body’s ability to eliminate excess. Research has found that there are many bacteria in the gut that impact whether or not estrogen is metabolised/reabsorbed by the body. In fact research has shown that there is more chance of bacterial action in the gut causing reabsorption of estrogen if you consume a diet high in fat or protein vs one high in fibre. (4)
‘An important role of the intestinal microbiome is the modulation of systemic estrogens as it affects the...circulation of estrogens and their reabsorption’ (4).
Best remedy: Prioritise building a diverse mix of bacteria in the gut without imbalance. Forget supplements - at this point the science suggests what is much more powerful is what you eat. Click here for much more.
STRESS: we know that this also has huge consequences throughout the body. Particularly on hormones. There is a lot of complexity as to what happens when the body is under severe or prolonged stress but what is important to know is that instead of producing the appropriate amount of hormones - when the body is under stress the raw materials for hormone production (Cholesterol and Pregnenolone) get diverted and used for Cortisol as opposed to appropriate levels of control/production of the sex hormones (and others). Having a knock on effect:
This is for survival and ‘the body will prefer this pathway to the detriment of all other adrenal pathways. Hormone production will suffer greatly.’ (4)
For women that can mean that less progesterone gets produced (the consequence = more estrogen). For men - although not directly an estrogen issue that can mean less testosterone. However, indirectly it can also mean poor food choices and more fat (see weight issue above).
Bottom line: as you can see there are a lot of challenges modern life is throwing at our hormones which unfortunately have a very real impact on our ability to conceive and have healthy kids. Not to mention their ability to grow and develop themselves. For the down and dirty quick version of what to do in the face of this - here is the ‘loo break’. However, as always awareness is 90% of the battle.
MALEKINEJAD H, REZABAKHSH A: Hormones in Dairy Food and Their Impact on Public Health - A Narrative Review Article. Iranian Journal of Public Health: 2015 Jun: 44(6): 742-758
MNIF W, HASSINE AIH, ROIG B: Effect of Endocrine Disruptor Pesticides: A Review: International Journal Environmental Research and Public Health. 2011 Jun: 8(6): 2265-2303
SEEGER B, KLAWONN F, STEINBERG P: Mixture Effects of Estrogenic Pesticides at the Human Estrogen Receptor: PLoS One: 2016: 11(1)
KWA M, PLOTTEL CS, ADAMS S: The Intestinal Microbiome and Estrogen Receptor-Positive Female Breast Cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute: 2016 Aug: 108(8)
LEE H-K, LEE JK, CHO B: The Role of Androgen in the Adipose Tissue of Males: The World Journal of Men’s Health. 2013 Aug: 31(2): 136-140
PATEL S, HOMAEI A, RAJU AB, MEHER BR: Estrogen: The necessary evil for human health, and ways to tame it. Biomed Pharmacotherapy 2018 Jun: 102: 4043-411
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.