by Holly Lucille, ND, RN
Is estrogen good? Is estrogen bad? Do I need it? These are just some of the questions I seem to be getting daily in my practice as the “story” about hormones gets increasingly confusing. Let’s take a deeper look at a not so simple category: estrogen!
Estrogen is among the most powerful class of hormones. Although we commonly think of estrogen as one substance or one type of hormone in our bodies, it is actually a class of naturally occurring sex hormones produced by the ovaries and the adrenal glands. There are at least two dozen known estrogens, all with various functions; every organ, including the brain, heart, ovaries, and liver, has estrogen-sensitive receptor sites. The most commonly discussed estrogens are estrone, estradiol, and estriol, produced in our bodies. But, estrogens produced in the body are not the only ones we are exposed to. Many women take estrogen replacement or supplementation and believe it or not, there are estrogens in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we eat.
Understanding the "Ugly"
The main function of estrogens, as a group, is to tell cells to grow and proliferate. For example, they stimulate endometrial cells in preparation for pregnancy, prompt breast tissue growth, maintain function of the sexual organs, stimulate the menstrual cycle, and initiate the bodily changes that occur at puberty. If estrogen function and metabolism gets out of balance, cells can multiply unnecessarily, leading to dangerous situations, such as cancer in some cases.
We live awash in environmental “xenoestrogens”, foreign substances with estrogen like effects in the body, that negatively affect our health. They are absolutely everywhere!
It is important to note that their estrogenic activity is much more potent than the estrogen made by our bodies. Xenoestrogens can mimic natural estrogen or block it at estrogen receptor sites on cells throughout the body. These artificial estrogens activate receptors to stimulate a hormonal effect or occupy the receptor and block natural hormones from doing their job, either way disrupting normal endocrine activity. Many of these hormone imposters accumulate over time because they are fat soluble; they are easily absorbed through the skin and can be stored in body fat, where they can continue to interfere with the body’s natural hormone balance. These man-made estrogens find their way into the water supply, soil, air, and the food chain. As you might imagine, these have a serious effect on hormone balance. Most xenoestrogens are derived from petrochemicals and include pesticides, industrial chemicals, cleaners, plastics (water bottles, food containers), nail polish, and car exhaust. The pollution from these products causes health problems, including increased cancer rates and infertility.
Reducing Xenoestrogens in Your Life
Xenoestrogens are all around us—that’s a fact. Previously, their small amounts of estrogenic activity were dismissed, but recent findings published in Environmental Health Perspectives indicate all those little exposures add up. The researchers found that the effects of a collection of xenoestrogens, even though each one was beneath the levels at which they cause an effect, was to more than double the effect of natural estrogen by itself. How do you keep these minute exposures from making a difference in your health? Do what you can to minimize your exposure to xenoestrogens—you’ll find them in some unlikely places.
- Avoid plastics for water and food storage. Use glass or ceramics whenever possible, especially to heat food. When plastic is heated, it rapidly diffuses into food. Use wax paper or a glass plate instead of plastic wrap to cover bowls in the microwave.
- Use detergents with fewer chemicals. Chemical residue can be absorbed through your skin.
- Choose shampoos, body soaps, makeup, and lotions that are paraben free.
- Use natural pest control, not pesticides or herbicides.
- Buy hormone-free meats; look for organics whenever possible.
- Buy organic produce to reduce your exposure to herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals.
- Avoid birth control pills, spermicides, and HRT.
In a recent study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers made a direct link between cancer and pesticides. Women with breast cancer were five times more likely to have pesticide residue in their bloodstream than healthy women were. Synthetic hormones, in the form of birth control pills and HRT, introduce other man-made estrogens and provide another means of disrupting hormone balance, and as a result, health. These commercial hormones are structurally altered and different from the ones we produce. The list of risks related pills are at increased risk for high blood pressure and blood clots. Clotting can lead to sometimes-fatal strokes, heart attacks, or pulmonary emboli, depending on where the clot develops. Other serious adverse reactions, as listed in the Physicians’ Desk Reference (Medical Economics Co., 2003), include gallbladder disease and breast, liver, and endometrial cancer. Patients using oral contraceptives have reported numerous adverse reactions, including breast changes, colitis, congenital abnormalities, depression, impaired kidney function, menstrual changes, and weight changes.