A little-known yet increasingly common health problem for men and women is excess estrogen. Though estrogen usually is thought of as a female hormone, men also produce it. When a person's estrogen levels are too high, the condition is called hyperestrogenism. This hormonal imbalance affects one in five people. It most commonly develops after age 50 but can affect younger adults and even children. Hyperestrogenism contributes to numerous and disparate health problems, from headaches to weight gain to cancer.

Causes: Biological

In women, estrogen is produced primarily in the ovaries. It plays many roles in the reproductive process, cognition and bone formation. Production drops dramatically at menopause. In men, small amounts of estrogen are created as a by-product of the metabolism of testosterone, a hormone produced in the testes. Estrogen's main role in men is to strengthen bones.

Various biological factors contribute to hyperestrogenism…

  • Excess weight. Fat cells contain the enzyme aromatase, which stimulates estrogen production. Being just 5% over an appropriate weight increases hyperestrogenism risk.
  • Impaired liver function. When the liver's detoxifying capabilities are compromised-by poor diet, excessive alcohol use, genetics or exposure to pollutants-the organ can't properly metabolize estrogen.
  • Sluggish bowel activity. Normally, about 80% of excess estrogen is eliminated via stool. When bowel function is slow-for instance, due to insufficient dietary fiber—waste products linger in the colon, so estrogen is reabsorbed into the bloodstream.
  • Hormone therapy. Birth control pills or estrogen therapy in women) or testosterone therapy (in men) can increase hyperestrogenism risk.
  • Low thyroid hormone. If the thyroid gland does not function well, metabolism slows.
  • Prescription medications. The breast cancer drug tamoxifen binds with cells' estrogen receptors, leaving estrogen stranded in the bloodstream. The ulcer medication cimetidine (Tagamet) interferes with estrogen metabolism and increases estrogen activity.
  • Nutritional deficiencies. The liver needs sufficient amounts of vitamins B-6, B-12, C and E as well as magnesium to function well and eliminate excess estrogen.
  • High sugar consumption. Eating excess sweets raises blood sugar, causing the body to excrete more magnesium. Because this mineral is involved with estrogen detoxification, less magnesium means more risk for hyperestrogenism.
  • Diet high in dairy foods. Cow's milk—even the organic kind—contains naturally occurring estrogen.
  • Stress. The hormone cortisol, released at times of stress, makes cells more receptive to estrogen. It also interferes with the estrogen-modulating hormone progesterone, allowing estrogen to dominate.

Causes: Environmental

Man-made substances that have estrogen-like effects are called xenoestrogens. These include benzene in car exhaust...phthalates in some plastics...polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in electrical equipment...polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) in flame retardants...and pesticides, such as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). Though PCBs and DDT were banned in the 1970s, they degrade slowly and still exist in water, plants and animals.

Estrogen-like hormones often are added to livestock feed to fatten up the animals-when we eat this meat, we ingest the hormones. When estrogen-elevating drugs are excreted by patients, they enter our drinking water supply and accumulate over time.

It is naive to believe that environmental pollutants do not affect humans. Examples…

  • One study investigated girls born in the 1970s in Puerto Rico. Participants who showed signs of early breast development-as young as age seven-had higher blood levels of phthalates than did girls whose breasts budded at the normal age of 10.
  • Emory University researchers found that girls breast-fed by mothers who had high blood levels of PBBs during pregnancy began to menstruate 12 months earlier, on average, than did girls whose mothers had lower PBB levels during pregnancy.

Self-Defense Strategies

Excess estrogen can contribute to myriad health problems, from the bothersome to the life-threatening. It even may be linked to cognitive problems. A recent study of 2.974 Japanese-American men, ages 70 to 91, revealed that high levels of estradiol (an estrogen) were associated with an increased risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.

To diagnose hyperestrogenism, a doctor may order tests of saliva and/or urine samples collected over 24 hours, to detect "active" estrogen (the amount attached to cell receptor sites and therefore problematic). Blood tests may be used-but they are less accurate, because they do not measure active estrogen.

If you are diagnosed with hyperestrogenism—or if you want to lower your risk for developing it—follow the guidelines below.

  • Eat a high-fiber diet. Get 30 grams of fiber each day to improve liver and bowel function.

Good choices: Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, buckwheat, brown rice, flaxseeds and whole grains.

  • Choose organic produce and grains, which are largely free of pesticides. They ease the workload on the liver, helping it get rid of excess estrogen.
  • Select meats from grass-fed livestock. These animals were not given feed laced with hormones, so their meat is free of extra added estrogen.
  • Opt for plant milks, such as organic almond milk and rice milk, instead of milk from COWS.
  • Drink purified water. To remove xenoestrogens, install an under-sink reverse-osmosis water-filtration system (sold at home improvement stores) at home.

Economical: Filters that are affixed to faucets. Brita or Pur are popular brands.

  • Consume alcohol only in moderation, if at all, to optimize liver health.
  • Take daily multivitamin/mineral supplements. Teens and adults should use a formula that includes magnesium at 400 milligrams (mg) to 500 mg vitamin B-6 at 25 mg to 50 mg vitamin B-12 at 50 micrograms (mcg) to 2,000 mcg...vitamin C at 500 mg to 1,000 mg...and vitamin E at 200 international units (IU). Children should take an age-appropriate formula.

People who test positive for or have many symptoms of hyperestrogenism should also...

  • Supplement with indole 3 carbinol. This phytonutrient, extracted from broccoli, supports liver function.

Daily dosage: 400 mg in capsule form.

  • Take calcium d-glucarate. Found naturally in apples, cherries, grapefruit, broccoli and alfalfa, this nutrient helps the liver.

Daily dosage: 2,000 mg

Supplements are sold in health food stores. Indole 3 carbinol and calcium d-glucarate have not been studied in children and should not be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding—otherwise they are safe and can be taken indefinitely.

Signs Of Excess Estrogen

Estrogen overload contributes to numerous health problems. If you have any of the conditions below, ask a holistic doctor if hyperestrogenism could be to blame.

In women…

  • Endometriosis (uterine lining overgrowth)
  • Fibrocystic breast disease
  • Hair loss
  • Menstrual cycle irregularities
  • Premenstrual symptoms (moderate to severe)
  • Ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer
  • Uterine fibroids or uterine cancer

In men...

  • Bloating
  • Breast enlargement
  • Irritability
  • Migraine headaches
  • Prostate enlargement (moderate to severe) or prostate cancer
  • Sperm count reduction

In both sexes…

  • Aging prematurely
  • Body fat increases
  • Breast cancer
  • Dementia
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Weight gain

In children…

  • Breast tissue excesses in boys)
  • Undescended testicles (in boys)
  • Premature puberty (in girls)

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