A common question and conversation I hear in my classes are “I think I have an excess of estrogen from what I’ve read online,” closely followed by: “How can I know for sure? What tests do I need? What can I do to get rid of the extra estrogen?”. While estrogen excess is a typical pattern that I see in clinical practice, there is, of course, nuance and no one-size-fits-all approach – I hope to enrich the discussion with how I approach this hormonal pattern in this blog. We’ll cover what estrogen actually is and the role it plays in our bodies. I’ll explore the symptoms of low and high estrogen, sensible ways to test and some simple at-home habits you can practice that are both safe and effective.
Let’s start with the basics, what is estrogen?
Estrogen is an umbrella term for a group of hormones essential for cycle health and many other body processes. They’re involved in the maturation and the healthy functioning of all the female reproductive organs and tissues (ovaries, womb and breasts). They also play an essential role in bone mineralisation and density and has a protective effect on our cardiovascular system.
During our reproductive years – from puberty to menopause – estrogen is chiefly formed from the ovaries.
The three types of estrogen are:
- Estradiol – the ovarian hormone of the premenopausal years
- Estrone – the ovarian hormone of the menopausal years
- Estriol – a weak estrogen that is present at high levels during pregnancy.
Knowing what each estrogen is called and does is not important, but it’s helpful to know that there is no “one estrogen”, they’re a complex family. There are also molecules in our environment, both nature-made and man-made that can strongly or weakly mimic our estrogen. These are:
- Phytestrogens – found in plants such as soy, flaxseeds, legumes and rye. These foods exert a weak estrogen-like effect and are useful for menopausal health and recorrecting an estrogen imbalance.
- Xenestrogens – founds in birth control and hormone replacement therapy medications and many manufactured products, chiefly plastics, home and body care products. These compounds can over the longterm harm the body.
How estrogen is handled in the body.
There are two essential concepts to understand how estrogen is handled in the body. The first is communication. The way estrogen (and all hormones for that matter) behave within the body is to engage with a specific receptor and send a message. An apt metaphor here is a letterbox. If there is a letter addressed to an individual letterbox, it is delivered to that specific box, and within the letter is a message. We have estrogen letterboxes (receptors) throughout our body, and they receive letters (estrogen) from many different senders; our body, plants and the environment.
The second concept is detoxification and elimination. Think of this as a rubbish disposal system. Once estrogen has conveyed it’s message, the body then needs to eliminate it. We have special workers (detoxification enzymes) that stamp the letter (estrogen) that says “yep, message received thank you!”. The letter in popped on the conveyer belt destined to be processed by the rubbish processing plant (which in our body is sweat, breath, pee and poop). When all is in balance, the letters are delivered, received and then processed for removal like a harmonious system.
How does an excess of estrogen then occur?
Hormones are complex, and they are having many conversations with other hormones all the time. But the broad brushstrokes of an excess of estrogen can come down to three factors. First of all, there are too many letters coming in and overwhelming the letterboxes (many different sources of estrogen). Secondly, there is a lag in the rubbish disposal system. And finally, other hormones (such as progesterone) that keep estrogen in check are low, creating an excess-like effect.
Symptoms of high and low levels of estrogen within the body.
HIGH LEVELS OF ESTROGEN…
- Insulin resistance
- Fluid retention
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Fibrocystic or tender breasts
- Irregular periods
LOW LEVELS OF ESTROGEN…
- Low libido
- Difficulty climaxing
- Vaginal dryness
- Night sweats
- Scanty periods
What’s the best way to test estrogen?
I’m of the clinical opinion that signs and symptoms are a highly accurate way of knowing if this type of hormone imbalance is at play for you. One of the many benefits of charting your cycle is that it invites you to notice these shifts and changes within your body. When working with excess estrogen, I encourage my clients to keep a close eye on:
- The volume of their menstrual flow (how often they’re needing to change their cup, tampon or pad and what level absorbency they’re needing)
- Premenstrual fluid retention
- Breast tenderness
Another more subtle sign can be a worsening of skin conditions or anxiety leading up to ovulation. If you’d like to learn more about your cycle and how you can begin tracking yours, make sure you download my free cycle chart.
Blood, Urine and Saliva Estrogen Testing
Unless you’re working with a health practitioner who understands the female hormonal landscape and can guide you on the best times to get tested, lab work can be hit and miss at best and misleading at worst. As you can see in the diagram below, based on a text-book 28-day cycle, estrogen is rising and falling significantly and peaks at ovulation. However, not only do most folks not have a 28-day cycle, most don’t ovulate on day–14. There are many different lab tests available on the market, and most will use suggested timings based on the 28-day cycle.
Urine and saliva tests are typically provided by private labs and can come with a hefty price tag. So unless you’re very clear on when you ovulate (and if you’re ovulating), the results won’t provide you with much clarity. If you’d like to read more on hormonal imbalances in general and why testing can be tricky, make sure you read this article.
Self-Care for Estrogen Excess
If the list of high estrogen symptoms fit you to a tee, working with a holistic practitioner who can help you gain more clarity and understanding of your unique situation is undoubtedly a practical action to consider. There are also plenty of safe and straightforward measures you can take at home that will do no harm and elevate your overall health. These strategies are specific for estrogen excess, they help lower exposure to harmful xenestrogens, increase helpful phytestrogens and support your body’s capacity to process estrogen (detoxification and elimination).
- Reduce your exposure to plastics and switch to glass, stainless steel and fabric where you can.
- Replace all body and household products with natural alternatives (want to make your own? Clean Mama is a fabulous resource – I love her cleaning routines too)
- Eat 1–2 tablespoons of flaxseeds daily
- Incorporate turmeric in your drinks and cooking
- Love up on broccoli family veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale and cabbage
- Eat only whole, organic, non-GMO soy products in traditional forms, such as boiled edamame, tofu, tempeh and miso
- Enjoy dandelion root coffees
- Have only two to four alcoholic drinks a week.
The Final Word on Estrogen Excess
Hormones are extraordinarily complex and cannot be pigeon-holed into a single diagnosis. Estrogen excess isn’t so much a “condition” as it is a byproduct for other body systems that need extra support. As a holistic practitioner, we see every single person and situation as unique, which is why a personalised approach is so effective. We look to the root causes of symptoms, take your constitutional makeup into account and help you listen to the language of your body to equip you to be your own greatest healer. If you’d love to learn more and go deeper, make sure you cosy up with these other articles and free resources I’ve created just for you:
- Free Printable Cycle Chart
- Vitalism, Menstruation and Balancing with Opposites
- Decoding your Crazy Period with Root Cause Medicine
- We Need to Talk About Hormone Imbalance and Why They’re so Tricky to Test