Environmental Estrogens and Health

As you likely are aware, estrogens are a class of female (and male) sex hormones that are responsible for female sexual development, fertility, pregnancy and lactation. While estrogen has many beneficial effects, such as supporting proper bone strength, exposure to too much estrogen can cause problems, such as disrupted sexual development in both males and females, immune system abnormalities, birth defects, cancer and more.

There is substantial research on the role that phytoestrogens, such as those that come from soy or red clover, may have on health. Both positive and negative research exists in this area. However, phytoestrogens have been part of the human environment for thousands of years. Today, people have another class of estrogens to cope with in addition to exogenous and naturally-occuring; synthetic or environmental estrogens.

The phrase "environmental estrogens" describes a class of synthetic chemicals that have estrogen-like activity in the body. This is the most well-studied group of endocrine disrupting compounds. Exposure to environmental estrogens occurs through air, water, household products, food -- even breastmilk and in utero! The health risks associated with these constant, low-level exposures are not clear, but it is suspected that they are problematic.

Our exposure to environmental estrogens comes from many categories of chemicals, including plastics (containing phthalates, bisphenol A and others), pesticides and herbicides (such as dieldrin or atrazine), pharmaceuticals (e.g. DES, birth control pills), industrial chemicals like PCBs and more. Environmental estrogens are so toxic to our metabolic and endocrine systems that the Environmental Working Group has joined with the Keep a Breast organization to publish their own "dirty dozen endocrine disruptors" list

These chemicals affect fertility, both directly in adults as well as by affecting sexual development in utero, in childhood and in puberty. They also can influence breast changes and increase rates of breast cancer in many instances.

With the ubiquitous nature of these chemicals, it's important for all patients to identify what their exposure level may be. The more you learn about these exposures, the easier it is to understand the importance of eating organic, filtering your water and choosing "clean" options whenever available, such as food packaged in glass over plastic. 

Want to Know More?

  1. University of California Davis, Dept of Environmental Toxicity. http://www.envtox.ucdavis.edu/cehs/toxins/estrogens.htm
  2. Environmental working group Dirty Dozen list of endocrine disruptors. http://www.ewg.org/research/dirty-dozen-list-endocrine-disruptors



Female Hormone Imbalance: A GI Issue

 In many women, hormone problems are connected to an underlying digestive issue. The hormonal system is tied in to the body's digestive and detoxification systems, and symptoms in one frequently reflect an imbalance in another. Most female hormone problems are brought on by years of poor lifestyle choices combined with digestive issues. In some cases, the problems are also complicated by a breakdown in hormone-mediated immune function that manifests as chronic sinus infections, vaginal yeast infections or low-grade digestive tract infections.

The digestive system is referred to as the "mother" system because it feeds our body tissues with the nutrients we need to function. Overeating carbohydrates and sweets, poor digestive function, digestive tract infections and food sensitivities all play a part in disrupting the hormonal system. Moreover, nutrition is an important first step in any hormone-rebalancing or repairing program, as your body needs key vitamins, minerals and fatty acids to produce sex hormones. The recent trend toward low-fat diets only contributes to hormone problems by reducing the building blocks (fat or cholesterol) used to produce sex hormone, including estrogen and progesterone. Also, for the many women who have undiagnosed sensitivities to frequently consumed foods such as grains and soy, what looks like a healthy diet can contribute to hormone imbalance.

The connection between diet and female hormones is brokered by cortisol, the stress hormone that helps to stabilize blood sugar. Women that eat a lot of sweets or refined grains, have unstable blood sugar levels, forcing their bodies to destabilize these levels by producing insulin, and eventually, large amounts of cortisol. This creates a vicious cycle: sugar destabilizes hormones, raising stress levels, giving rise to cravings, Over time, this cycle has a profound impact on the sex hormones.

The typical American diet only encourages such an imbalance. We tend to start the day with sugary, high-starch foods, such as muffins and sweetened cereal, without balancing these carbohydrates with sufficient protein or healthy fat. Adding even a small amount of protein to such a meal can cut insulin levels in half. Among many menopausal women, food allergies, and sensitivities to gluten, soy or pasteurized dairy products, are common problems with the digestive system. If untreated, gluten intolerance can cause low energy, depression, obesity and diabetes as well as very high rates of osteoporosis. Likewise, while soy can benefit some women in Asian cultures, it is only beneficial when eaten in small amounts, in combinations with foods that balance its nutrient profile and prepared in ways that aid its digestion.

Problems with the digestive system are the most common underlying cause of hormone imbalance in the female patients I have treated. The takeaway is that hormones rarely cause problems on their own. In most cases, they react to various other types of stress. If we use a system to identify and remove the stress causing the hormone imbalance, only then is the correction viable to last.

- Daniel Kalish, DC