What is Oestrogen?
Oestrogen is a steroidal hormone present in both males and females, with larger quantities existing in females. Oestrogen is actually an umbrella term for oestradiol, oestrone and oestriol. Oestradiol is the most potent form of oestrogen, rendering it the most biologically active in the body, oestrone and oestriol are weaker forms of oestrogen.
In women, oestrogens are synthesised within the ovaries, and in the testes in males, under the direction of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Cholesterol is the steroidal precursor which initiates the production of oestrogen.
What role does oestrogen play?
Oestradiol is an anabolic hormone, it stimulates growth in tissues that contain oestrogen receptors. There are numerous roles in the body that oestrogen is involved in. In women oestrogen is responsible for:
- Secondary sex characteristics, which are most obvious during puberty, such as breasts & pubic hair.
- Maintenance and structure of skin and blood vessels.
- Regulation of the menstrual cycle.
- Enlargement of the uterus, softening of the pelvic ligaments and pubic bone during pregnancy.
- Stimulation of oestrogen receptors and osteoblast activity in bone. Oestrogen is necessary for the maintenance and strength of bone throughout a woman’s life time.
- Oestrogen may protect against vascular injury as research suggests oestrogen initiates dilation of the blood vessels, and inhibits apoptosis of endothelial cells.
- Responsible for the female pattern of body fat surrounding the hips, abdomen and breasts.
- Influential response to libido; oestrogen influences neurotransmitter systems in the brain that stimulate mood and desire.
- Stimulation of vaginal lubrication.
In men oestrogen is produced in small quantities, and is essential for modulating libido, erectile function, and spermatogenesis. Like women, oestrogen stimulates mood and desire due to the neurotransmitter system in the brain and also stimulates osteoblast activity in bones.
All hormones work together in order to maintain homeostasis. They balance each other out by initiating responses to consummate normal bodily functions. Reproductive hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone cooperate together in order to initiate and maintain puberty, the menstrual cycle, menopause, pregnancy and milk production during breastfeeding.
A hormonal imbalance can occur at any stage during a women’s menstruating life, and for varying reasons. Oestrogen excess can contribute to female reproductive conditions and their accompanying symptoms.
Oestrogen excess is more common in women than oestrogen insufficiency during their menstruating life. Oestrogen excess can disrupt the ratio of other reproductive hormones such as progesterone. Symptoms of excess oestrogen include painful, heavy menstruation accompanied by clotting and headaches.
- Unopposed oestrogen: unopposed oestrogen occurs when progesterone levels are inadequate. This occurs when a woman ceases to ovulate. Ovulation ceases during menopause and can cease due to stress, lifestyle factors such as nutrient poor diet, or certain medical conditions.
- Xeno-oestrogens: xeno-oestrogens are environmentally exogenous oestrogens which enter the body via water, air and the food chain. These oestrogens mimic the effects of endogenous oestrogens and have been linked to oestrogen dependant conditions. Xeno-oestrogens exist in pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, synthetic fertilisers, fungicides, plastics, cosmetic products, heavy metal pollutants, cleaning agents, paints and building materials. Xeno-oestrogens are difficult to avoid completely, try reducing the chemical load by using natural cosmetics and cleaning products, and thoroughly washing your fresh produce.
- Poor oestrogen clearance: the bowel, kidneys and liver are largely responsible for the clearance of oestrogen. The health of these organs is important for sufficient metabolism and excretion of oestrogen to occur. The liver plays a major role in clearing excess oestrogens from the body. Phase I liver detoxification utilises specific enzymes to render oestrogen more water soluble in preparation for phase II. Phase II liver detoxification conjugates oestrogen metabolites in order to deliver them to appropriate sites for excretion.
- Dietary influences: research suggests an excessive intake of refined foods high in carbohydrates and saturated fats has been linked to oestrogen dependant conditions. Women who consume a high intake of saturated fats have been found to have higher blood levels of oestrogens than women with a lower fat intake. Eliminating organs such as the liver may prove unsatisfactory in metabolising oestrogens due to lack of macronutrients from lean meats, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Obesity: obesity is associated with elevated levels of oestrone. Androgens, which are male and female hormones are abundant in adipose tissue. Adipose tissue is where the conversion of androgens into oestrone takes place. Unopposed oestrogen is common in obese women.
The most common symptom of oestrogen insufficiency is amenorrhea; cessation of menses.
- Low body weight: low body weight can cause a women to stop menstruating due to insufficient adipose tissue. Androgens are unable to convert into oestrone, causing insufficient levels.
- Excessive exercise: exorbitant amounts of exercise have shown to reduce the levels of circulating oestrogens in the blood which may cause amenorrhoea.
- Smoking: research has shown smoking to alter the metabolism of oestrogen. Women who smoke may have an earlier onset of menopause.
- Menopause: reproductive hormones decline during menopause. Oestrone is the dominant form of oestrogen in the body after menopause, with minute amounts of oestradiol.
The best way to determine oestrogen levels in the body is via a hormonal profile. This can be done with your General Practitioner or Naturopath via a blood test or saliva test.
Boosting oestrogens naturally can be achieved through dietary changes and specific hormone modulating herbs.
What are phytoestrogens? Phytoestrogens are plant-derived compounds that behave like oestrogens and are able to bind to oestrogen receptors. There are several different phytoestrogenic compounds, which are derived from many different foods. It is recommended to eat 2 servings of phytoestrogenic foods per day.
Herbs that boost oestrogen levels
Herbs that contain steroidal or triterpenoid saponins have oestrogenic and hormone-balancing effects. These herbs include:
Medicago sativa: Also known as alfalfa, contains isoflavones and has oestrogen modulating effects. Indicated during menopause.
Actaea racemosa: otherwise known as Black cohosh, contains steroidal saponins and has oestrogen modulating effects. Indicated during menopause.
Chamaelirium luteum: also known as false unicorn, contains saponins and is oestrogen modulating. Indicated during menopause, erratic ovulation and secondary amenorrhoea.
Vitex-agnus-castus: otherwise known as chaste tree, is a herb that balances the ratio of oestrogen and progesterone. This herb is not always indicated for oestrogen insufficiency, this highly depends on the individual and hormonal requirements.
It is recommended to seek professional advice from a qualified Naturopath or herbalist before taking hormone modulating herbs.