Updated: Jun 7, 2019
An imbalance of oestrogen and progesterone, the main female sex hormones, is surprisingly common and can occur at any age thanks to an array of diet, lifestyle and environmental factors that can upset our natural rhythm. Oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate daily, monthly, and over the course of a woman’s lifetime playing a pivotal role in the monthly menstrual cycle, pregnancy and the transition into menopause.
These hormones are responsible for many factors beyond our monthly cycles, such as encouraging curve and breast development during adolescence, maintaining a healthy libido, softening the skin, regulating mood and fluid balance, and preventing bone loss.
What is oestrogen dominance?
Oestrogen dominance is thought to contribute to a range of hormonal problems, like PCOS, irregular periods and endometriosis. It occurs when there is a relative excess of oestrogen in the body compared to progesterone. The important word here is ‘relative’ which means you don’t have to have really high levels of oestrogen for this to occur. It can happen even when oestrogen levels are seemingly normal or even lower than normal, if progesterone levels fall low enough to cause this imbalance.
As women get older they naturally move into peri-menopause, the transitional phase that precedes the menopause. This can occur any time from late thirties, and may last as long as 10 years. This stage in a woman's life can feature oestrogen dominance, thanks to increasing anovulatory cycles, meaning menstrual cycles without ovulation. As ovulation is needed for progesterone levels to rise, anovulatory cycles lead to low progesterone compared to oestrogen, and this means oestrogen dominance.
Symptoms of oestrogen dominance can include:
· Excessive menstrual bleeding / clotting
· Irregular periods
· Headaches / migraines
· Emotional ups and downs
· Water retention
· Weight gain, especially around the hips and abdomen
· Breast tenderness / cysts / soreness / swelling
· Thyroid dysfunction
· Brain fog
· PCOS / endometriosis / fibroids / infertility
Oestrogen and weight gain
For many women, one of the most frustrating aspects of oestrogen dominance is stubborn weight accumulation around the abdomen, hips and thighs that’s hard to shift. Diet and exercise changes may help to a certain extent, depending on the strategies adopted, but are unlikely to fix this deeper-rooted imbalance. In order to resolve the issue, it's necessary to look at what may be causing the imbalance and address any relevant factors to really see results. Thyroid imbalance is one example of a side effect of oestrogen dominance that can impact on weight, because excess oestrogen blocks thyroid hormones, even when the thyroid is functioning normally. Excess water retention caused by unopposed oestrogen is another potential factor behind this change in shape.
What can I do to improve oestrogen and progesterone balance?
Manage your stress – this is absolutely key, in fact it's my number one factor to address when dealing with female hormones. Stress hormones and female hormones may be different, but they all share the same parent hormone, pregnenolone. When you’re continually under stress, your stress hormone production will be elevated, and will literally ‘steal’ the supply of pregnenolone, creating a hormone imbalance. Stress hormones also throw off thyroid function too, so this is a vital area to address. Check out this article all about managing your stress levels.
Look after your liver – your liver is responsible for breaking down old oestrogen, so it can be carried out of the body. If your liver is toxic and sluggish, it won’t be able to do this job effectively, meaning more oestrogen is hanging around, adding to the problem. Clean up your diet, minimise alcohol, sugar and caffeine and include lots of liver-friendly lemons, beetroot, apples, carrots, asparagus, onions, garlic, leafy greens, dandelion tea / coffee, and apple cider vinegar.
Get more nutrients from your food – the body requires nutrients like zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 to support the breakdown and elimination of oestrogen. Get these nutrients from your diet where possible, including lean meats, eggs, pulses, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and lots of veggies, salads and fruit. Choose organic meat and dairy to reduce exposure to hormone additives. You may want to take a quality multi-nutrient supplement to support your diet.
Focus on your digestion – excess oestrogen won’t be effectively eliminated if you’re not having a healthy bowel movement at least once a day, allowing the oestrogen to be re-circulated. There are a few strategies to try if you're stuggling in this area. First, upping your fibre is important, because it binds onto old oestrogen and carries it out of the body. Think about increasing veggies, salads, pulses, nuts, seeds, and some easy-to-digest grains like quinoa, rice and oats. Also, you want to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, and you may also want to up your intake of beneficial bacteria, from fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir or kombucha or consider taking a quality probiotic supplement.
Avoid xeno-oestrogens – we are being exposed to harmful oestrogens in our environment all the time, from cosmetics, plastics, medication and through our water supply. These all build up in our body over time, creating an excess. Minimise your use of plastic when you store your food, go for natural cosmetics and filter your water to reduce exposure. Find out more here.
Lose unwanted body fat – excess oestrogen is stored in fat cells, so losing weight if needed may help restore balance. Reducing intake of refined carbohydrates, alcohol and sugar will help, along with regular exercise.
Prioritise sleep – the sleep hormone, melatonin, is needed to regulate oestrogen levels. Avoid looking at your phone, tablet or computer at least an hour before bed, as the blue light they emit tricks your brain into thinking it's daytime, and as a result reduces the production of melatonin.