Estrogen is a normal body secretion that we also ingest from our environment. In excess, it can damage us in a number of ways.
It can increase body fat, cause fluid retention, disrupt sleep, impair blood sugar control, increase the risk of blood clots — and much else.
But perhaps the greatest threat posed by estrogen is an increase in the risk of cancers of the endometrium, breast and prostate. What can you do about estrogen toxicity? A lot. . .
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Essential for the health of both men and women, estrogen is not a carcinogen as such. However, we are exposed to synthetic forms of it in much greater amounts today through our diet, environment and hormone replacement drugs.
This has created a situation of estrogen dominance, a condition that puts this hormone out of balance with other hormones, in particular, progesterone.
According to the late John R. Lee, M.D., David Zava, Ph.D., and Virginia Hopkins in their book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You about Breast Cancer, “Almost all risk factors associated with breast cancer are directly or indirectly related to excess estrogen or estrogen that isn’t balanced with progesterone.”
For instance, it’s common to detect the early stages of breast cancer five years before menopause. This is the time of life when progesterone production falls but estrogen levels stay the same.
Although breast cancer risk goes up as a woman gets older, the rate drops dramatically after menopause when estrogen is less active and is more balanced with progesterone.
Other risk factors the authors believe are estrogen-related include:
- living in areas polluted with industrial waste
- women who never have children or have them later in life
- the use of oral contraceptives by teenage girls
- conventional hormone replacement therapy
- intake of trans- and hydrogenated fats
- excess alcohol
- lack of exercise
- exposure to estrogen-like chemicals (xenoestrogens) from environmental pollutants
Good and bad catechol estrogens
Excess estrogens have the potential to do a great deal of damage, so the body has evolved ways to deal with them.
The main system is through cytochrome p450 hydroxylase enzymes. These create byproducts called catechol estrogens. The body can easily eliminate some of these, while others have the potential to cause harm.
The ones that pose a danger are called 3,4 hydroxy estrogens. These can be transformed into a more powerful and damaging estrogen called estrogen-3,4-quinone.
Nearly all catechol estrogens are neutralized through a process called methylation. This is mainly achieved by way of an enzyme I’ll call COMT. Once the catechols are methylated they can be excreted through the bile, urine and sweat. How well this process takes place will depend on the efficiency of p450, COMT and the health of the liver.
On the other hand, the main way in which catechol estrogens turn into harmful quinones is by oxidation from free radicals. The enzyme systems that are supposed to protect against this can fail in the body for two main reasons:
- not making enough COMP because of a genetic flaw or nutritional deficiencies – particularly lack of B vitamins – that limit the availability of methyl groups
- body’s systems are simply overwhelmed due to pollution, heavy metals, stress, pathogens, excess estrogens or poor nutrition — including lack of antioxidants — and consumption of unstable polyunsaturated oils which are prone to free radical attack
If free radical attacks do turn the catechol estrogens into “evil” quinones, all is not lost, because glutathione will take care of them.
Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant and detoxifier. Made mainly from cysteine, which is found in all high protein foods, it will take care of almost all quinone estrogens.
However, glutathione deficiency can occur if the liver is overburdened with the need to deal with excess hormones, rancid and unstable oils, pollutants, heavy metals, prescription drugs and so forth.
The immune system both helps and hinders
The body’s final back-up is the immune system. Even here, things can go wrong. Rather than inhibiting the growth of breast cancer, it can promote it.
It would normally be the job of immune cells called macrophages to clear away debris from inflamed or damaged cells. Cancer cells can, however, trick macrophages into actually promoting angiogenesis — the growth of cancer’s very own system of blood vessels, which feed the tumor.
Cancer cells also attract another immune system cell, T-helper lymphocytes, which release cytokines – proteins that have cell-signaling roles within the immune system. These in turn release enzymes that stimulate the production of estrogen in both normal cells surrounding the tumor and in cancer cells themselves. Estrogen promotes cell replication. And obviously, you don’t want cancer cells to replicate.
I’m reminded once again that cancer is a devilishly clever disease, and we’re still a long way from figuring it out.
The T-helper lymphocytes develop into either Th1 or Th2. The former produce cytokines that can suppress the synthesis of estrogen and inhibit tumor formation. That’s what you want. Th2 does the opposite, stimulating estrogen-generating cytokines that are cancer’s little helpers.
How much Th1 or Th2 the body produces depends a good deal on the production of other steroid hormones, particularly DHEA and cortisol. High levels of DHEA and low levels of cortisol favor the production of “good” Th1. But if cortisol is high and DHEA is low, this will promote “bad” Th2.
DHEA declines steeply with the aging process. People who live longer often owe part of their good luck to high levels of this hormone. People who have chronically high levels of cortisol are more prone to both degenerative diseases and cancer. While DHEA falls with age, cortisol stays constant or rises, creating a more unfavorable ratio between DHEA and cortisol.
Regular exercise helps you produce more DHEA. Most of it is produced in the adrenal glands which can be supported with vitamin C, vitamin B5, vitamin A and licorice. DHEA production can also be encouraged by meditation and stress reduction.
Cortisol, the “bad” hormone that promotes the “bad” Th2, is increased by high levels of chronic stress.
The importance of progesterone
While estrogen and progesterone need each other to function, they are also opposing forces.
The problems of excess estrogen, some of which I listed at the beginning, are offset by progesterone. This hormone can help us use fat to create energy, acts as a natural diuretic, promotes normal sleep patterns, and helps normalize blood sugar and blood clotting.
Progesterone also helps prevent endometrial and breast cancer and reduces the risk of prostate cancer.
While estrogen stimulates cell proliferation — and thereby favors cancer — progesterone does the opposite and makes cells more resistant to cancerous or precancerous changes.
In a 1981 study of 1083 women, fertility problems were evaluated for up to 33 years. The researchers found that women who suffered progesterone deficiency had 5.4 times the risk of premenopausal breast cancer compared to women who were infertile for non-hormonal reasons.
Progesterone-deficient women also experienced a tenfold increase in deaths from all cancers.
A 1996 study looked at women who had undergone surgery for breast cancer. It compared those with normal and low levels of progesterone. The normal progesterone group had a survival rate of eighteen years, double that of the low progesterone group.
In 1998 researchers demonstrated that breast cancer cell cultures activated the cancer-causing gene Bc1-2 when estrogen was added. However, when progesterone was added, gene p53, which is cancer protective, was activated.
There is also research to demonstrate that prostate cells exposed to estrogen grow more rapidly and can turn cancerous.
The bottom line…
Regardless of the amount of hormones our bodies produce naturally, we are awash with synthetic hormones from the environment which can lead to estrogen dominance in both men and women, which can in turn increase the risk of cancer.
Although impossible to avoid, we can lower our exposure and improve our defences by the choices we make.
Strategies include detoxification to remove heavy metals and pollutants. Consider colon cleanses and undergoing chelation under the supervision of a doctor.
Also consider these other steps: Reduce exposure to toxins by eating organic. Eat cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale as well as onions and garlic. These sulfur-containing foods help remove xenoestrogens – the ones we get from food and the environment.
Supplement with iodine, which plays an important role in how estrogen is metabolized.
Eat antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and foods containing plenty of B vitamins.
Although progesterone isn’t found in foods, some research suggests it can be increased in the body by eating fermented soy products such as miso, tempeh and natto, and by supplementing with vitamins C and E.
There are so many things you can do to prevent cancer – and indeed to improve your overall health and just plain feel better. In our last issue we covered one of the most important – the article is repeated just below in case you missed it.