The Hormone Puzzle – Estrogen

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Today we introduce you to the discussion series ‘The Hormone Puzzle’ — an explanation of what hormones are, how they play into breast cancer, and how to balance them in order to prevent illness. Together, these puzzle pieces make up the Endocrine System (‘endo’, in Greek means ‘inside’ or ‘within’). There are nine major endocrine glands in the body — you can read about them in the Hormone Puzzle Chart.

What is a hormone? A hormone (from the Greek word ‘impetus’), is like a chemical messenger in the body that is released from a cell or a gland which goes on to communicate with and affect different parts of the body. Hormones work together much like players in a symphony – they are dependent upon one another and must constantly stand back or step up in order to keep the body in tune. If there is an imbalance somewhere, there could be silence, or the entire body could make quite a din trying to get your attention that something is out of key.

These key players help to maintain a constant environment (homeostasis) in the body, despite what is occurring on the outside. Hormonal secretions are tied to many things – the solar and lunar cycles (i.e. melatonin is released at night, and hormone-like vitamin D3 is made during the day), and through the manufacture of growth hormone in the pituitary gland during childhood.

Hormones usually have a strong affinity for one particular hormone and bind to specialized ‘receptor sites’ in or within the cells of their target tissues. The hormone then creates changes in the cell nucleus which then go on to create a specific protein, which may then act as an enzyme with a specific action. That action causes a shift in the body’s metabolism.

Our emotions, stress and thoughts play into this. The entire Endocrine System is greatly influenced by what we think and feel, by what we eat, and what we are exposed to in the environment. Nowadays, people are sitting at computer terminals versus breathing in fresh oxygen working outdoors on farms. More and more, chemicals are finding their way into the air, soil, water and food chain. While we have modern progress today, and are able to blog about it, electromagnetic fields, plastics, and all-nighter writing deadline vie with other contaminants to disrupt our hormones.  Why are we doing this to ourselves? What kind of progress is this?

The first major hormone we will discuss in our series is Estrogen.

Your body makes 3 main types of estrogen:  estrone (E1), estradiol (E2) and estriol (E3). Estradiol and estrone are considered ‘the strong’ estrogens. Over 50% of the body’s estrogen is in the form of estrone, which is made in the ovaries and fat cells, and is then stored as estrone sulphate (something that breast cancer cells tend to accumulate). Estradiol is the strongest form of estrogen and is produced in the ovaries and is 12 times more active than estrone.

Estriol is the weakest type of estrogen. It is produced in the placenta during pregnancy and is short-acting. It helps to break down estrone in the liver.  Estriol may also protect the breasts from the tumour-producing effects of estradiol and estrone. One study shows that cancer remission increases in patients when their estriol levels increase. Women who excrete more estriol in their urine, have a lower risk of breast cancer.

An imbalance of estrogen stimulates breast cancer cells to multiply. Maintaining and restoring balance to all the hormones in the estrogen class is therefore critical for optimal health. There are many factors that affect whether total estrogen is in balance:

  • Whether our ovaries are functioning normally and can produce balanced estrogen;
  • Whether we take in sufficient beneficial ‘phytoestrogens’ (dietary non-steroidal plant compounds that act like estrogens), such as soy and some whole grain cereals;
  • The types of foods we eat can help or block conversion of estradiol and estrone to estriol. For instance, indole-3-carbinol from cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts), assist conversion;
  • The use of iodine or sea vegetables may increase estriol levels in pre and post menopausal women. (CAUTION – there is increased risk if too much supplemental iodine or if estriol levels are too high);
  • Our environment – there are many agents and chemicals that can interfere with estrogen balance;
  • Early puberty and late menopause creates longer exposure to estrogen hormones. Keeping children on grass-fed, non-hormone fed meat is necessary to avoid early puberty;
  • The influence of other hormones (such as progesterone, thyroid hormones, IGF-1, insulin, cortisol, growth hormone, and melatonin – more on these in the coming days);
  • Having a light on in your room at night. If you do not sleep in total darkness, Melatonin production is interfered with, and reduces your ability to thwart tumour growth.
  • High intake of meat (a vegetarian diet, low fat and no dairy is more protective but watch problems with low protein intake. You need sufficient quality protein to repair DNA);
  • Obesity and lack of exercise can cause cancer. Fat in itself behaves like an endocrine gland. One hour on a stationary bicycle can double or triple Melatonin levels and protect you from getting breast cancer;
  • Constipation (improve liver detoxification and bowel elimination to 2-3 movements daily);
  • Use of the birth control pill and/or hormone replacement therapy.

Estrogen Dominance

Breast cancer can be caused by a carcinogen in the presence of too many strong estrogens (i.e. estradiol and estrone), and other growth-promoting hormones such as IGF-1, and growth hormone (given to cattle in the United States to stimulate growth before the animal is sent to market). Usually progesterone (a hormone produced in the ovaries), thyroid hormone, melatonin (produced in the pineal gland), and estriol (a weak estrogen produced in the placenta during pregnancy) will protect from estrogen dominance. The problem is that in many women, these hormones are deficient or blocked. So, the strong estrogens are able to dominate these glands.

Breakdown of Estrogen

Estrogen is metabolized (broken down) by enzymes in the liver. Eventually it is bound to another substance called glucaronic acid via the ‘glucaronidation’ process. This complex (estrogen bound to glucaronic acid) passes through the liver into the bile and then into the intestines and finally, leaves the body through the stool.

How can you help break down too much estrogen?

Ellagic acid, which  is found in red raspberries (especially the Meeker, organic variety), can increase glucaronidation by seventy-five percent. Probiotics, vitamin B6, fibre, fish oil, and calcium-D-glucarate (you find this in apples and oranges), will also help the process. The pith of tangerines and oranges is especially good for this.[1]

Other dietary and nutritional suggestions that help with the conversion of estrogen to the ‘good’ C2 metabolite form are, 1) a low-fat diet, 2) ground flax seeds, fibre, fish oil, vitamin B complex, D-limonene, magnesium, zinc, N-acetyl cysteine, rosemary, schizandra, milk thistle, curcumin (turmeric), soy and red clover.[2],[3]

What interferes with conversion to ‘good’ estrogen?

Substances which interfere with conversion of estrogen to the ‘good’ C2 metabolite and promote conversion to the ‘bad’ C16 metabolite are  environmental estrogens from plastic bags, dioxin, car exhaust, paint fumes, alcohol, caffeine, the pesticides in the coffee bean production, pharmaceutical drugs, sugar, a high-fat diet, fried or rancid fats, and inadequate protein.[4]

In our next series we will discuss Progesterone. Stay tuned!


[1] Kaur, S.D, N.D., (2003). The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Breast CancerToronto, ON: Robert Rose, pp. 95-98.

[2] Pizzorno, J. and M. Murray. A Textbook of Natural Medicine. Seattle, WA: John Bastyr College Publications, 1987: IV-2 Immune Support.

[3] Davis, D.L., & H. Bradlow. Can environmental estrogens cause breast cancer? Scientific American, Oct. 1995:168.

[4] Kaur, Op. Cit, p. 69.