How Estrogen Works in the Body and How to Control it
Hormones are chemical messengers that our body creates to control major body functions. There are many hormones, and the more that we understand each and how they work in our bodies the more in control we can be of our health and wellbeing.
Any imbalance in hormones can wreak havoc on our health. Some of the most important hormones for us to understand and keep in a healthy balance are our sex hormones.
In fitness we hear almost exclusively about testosterone, however estrogen plays a crucial role in testosterone function and balance, so we cannot ignore one and have a thorough understanding of the other.
Even though most of us understand that estrogen is important, the details of how it works are not often well understood in the general community.
Estrogen is not a single hormone. Estrogens are a group of hormones that are present in both men and women. Estrogens are produced by adrenal glands, fat tissue, the ovaries and the testis.
In women, estrogen is the main sex hormone in charge or puberty and fertility. Outside of these roles it also helps to control cholesterol levels, improve bone health and affect the brain, heart, skin, blood vessels and other body tissues.
In men estrogen is involved in the maturation of sperm and maintenance of labido.
There are three kinds of estrogen: estradiol, estriol and estrone. Estradiol and estrone are found in both men and women, with estriol only being associated with pregnancy.
Estradiol is what most of us would think of when we think of estrogen. It is the primary estrogen found in women during their fertile years. This estrogen is produced in the adrenal glands, ovaries and placenta.
While clearly this form of estrogen does amazing things, excess estradiol can be dangerous. Many diseases, including cancers and fibroids, are associated with too high estradiol levels.
When women go through menopause their hormones change. Estrone is the estrogen found in women postmenopause. The weakest form of estrogen, estrone is produced throughout the body, mainly in the muscle tissues and fat cells.
As with testosterone, estrogen levels do not stay level throughout one’s life or even one’s day.
During woman’s fertile years, estrogen will peak in the middle of the menstrual cycle, signalling ovulation. The lowest levels during this period of life are when a woman is menstruating.
Postmenopause not only the type but the levels of estrogens change, with estrogen levels dropping after menopause.
So what happens if your body is producing too much or too little estrogen?
When women experience insufficient estrogen, they can experience symptoms that are very familiar to many women who have gone through menopause. These include trouble sleeping, headaches, decreased labido, irregular periods, mood swings and hot flashes.
Men with insufficient estrogen also experience low sexual desire and tend to gain extra fat around their midsection. So yes, you need sufficient testosterone and estrogen to experience peak physical fitness as a man too!
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If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is recommended to have your hormone levels checked by your physician to help determine the cause and treatment course. Causes can include excessive exercise, anorexia, hypogonadism, post-childbirth and medications.
Too much estrogen for women can cause similar symptoms to having too little, with some variation. Symptoms can include irregular periods, fatigue, decreased sex drive, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, severe premenstrual pain, cysts and weight gain.
For men excess estrogen can lead to pronounced female characteristics, such as breasts, erectile dysfunction, decreased labiod, mood disorders such as depression, fatigue, weight gain and prostate cancer.
Causes of excess estrogen can include puberty changes, obesity, diabetes, pregnancy, ovarian or adrenal gland tumors, medications and high blood pressure.
Good and Bad Estrogen
To complicate matters, when estrogen is broken down through aerobic metabolism, the metabolites are capable of either helping or harming our health and wellbeing. We break down the estrogen metabolites into “good” or “bad” metabolites.
The “good” metabolites are known to have high antioxidant activity, which provides protection for the brain and heart. These “good” estrogen metabolites are estrogen antagonists known as 2-hydroxyestrone (2-OHE).
The “bad” metabolites have been tied to cancer and weight gain. These “bad” estrogen metabolites are estrogen agonists, known as 16-hydroxyestrone (16-OHE).
It would make sense that we want to do what we can to increase the good metabolites and decrease the bad metabolites, increasing the 2-OHE:16-OHE ratio. It is believed that by doing so we decrease the risk for a number of estrogen-responsive cancers.
The best way to do this is to find natural compounds that can have this effect. We know of natural compounds found in food that have been found to be antiestrogenic and thus are being further explored to discover how to capture these benefits for possible cancer prevention and treatment.
Cruciferous Vegetables and DIM
Dietary indoles found in cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and cabbage have been found to exhibit chemoprotective and chemotherapeutic properties against many cancers.
One compound known as diindolylmethane, or DIM, a compound derived from the plant indole I3C (indole-3-carbinol) found in cruciferous vegetables, has been found to have benefits through hormone balancing.
DIM has been found to reduce the production of the “bad” estrogen metabolites, thus encouraging production of the “good” metabolites. This effect appears to be through a decrease in estrogen signaling and an alteration of estrogen metabolism.
The hormone balancing properties of DIM are beneficial for the health of both men and women.
One study looked at the effects of DIM supplementation on women with thyroid proliferative disease (TPD). The results indicated that supplemental DIM acted as a dietary antiestrogenic supplement through enhanced estrogen metabolism, possibly decreasing the likelihood of women to develop TPD.
One benefit found for men that is especially helpful for those who are getting older is an ability to free up testosterone in the body due to this beneficial estrogen metabolism. Free testosterone is important for mood, energy and labido.
For both men and women, this improved hormone balance can lead to overall better health and even a healthier metabolism.
It is a good idea for everyone to make an effort to increase their consumption of cruciferous veggies and to see their doctor if they believe that they are experiencing a health problem that could be attributed to an imbalance of hormones.
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