It’s a simple fact: hormones get blamed for a lot— bad moods, aggressive moments, sad days, trips to the cupboard for chocolate! Deserved or not, it is clear hormones play a significant role in many of the body’s functions. Estrogen and progesterone are the main steroidal hormones that affect a woman’s health (and testosterone too, but to a lesser degree). Phytoestrogens are one of the tools that we have to help regulate estrogen levels, which can contribute significantly to hormone balance.
Hormones affect such a wide range of physiological processes – many more functions than just our reproductive capability. Hormones can influence –
- Energy levels
- Sleep cycle
- Brain function
- Bone health
- Heart health including cholesterol levels
- Weight management
- Mood regulation
- Skin health
- Fluid balance
Therefore it is so important to maintain hormonal balance to prevent problems in all these areas.
Hormone cycles, and hormone problems, vary over a woman’s life. In the reproductive years, PMS is common, and there are growing numbers of cases of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) too. Many women struggle to get their hormones regulated again after having a baby and often after breastfeeding. Fertility issues are ever-increasing with estimates now that 1 in 8 couples will need some kind of fertility treatment to conceive.
Women in their 40’s go into perimenopause, where estrogen levels typically hold pretty steady and progesterone levels gradually decline. This can lead to estrogen dominance, and symptoms including mood changes, sleep disturbance, shorter menstrual cycles and more PMS.
During menopause, estrogen levels drop more dramatically, giving rise to symptoms of hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, depression, aging skin, and leaky bladder. This phase is also associated with bone loss and increased cholesterol levels.
Here is a list of possible symptoms of hormone imbalance at all stages, and there are plenty more too:
- Digestive Problems
- Excessive Sweating
- Food Cravings
- Loss of Muscle Mass
- Weight Gain
- Low Libido
- Urine leakage/ incontinence
- Pounding heart
- Skin wrinkling
- Sleep disturbance
Phytoestrogens and their role in balancing estrogen
Not only do overall estrogen levels impact how we feel hormonally, but the way we metabolize estrogen can have a huge impact on our overall health. Estrogen can be metabolized into “healthy” metabolites, known as 2-OH, or “unhealthy” metabolites, known as 16-alpha. 16-alpha metabolites are associated with elevated cancer risk and other health issues. So we need to shift estrogen metabolism to healthy pathways.
We can do this by:
- Increasing phytoestrogens (isoflavones and lignans)
- Increasing antioxidants
- Vitamins – especially B and E
- Minerals – especially calcium and magnesium
- Things that assist liver detox
- Cruciferous veggies
Phytoestrogens are adaptogenic molecules that are derived naturally from plants. They are chemically similar to estrogens produced in our bodies, and can bind to estrogen receptors in our bodies.
These compounds have a two-fold function:
- they exert a mildly estrogenic effect in case of hormone deficiency;
- they act as competitive inhibitors that decrease the action of harmful metabolites or block xenoestrogens in case of hormone excess.
So they can balance high or low estrogen levels.
If a woman has too much estrogen, milder phytoestrogens can bind with receptors that would otherwise be filled with stronger estrogens.
If a woman has not enough estrogen, the phytoestrogens will help fill this void naturally.
Also, phytoestrogens bind to particular estrogen receptors called beta-receptors. Beta-receptors are found mostly in the cardiovascular system, bones and skin, and are not found in the reproductive organs where over-exposure to estrogen and estrogen-like compounds has been shown to increase cancer risk.
The phytoestrogen blend I like the best is called Women’s Phytoestrogen Complex by doTERRA. It contains plant-based phytoestrogens, flax seed extract, and pomegranate extract. (To read more about it click here, and type phytoestrogen in the search box).
Flax seed extract – contains lignans (found in hull of seed) which support liver’s ability to metabolize hormones in a healthy way.
Pomegranate extract helps to manage the physical symptoms of menopause including hot flashes and aging of the skin. Also contains powerful antioxidants.
Genistein – found in soy isoflavones, which are also phytoestrogens. Soy isoflavones makes up less than 0.01% of soy proteins; genistein is less than 0.006% of soy proteins, but is a potent hormone regulator, so must be isolated and taken that way. Eating soy or consuming common soy extract is not enough, and since many people are sensitive to some of the soy proteins, taking the concentrated extract of genistein is the preferred route anyway to avoid having to eat lots of soy.
Regulating excessive or deficient estrogen through the use of phytoestrogens is a good start towards balancing hormones. Some women will need progesterone support too, either through herbs such as chaste tree, or actual bio-identical progesterone. The important thing is to stay away from synthetic hormones as much as possible, given the increased cancer risk that was demonstrated through research studies of synthetic HRT.
Next week I will write about the important role of diet and lifestyle factors for hormone balance to if this is an issue for you make sure to check that post out too.