Understanding Estrogen and Its Symptoms
Estrogen – A Blessing or Curse?
Estrogen is the primary female hormone and quite possibly the most important. At an early age women experience estrogen as they enter into puberty. The normal range for female puberty is age 10 to 15, although age 12 or older may be ideal. Early transition into puberty may be a sign of early estrogen imbalance.
At the age of puberty, females begin to see estrogen play its powerful role. On the outside estrogen helps develop breasts and hips and on the inside proper estrogen levels begin regulating serotonin (in the brain) that affects your mood, sleep and appetite. In the social world estrogen is responsible for the development of playful, flirtatious and engaging personalities. You often notice estrogen take its effect as you see a tom-boy as a child, gradually transform into a more feminine version of herself. As your body adapts to its new hormonal levels including estrogen, oxytocin and dopamine many teens experience a myriad of emotions.
As an adult, estrogen plays the same role it did in puberty. In excess it will continue to develop larger hips and in breast tissue it continues to support growth and can cause cysts. Progesterone is its antagonist and is responsible for limiting estrogens effect from continuing unregulated.
In menstruation estrogen begins to develop and thicken the lining of the uterus while progesterone stops the growth and allows the thickened lining to slough off. A perfect balance of these two hormones allows you to completely avoid breast tenderness, painful periods, endometriosis, mood swings, irritability and even anxiety or depression. (YES, I did say completely)
What if my estrogen and progesterone aren’t in balance?
First off, it is very common for these two to be out of balance; so common you might even say that it is normal. But from a physiological stand point it’s not normal. Normal physiology is in balance. Proper balance of estrogen and progesterone keeps you happy, maintains your libido (even up to age 45 or older), and allows your monthly cycle to pass without a monthly week of symptoms (aka PMS). If this blissful experience isn’t what you’re currently experiencing then continue reading.
The most common female hormonal imbalance that I have seen is estrogen dominance, in both males and females. Estrogen dominance is a term used to describe one of two major types of estrogen excess. The first is excess estrogen and normal progesterone and the second more common type is estrogen excess with low progesterone. Estrogen dominance has become eerily too common in women.
Side Note: What is worse is that estrogen dominance has become increasingly prevalent in men too. You see men developing female characteristics, like wider hips, increased breast tissue, breast cysts or puffy nipples and even becoming overly sensitive and developing more feminine personality types. Breast reduction surgery is the fastest growing cosmetic surgery for males. Male estrogen levels can even be higher than female levels! (More on this later)
Do you have estrogen dominance?
One of the most obvious signs you might be estrogen dominant is weight gain. Estrogen is the hormone (actually group of 3 hormones) that is responsible for depositing fat. These hormones are highly correlated to some of the different body shapes you see. They like to deposit fat in the abdomen, thighs, back of the arms and even contribute to a woman’s apple shape developed (and needed) during pregnancy.
To make things worse, excess estrogen actually binds to thyroid hormones and prevents their normal activity, making you gain yet more weight and feel tired all the time. This is where things get really bad, because thyroid hormone is required to help the liver detoxify excess estrogen and that is blocked by the excess estrogen you may already have, your estrogen continues to rise while your thyroid hormone, decreases, creating a vicious cycle.
Estrogen dominance quickly develops symptoms originating from brain chemical imbalances too. Estrogen is responsible for keeping cells sensitive to serotonin. Serotonin is associated with the sense of well-being and happiness. So high estrogen should make you feel good all the time, right? Not quite, because 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut and many people with estrogen dominance have gut problems causing estrogen dominance. So while it may mask symptoms for a while, high estrogen doesn’t usually make up for an unhealthy gut.
As mentioned above, a common finding in estrogen dominance is low progesterone. Low progesterone in and of itself can lead to endometriosis, heavy periods, insomnia and infertility. Low progesterone symptoms stacked with high estrogens symptoms can leave you feeling hopeless.
Progesterone is responsible for keeping cells sensitive to dopamine. Dopamine is associated with the body’s pleasure and reward system. If your body is low in progesterone and isn’t sensitive to dopamine, then things that used to elevate dopamine like sex, food and good music, won’t be as pleasurable as they once were.
Dopamine also plays a large role in inhibiting prolactin. High prolactin levels inhibit estrogen and testosterone. In the case of estrogen dominance, prolactin is uninhibited by dopamine and possibly elevated in an effort to decrease high estrogen levels.
So what does this all mean? It means a typical patient may come in with some extra weight, thyroid problems, depression (lack of happiness) and no fulfillment in life (a feeling of low self-worth). They are often written off as personality traits or emotional instabilities but they are really physiological imbalances, and in this article they are related to estrogen dominance.
Part 2 covers the major causes of estrogen dominance and imbalances.