The Ecology of Estrogen in the Body
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
Throughout this article, we’ll discuss the biological and environmental factors that contribute to reproductive, or generative, health. From a holistic healing perspective, it’s crucial to look at how a person eats, sleeps, works, lives, and interacts with other humans. Are their physical needs being met—do they have access to healthy food and adequate shelter and clothing? Do they have social and emotional support? What is their story—have any traumatic events occurred? This last question can be especially pertinent to generative and sexual health.
People store the memory of trauma in specific areas of the body, often leading to chronic pain or disease. In the United States, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn eighteen years old. One in five women are raped in their lifetime.1 Around 40% of gay men suffer sexual violence2 and 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.3 These numbers may be much higher in actuality, due to the high number of incidences that go unreported. It’s also noteworthy that the data around gender identity and sexuality are shaped by the methodology of researchers.
It’s imperative to address and heal these traumas when working with health and well-being, including reproductive health issues. Counseling, group therapy, and other forms of spiritual and psychological healing are central to healing on a physical, emotional, and spiritual basis. If we ignore trauma and only treat an individual’s body, we’re often not effective healers, and even if we do provide relief, physical symptoms may simply crop up in another location down the line. For most people, sharing their story with a safe and compassionate person helps lighten the burden of shame and secrecy. This is an important first step in healing and often offers the impetus to seek help.
Now we’ll begin the nitty-gritty aspects of the ecology of estrogen. But first, if you’re new to the anatomy and physiology of the menstrual cycle, or you need a refresher, I suggest reviewing Virtual Medical Center’s menstrual cycle fact sheet. Focus on the following concepts: estrogen, progesterone, follicular phase, luteal phase, ovulation, menstruation, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis.
People today live in a very different world than our ancestors. Our predecessors began menstruating later in life, had more children, breastfed/chestfed longer, underwent menopause earlier, ate whole foods, and lived in a cleaner environment. Individuals today have approximately ten times as many menstrual cycles as their ancestors a few generations back4. Our bodies did not evolve with the hormonal inputs of perpetual ovulation and menstruation. As a result, more people than ever are experiencing reproductive disorders, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids and ovarian cysts. Painful menstrual cramps, persistent acne and cyclic breast tenderness are so common that they are taken for granted as a normal aspect of physiology. Many natural practitioners address these issues with herbal hormone balancers, such as chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, Lamiaceae) and black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae). While these herbs are effective and have their place in treating disorders of the generative system, it’s important not to ignore the underlying dietary and lifestyle factors contributing to hormonal imbalances, as these harmful inputs are likely to create other issues down the road if left unaddressed.
In this article, we will explore various factors affecting the hormonal ecology, or hormonal environment, of contemporary cis-women and other people with ovarian generative systems. I will start by outlining the three major sources of estrogens, each of which is described in detail later in the article. The term endogenous is used to describe any substance generated from within an organism. Thus, endogenous estrogens are estrogens produced by the human body. Phytoestrogens are compounds, produced by plants, with an ability to bind to estrogen receptor sites. In contrast, xenoestrogens are human-made chemicals, which are also capable of binding to estrogen receptor sites. Xenoestrogens are a subclass of endocrine disruptors (hormone disruptors), which are described below.
It is important to understand that a variety of compounds have the ability to fit into estrogen receptor sites—natural and human-made molecules will alter a person’s overall estrogen pool. The ovaries may be producing healthy levels of estrogen and progesterone, but the cells may be bombarded with strong estrogenic inputs from unnatural substances in an individual's diet, water and air. Humans are exposed to environmental chemicals beginning at conception, absorbing novel compounds through the placenta, and then through breast milk. These endocrine disruptors (chemicals which disrupt hormonal physiology) have the potential to alter the reproductive ecology of the body, often with drastic effects, such as reproductive cancers and chronic reproductive disorders.
Phytoestrogens have the ability to bind to hormonal receptor sites; they exert a beneficial effect on the physiology of the ovarian system. Our bodies’ hormonal systems have evolved with phytoestrogens, which are helpful in treating estrogen dominance (relative imbalance of estrogen to progesterone), as well as reducing menopausal symptoms. Most modern peoples in wealthy industrialized nations consume very little phytoestrogens and are regularly exposed to endocrine disruptors. I believe that these two factors play a large role in the increasing rates of reproductive pathologies.
Our diets are different than those of our ancestors—with easy access to processed “foods”, as well as chemically grown and genetically modified foods. We are often not as active as our forebears. The world is a different place, and in many ways the decisions about how we live, eat and reproduce are not as simple. Some health care professionals believe the increase in modern people’s estrogen pools should be mediated with oral contraceptives. I do not agree with that strategy, and instead propose the judicious intake of dietary and herbal phytoestrogens, along with specific lifestyle changes aimed at lessening the stress of excess estrogen.
Everyone is exposed to novel chemicals in the environment, which present challenges to all hormonal systems. Much of the following will be relevant to people with ovarian generative systems and people with testicular generative systems. The info on phytoestrogens and xenoestrogens is especially relevant to the latter group
Phytoestrogens are a diverse group of compounds, found in plants, that have the ability to bind to estrogen receptor sites and elicit an estrogenic effect (phyto = plant, estrogen = estrus [period of fertility for female mammals] + gen = to generate). These “plant estrogens” are fairly abundant in a whole foods diet, and are found in many commonly eaten seeds, grains, and beans. In addition, many medicinal herbs used to treat reproductive disorders contain phytoestrogenic compounds.
To understand how phytoestrogens work, it is important to grasp the following: varying substances can bind to the same receptor site and elicit differing effects, depending on the exact molecular fit. Phytoestrogens exert a weaker estrogenic effect on cells than endogenous estrogens and xenoestrogens. Phytoestrogens have an anti-estrogenic effect premenopausally by competitive inhibition of hormone receptor sites. When receptor sites are occupied with the less estrogenic phytoestrogens, there are fewer sites available for the more potent endogenous estrogens or xenoestrogens. Imagine a lock on a doorknob (estrogen receptor site), now picture a key (phytoestrogen) fitting into the lock and turning the key. Now imagine a second key coming along (endogenous estrogen); it can’t fit into the lock because there’s already a key there, blocking its way (phytoestrogen). The phytoestrogen key opens the door gently, while the endogenous estrogen would cause the door to fling open with wild abandon. Why do we want to gently open the door? Because most modern people with ovarian systems have estrogen dominance, or a relative imbalance of estrogen to progesterone—turning down the estrogen dial by slowly opening the door is a good thing.
In menopausal and post-menopausal people, estrogen production from the ovaries slows, and then stops. As menstruation ceases, phytoestrogens have a positive effect by increasing the estrogenic effect on the body. Although phytoestrogens are less estrogenic than endogenous estrogens, they still increase the net estrogenic effect. This is evidenced by epidemiological studies demonstrating fewer menopausal symptoms, greater bone density, and lower breast cancer in populations of individuals who regularly consume phytoestrogens as part of their diet.5
Sources of phytoestrogens:
Isoflavones (genistein, daidzein, formononetin, and biochanin A) are primarily found in the bean family (Fabaceae) and are some of the most potent and well-researched phytoestrogens. Soybeans (Glycine max, Fabaceae) appear to be the most concentrated dietary source of isoflavones. Soy foods, listed in order of isoflavone concentration, include miso, tempeh, soymilk, tofu, and edamame. Soy is one of the most controversial foods today, either vilified as a harmful substance or praised for its nutritional superiority. There are some possible negative aspects to soy: it is a common allergen, difficult for many to digest, and typically grown as a genetically modified monoculture. However, it is a traditional food, consumed by Asians for millennia, and can be grown organically, without any chromosomal foul play. It is crucial to understand the difference between its traditional whole foods forms (tempeh, miso, tamari, edamame, and tofu) and the industrially produced processed “food”—soy protein isolate. Much of American soy consumption is from the latter form in processed meats from fast foods.
Traditional Asian cultures ingest about one ounce of soy daily on average, often in fermented forms such as tempeh, miso, and tamari. These fermented foods are easier to digest than other forms of soy. When eaten in moderation, they serve as a high protein phytoestrogen, with the following benefits: increased bone density; fewer menopausal symptoms; and lowered incidence of breast, uterine, and prostate cancers. It appears that soy consumption via chestfeeding or breastfeeding (with nursing parents who consume soy foods) and in youth, reduces breast and prostate cancer later in life.6 Population studies show that early consumption of soy is also linked to a reduced amount of menopausal symptoms.
Most of the confusion and misinformation about soy stems from two misunderstandings: One, people do not differentiate soy’s whole fermented organic traditional forms, such as miso, tamari, and tempeh from its industrial counterpart —soy protein isolate. Many authors and speakers extrapolate from studies done on soy protein isolate to include all soy foods. That is simply inaccurate, and similar to lumping high fructose corn syrup together with organically-grown, non GMO corn tortillas, and declaring all of corn-derived foods as unhealthy and unnatural. Two, people do not understand how phytoestrogens, sourced from whole plant foods and herbs, are part of traditional diets all over the planet, and that our hormonal systems evolved with these substances. Phytoestrogens are not the same as xenoestrogens; these substances have very different effects on the human body. Comparing the two is worse than comparing apples to oranges, it’s akin to comparing DDT to broccoli, and yet, people often blur the distinction.
Lignans are the most widely consumed phytoestrogen precursors found in the western diet and are found in high concentrations in flax and sesame seeds and to a lesser extent in other seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans.7 Flax has about ten times the lignan levels as sesame. Intestinal flora metabolize the lignans, converting them to their active forms: enterodiol and enterolactone, which produce a weaker estrogenic effect compared to the isoflavones. Lignans are not present in the oil portion of the seed, so sesame and flax oil are not good sources. Both flax and sesame seeds, in their whole form, pass through the gastro-intestinal system intact, and thus are not assimilated. I recommend grinding the fresh seeds and adding them to food after the food has been cooked. Grind flax with a hand grinder, coffee grinder, or blender and store it refrigerated for a week. Add the flax meal to oatmeal, or other breakfast gruels, salads, stir-fries, and baked goods. Gomasio is a traditional Japanese condiment made from toasted sesame seeds; try it sprinkled on salads, soup, and stir-fries. Prepare gomasio by toasting the seeds in a dry cast iron skillet and then grinding them after they have cooled, with the addition of salt or seaweed. Tahini, or sesame butter, is another excellent source of lignans.
Synopsis: Sesame can be consumed liberally in the form of tahini (sesame butter) or gomasio. This tiny seed has long been used as a traditional remedy in Ayurvedic medicine as an aphrodisiac and to strengthen the bones, hair and teeth. Sesame is considered to be a rejuvenative for Vata constitutions. In Chinese medicine, the black sesame seeds are used medicinally as a galactagogue (stimulate breast milk production) and to tonify the yin and blood. Sesame seeds are rich in calcium and protein. Two tablespoons of ground flax seed daily is a good dosage of lignans, with the additional benefit of flax’s soluble fiber (which is protective against cardio-vascular disease and helps to promote healthy intestinal flora).
For people who are able to effectively digest soy: I recommend tamari and/or miso daily. Both miso and tamari are naturally eaten in moderation, as they are so salty tasting. Tempeh or tofu can be eaten two to three times a week. I strongly caution folks to avoid soy protein and soy protein isolate –these processed “foods” can be found in many fake meat products, fast foods, health bars, and even commercial smoothies. I am not a fan of isolated isoflavone supplements, such as genistein, and believe that dietary sources from whole foods and herbs are a better choice. Herbal sources of isoflavones include Red clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae) and Alfalfa (Medicago sativa, Fabaceae).
For a more detailed look at phytoestrogens, please see my article here.
Endocrine disruptors, or hormone disruptors, are human-made chemicals in the environment that interfere with the development and function of all body systems in animals, including humans. Endocrine disruptors can bind to hormone receptor sites, triggering a body-wide hormonal influence. They may also inhibit our natural hormones, such as androgens, thyroid hormones, and progesterone. In addition, these chemicals can affect the production, elimination and metabolism of our endogenous hormones.
Most of the chemicals used in modern conventional industrial agriculture are known endocrine disruptors. These same chemicals are also used in home gardens and lawns. Home use of garden herbicides and insecticides are typically devoid of the same regulation and education inherent in agricultural settings. Many of the ingredients in cleaning and body care products have also demonstrated binding to hormone receptor sites. Additional exposure may come from absorbing compounds found in electronic devices and shopping receipts.
Most Americans have some control over reducing exposure to environmental toxins, but there are people throughout the world who do not have this privilege. Socioeconomic factors contribute greatly to accessing fresh food, and clean water and air. Pollution is typically higher in poorer areas. Endocrine disruptors do not observe political boundaries; air and water currents carry these chemicals far and wide. The decisions we make about how we live and consume have the power to affect the hormonal systems of all people and animals globally for generations to come. For more information on endocrine disruptors, including resources for learning more, please see my article on the subject.
Synopsis: It is a common response to feel disheartened and concerned for the future generations of all life when first hearing about endocrine disruptors. That’s a good sign of humanness! However, it is beneficial to balance the facts with hope, and learn about reducing personal and planetary exposure to endocrine disruptors.
Avoid any type of plastic coming into contact with food and beverages. Use glass and stainless steel containers instead. Buy or make natural cleaning and body care products. Buy or grow food organically. If finances are an issue, focus on organic meat and dairy, as the bulk of our exposure to agricultural chemicals comes from these animal foods. Many forms of packaging contain endocrine disruptors: the inside lining of canned foods, aseptic containers, and plastic wrap to name a few. Microwaving foods in plastic should be avoided. Filter water unless it is absolutely pure spring or well water (lucky few). Avoid chemicals in clothing (fire-retardant children’s pajamas) and freshly manufactured synthetic fabrics. Try to avoid the chemicals found in conventional building materials. It can be maddening to think about all the ways we absorb environmental chemicals! Living simply is a good start, along with breathing deeply and laughing through the madness.
For many people, fasting and cleansing can be extremely beneficial if undertaken slowly and carefully. This is especially important for people considering pregnancy and nursing, as most of their lifetime stores of fat-soluble chemicals are passed on to their infant via human milk. It is beyond the scope of this article to thoroughly discuss fasting and cleansing, but I will say that it is imperative to tailor the cleanse to the individual’s constitution and lifestyle. For someone who eats mainly processed foods and lives a fairly typical western lifestyle, a good start would be to eat a mono diet like kicheree (a traditional Indian dish, made from mung beans, rice and spices) for four days. During this time, offer herbal support in the form of alteratives, diuretics, and liver and kidney tonics. Examples would be dandelion leaf and root (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae), nettles (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae), and burdock (Arctium minus and A. lappa, Asteraceae). Sweating through exercise, saunas, and baths is also helpful in removing toxins via perspiration. Hydration is imperative, as well as daily bowel movements. If a person feels very nauseous, achy, shaky, or experiences headaches, that is a sign to slow down or stop the cleanse. The body cannot always easily metabolize fat-soluble chemicals, which enter the bloodstream when fat cells are broken down (through reduced caloric intake). One should never attempt a fast or cleanse when pregnant or nursing. Fasting is not appropriate for all people, and for many it can seriously worsen a pre-existing condition. On a final note, the support of long-term dietary and lifestyle goals should be one of the primary points of attention. After healthy patterns have been established, one may embark on fasting and cleansing.
The liver breaks down circulating estrogen and progesterone and excretes the inactive metabolites from the body via the bile, and eventually the feces. If a person’s liver is impaired, hormonal metabolism and excretion can be slow. Their ovaries may be producing a healthy balance of estrogen and progesterone, but the liver is allowing the hormones to circulate longer in the bloodstream, resulting in increased estrogen levels. The relationship between the liver and ovarian generative health has long been recognized by most, if not all, traditional systems of medicine.
Synopsis: With any ovarian generative disorder, it is important to examine the health of the liver. Symptoms of liver and gallbladder disharmony include frequent headaches, pale stools, excessive anger, irritability, digestive sluggishness, constipation, and an inability to tolerate alcohol or digest fats. Often the person will describe feeling stuck or held back. Yellow eyes and skin are other indicators of possible liver distress. Other precipitating factors include a history of alcoholism, hepatitis, excessive NSAID use, exposure to solvents and environmental toxins, and intake of pharmaceuticals or recreational drugs known to be especially hard on the liver. If possible, reduce any ongoing harmful inputs, such as the intake of excessive alcohol and fried foods, and habitual NSAID use.
Consider supporting the liver with traditional liver and blood tonics, such as dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae), burdock root (Arctium lappa and A. minus, Asteraceae), red clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum, G. applanatum, and G. tsugae, Ganodermataceae), vervain (Verbena officinalis, V. hastata, and other species, Verbenaceae) and nettles (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae). If you suspect or know of liver damage, consider hepatoregeneratives (herbs which stimulate re-growth of damaged liver tissue), such as milk thistle (Silybum marianum, Asteraceae) and artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus, Asteraceae). Bitters can also help to stimulate the flow of bile with the attendant excretion of estrogen. Many of the aforementioned hepatics have a bitter taste and can be taken 20 minutes before meals to optimize the bitter action. Note that most bitters are cooling and drying; add warming and/or demulcent herbs to soften the energetic effects in people who run cool and dry.
Intestinal Flora imbalance is almost an epidemic in western industrialized nations. One in three babies in the United States comes into this world through cesarean birth, and many are not breastfed; both factors contribute to the imbalance of intestinal flora. In addition, antibiotics are frequently administered to children, which also diminishes healthy populations of intestinal flora.
Our bacterial beasties help in the assimilation of phytoestrogens; intestinal flora convert lignans into their bioactive form and aid in the absorption of isoflavones. The repeated use of antibiotics and subsequent damage to intestinal bacteria has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, perhaps in part due to the lowered production of active phytoestrogen metabolites.8 Intestinal bacteria also play a role in estrogen metabolism; certain bacteria produce an enzyme capable of converting the inactive estrogen metabolites in the gut back into a viable estrogen, which is then reabsorbed further down the digestive tract. It appears that supporting healthy populations of intestinal flora helps to reduce this “reinstatement” of estrogen, thus allowing estrogen to leave the body via the feces.
Synopsis: Support healthy populations of intestinal flora by introducing the use of bitters, prebiotics, and fermented foods. Prebiotic foods (not to be confused with pro-biotics) are not digested by human intestinal enzymes, and instead are broken down and absorbed by intestinal flora. The ingestion of prebiotic foods is one of the best ways to support healthy populations of beneficial intestinal bacteria. The best way to absorb prebiotics is in food, but tea is a second best. Herbal/Dietary sources are: leeks, asparagus, and the roots of dandelion, chicory, burdock and Jerusalem artichoke tubers (not to be confused with artichoke hearts or artichoke heads). Roasting roots converts inulin (type of prebiotic) into sugars, and thus roasted root teas are less effective for supporting healthy intestinal flora. The ingestion of fermented foods is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. Examples of fermented foods and beverages are: miso, live kimchi and sauerkraut, kefir (water and dairy), yogurt (dairy, soy or coconut), kombucha, and many others. Many of these items can easily be found in the aisles of health food stores, but it is much more economical to learn how to ferment at home. Probiotic supplementation may be indicated, but fermented foods should also be incorporated into the diet.
Dietary fiber intake reduces estrogen levels in the body, and is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer.9 In addition, soluble fiber nourishes healthy populations of intestinal flora and reduces cholesterol levels in the body. A good way to remember soluble fiber is that both slimy and soluble begin with an S; soluble fiber binds with water to form a mucilaginous texture. Barley, oats, split peas, bananas, okra, and most beans are high in soluble fiber.
Synopsis: Incorporate ample sources of whole plant foods in the diet: fruits, beans, whole grains and vegetables. If you are used to eating processed grains and little fruits and vegetables, the increased fiber intake can result in painful gas. Introduce these foods slowly while taking digestive bitters before meals. Carminatives, like fennel, cinnamon, anise, and mint can also help. Over time, the intestinal flora will adapt to the higher fiber intake.
Body Composition and Aromatization
Pre-menopausally, the ovaries (specifically, the follicles and corpus luteum) are the primary producers of estrogens. In addition, some of the body’s supply is derived from the conversion of androgens (reproductive hormones such as testosterone and androstenedione) by the aromatase enzyme. This conversion (aromatization) takes place primarily in fat tissue, but also occurs in the brain, skin, muscle, and bones. After menopause, this secondary source of estrogen is particularly important as it provides for most of the body’s estrogen. During the years when a person is menstruating, aromatization can account for a significant contribution to circulating estrogen levels; the powerful effect of aromatization is demonstrated in individuals who have undergone surgical removal of their ovaries without experiencing the symptoms of premature menopause. Excess aromatization, however, has been linked to breast, adrenal, endometrial and prostate cancers. In summary, high levels of fat tissue contribute to excess estrogen levels through increased aromatization. Conversely, stores of fat tissue can translate to low levels of estrogen, through reducing aromatization. Low levels of body fat may contribute to amenorrhea (absence of menstruation), infertility, anovulation (lack of ovulation), or difficulty with menopause.
High caloric intake has been linked to earlier menarche (onset of menstruation) and later menopause; this leads to a longer exposure to estrogen, and increases the risk of breast cancer.10 Postmenopausal obesity has shown to be a strong risk factor for breast cancer, increasing the risk by as much as 50%.11 Excess body fat has also been linked to uterine fibroids and endometriosis.12
Synopsis: Maintaining a balanced level of fat can help keep the peripheral conversion of reproductive hormones in balance. Body weight and fat distribution varies among individuals and groups—it’s more important to look at overall vitality, diet, and movement than the scale! It is important to rule out eating disorders, food allergies, digestive issues, depression, hyperthyroidism, body image issues, and overexercising as possible causes of low body weight. Often people are simply thin or thick due to genetics or constitution, without any underlying pathology. Be sure to optimize the ingestion of whole foods, including high-quality fats and proteins. Increasing wild or organic animal foods in the diet will help build the body’s reserves and build connective tissue (including adipose tissue) and blood.
For all body types, find an exercise plan that feels realistic and enjoyable. Walking or hiking with a buddy is a great first step. Dancing, biking, and swimming are other ideas. Social support is extremely effective in helping to change ingrained dietary and lifestyle habits. It is a bigger deal to cancel a walking date with a friend rather than convincing yourself that you don’t need to walk. Pencil your exercise into your calendar at specific times, and you’ll be more likely to follow through. Start with a simple plan so you don’t set yourself up for failure. For example, walking briskly for thirty minutes every other day is a more realistic goal than jogging every morning for one hour.
In conclusion, there are many factors contributing to each person’s personal estrogen ecology; these need to be explored in any ovarian reproductive disorder. Often, herbal hormone balancers are indicated, along with appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes. It is my hope that this information is part of a foundation for sustaining healthy reproductive systems!
Resources/ Suggested Reading
Note: These books don’t all use queer inclusive language, but may be useful for anyone with an ovarian generative system.
Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health by Aviva Romm. A comprehensive resource of medical and herbal interventions related to ovarian generative health issues, with both traditional and scientific information. Geared toward the health care practitioner, this is the most advanced and detailed book on the subject.
Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber. Describes endocrine disruptors and their ability to cross the placenta and also into chest/breast milk.
Herbal Healing for Women: Simple Home Remedies for Women of All Ages by Rosemary Gladstar. Thorough and engaging materia medica. This was the only book I brought with me on a three-month trip to Central America, and I never tired of its pages. Information is very accessible and includes many recipes and formulas.
Hormone Intelligence: The Complete Guide To Calming Hormone Chaos and Restoring Your Body’s Natural Blueprint for Well-Being by Aviva Romm. A guide to understanding the “hormone epidemic”, its root causes, and triggers. Accompanied by a six-week action plan and meal plan for healing.
The Natural Pregnancy Book: Herbs, Nutrition, and Other Holistic Choices by Aviva Romm. Follows the journey from baby’s conception to birth, describing herbs that can promote and maintain a healthy pregnancy, along with those you should avoid during your term.
Transgender Medicine by Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America. Addresses a number of topics related to transgender health including hormone therapy in children and adolescents, transfeminine hormone therapy, transmasculine hormone therapy, dermatologic conditions in transgender persons, gender affirming surgery, and fertility considerations in transgender persons.
Women, Hormones, and the Menstrual Cycle: Herbal and Medical Solutions from Adolescence to Menopause, fully revised and updated edition, by Ruth Trickey. Comprehensive book on reproductive health, written by an herbal practitioner for other practitioners.
Where's MY Book? A Guide for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Youth, Their Parents, & Everyone Else by Linda Gromko. Written by a board certified family physician who has worked with the transgender community for 18 years, this book explores a number of subjects, including puberty blockers, hormones, and hormone treatments.
1. National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “Statistics about sexual violence.” http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.” https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_victimization_final-a.pdf
3. National Center for Transgender Equality. “2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” https://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/USTS-Full-Report-FINAL.PDF
4. Trickey, R. Women, Hormones, and the Menstrual Cycle (Trickey Enterprises, 2011).
5. Julia R. Barrett, “The Science of Soy: What Do We Really Know?,” Environmental Health Perspectives 114, no. 6 (June 2006): A352–A358.
6. Jillian Stansbury, “Gene Expression and Reproductive Health. Medicines from the Earth. Official Proceedings. June 4-7, 2010. P138-142.,” n.d.
7. Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University,” accessed April 26, 2013, http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/lignans/.
8. “Risk of Breast Cancer in Relation... [Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf. 2008] - PubMed - NCBI,” accessed April 26, 2013, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17943999.
9. D. Aune et al., “Dietary Fiber and Breast Cancer Risk: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Prospective Studies,” Annals of Oncology (January 10, 2012), doi:10.1093/annonc/mdr589.
10. “Breast Cancer Research | Full Text | Does Diet Affect Breast Cancer Risk?,” accessed April 26, 2013, http://breast-cancer-research.com/content/6/4/170.
11. Sandhya Pruthi et al., “A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Management of Breast Cancer, Part 2: Therapeutic Considerations,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Mayo Clinic 82, no. 9 (September 2007): 1131–1140, doi:10.4065/82.9.1131.
12. Ruth Trickey, Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle, n.d.
This article was previously published in Plant Healer Magazine, the paperless quarterly journal of the new folk herbalism resurgence – a downloadable, beautifully illustrated, full color PDF magazine http://planthealermagazine.com/
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34 thoughts on “The Ecology of Estrogen in the Body”
Hello just sick of being and feeling bad I have what can I take
Christine Borosh says:
I’m sorry to hear of your discomfort! The best course of action would be to see a clinical herbalist who would tailor their dietary and herbal recommendations to your constitution, lifestyle and health. Unfortunately we’re not providing consultations at this time, but there are a number of great herbalists you can reach out to. The American Herbalist Guild maintains a directory of professional herbalists, which you can access here. You can also check the Links page on our website to find graduates of our programs who do clinical work. It might also be worth considering acupuncture or naturopathic care. Note that we cannot offer personal health advice due to legal restraints. I wish you the best on your healing journey!
Hi please edit or remove this is you see fit because my experience is extreme with phytoestrogens. I’m a left-handed female so for most of my life I have strong hormonal influences ranging from estrogen dominance to some form of testosterone. My point is that phytoestrogens from soy protein induced difficult periods that were excessive for me, resulting in aches and painful lymph nodes. What really helps me are moderate-to-heavy doses of iodine that I take both as a tincture and topically, also a mostly vegan diet, no soy or dairy. I heard the amino acid methionine was bad, so no sesame, tahini, or chicken, all my favorites. Miso seems ok for me but I don’t usually have it. I just want to share this because so many of us left-handed women don’t know that our condition started from estrogen exposure in the womb that started us on a balancing act that can last a lifetime and maybe should be listened to and not pathologized (eg. Provera to regulate menstruation and it was wrong for me). Thank you for this site, very valuable information.
Christine Borosh says:
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us! We can all learn from one another 🙂
Just curious what is the connection between left handedness and estrogen?
This is a very interesting article. I totally agree that we have an overload of estrogen in our systems due to our modern world, and that we can heal ourselves through diet. But I always thought that phytoestrogens contribute to, not alleviate this load. I understood your description about having to compete at receptor sites. But what happens to the estrogen in the body when it is not received at the site? Its still there, even if it isn’t being received. Doesn’t it just continue to circulate, unless the body is very well adapted to methylation of estrogen, which in most cases it is not? I would love to read more on this subject. Could you please give me a reference (or two) that shows the science behind the anti-estrogenic effect of phytoestrogens? Thanks!
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Thank you for your interest in this topic! Here is another article I wrote about Phytoestrogens with more resources at the bottom.
Hi Juliet, I read the article, but I still could not find the specific reference that shows the science behind the anti-estrogenic effects of phytoestrogens. Can you help? Thanks. 🙂
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Both these pages offer an overview of the scientific literature on competitive inhibition of phytoestrogens (their “anti-estrogenic” effect during a women’s reproductive era).
Patricia Walker says:
This was an outstanding article. I know you cannot give medical advice and I am not asking for that. But I do have a question. I have Estrogen and Progestrene positive breast cancer and am being advised to take hormone blockers. I am trying to discern if Phytoestrogens should be avoided in my diet. For instance red clover is recommended for cancer, yet is a phytoestrogen. Your article addressed the cancer protective elements of phytoestrogens, however does that change with ER positive breast cancer? Would these plants feed the cancer? Has your research addressed this issue?
Juliet Blankespoor says:
This is a complicated issue. Many of the phytoestrogenic herbs and foods are also SERMs (selective estrogen receptor modulators) and some are also aromatase inhibitors! I wish I had a book or population study to refer you to, specifically on estrogen positive breast cancer. Here’s a large population study on breast cancer survival rates and soy ingestion: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=185034&resultclick=1
Studies can definitely be conflicting. A couple considerations when researching the issue: Is the study conducted with isolated soy protein or isolated soy isoflavones, rather than whole foods or herbs? Is it in vitro or in vivo?
I hope this is helpful and that you find some clear answers on this issue!
Cathryn Kasper says:
Thank you so very much for this article!! At 70, I am relieved to remember my emphasis on making fresh tofu in large quantities for my family when my children were young (whew!).
Your article re-states many things I have already discovered with updated research to back it up- what a joy it is to have science on our side here!! Bless you for your herbal work!!
Dawn Bertram says:
I wish I could say that phytoestrogens worked in reducing my estrogen dominance. I have totally had to eliminate soy from my diet, as my daily cup of chai with organic soy milk was causing increased symptoms almost immediately after drinking. In theory, the phytoestrogens make sense, but practically I am having to go alternative routes, like bio identical progesterone and iodine therapy. Maybe there is something about organic soy milk that doesn’t work the same? I also make my own kefir and use daily, and take maca, but there has been very slow change, and almost none prior to starting the natural progesterone and increasing the iodine. I am also taking a commercial supplement that metabolizes the unfriendly estrogen into better forms. I am vegetarian but do eat organic dairy. Any advice?
Thanks for the very well written article.
Kathryn Blau says:
The best course of action would be to see a clinical herbalist who would tailor their dietary and herbal recommendations to your constitution, lifestyle and health. Unfortunately we’re not providing consultations at this time, but there are a number of great herbalists you can reach out to. The American Herbalist Guild maintains a directory of professional herbalists, which you can access here: http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/member-profiles. You can also check the Links page on our website to find graduates of our programs who do clinical work: https://chestnutherbs.com/about/links/. Note that we cannot offer personal health advice due to legal restraints. I wish you the best on your healing journey!
I am not a nutritionist or a clinical herbalist but from previous knowledge & what I gathered from the article is 1) soy milk is not fermented and is not a good source of isoflavones, and 2) maybe since isoflavones are a stronger source of phytoestrogens you would do better with lignans (examples being flax and sesame seeds).
Blessings on your healing journey!
Thanks for your information about The Ecology of Estrogen in the Female Body , i need the article. Good Job …
Lisa Harris says:
This is the best description of women’s hormonal health I’ve ever read. And referring to it as ‘The ecology of…’ is so important to understanding the bigger picture of causes and effects. Thank you – I’ll be passing this on!
Cassandra Nicholson says:
WOWZA. Thank You Juliet! This is going in my notebook of favorite articles, filed in the female reproductive health section.
Juliet, thanks for the information. It is very helpful. I have a question. If I believe I have a hormone imbalance due to acne during ovulation, I’ve read that the appropriate treatment depends on what kind of imbalance, for instance, estrogen dominance or the ratio of estrogen to progesterone. Do you have any insight on how to tell the difference or can you direct me to another source for this information? Thank you!
Aumdoc (Rick Clofine, D.O.) says:
I am in agreement with the above comments that this is a fine article. Such an important topic, well written and presented in a readable fashion (love your illustrations). I appreciate your perspective on this issue.
Here is another resource on this topic from a rather conventional source, FYI:
I look forward to following your blog and enjoyed your talk at Firefly.
Keep up the good work!
Aumdoc (Rick Clofine, D.O.)
retired Holistic Ob-Gyn physician
Thank You Juliet,
This is genius! I am forwarding to my Mom and MIL, and probably many others as well. It is such a beautiful crystallization of well researched wisdom – and your gorgeous photos are the icing on the cake! I especially like how the seemingly innocent Princess of Xeno is pictured, lying in wait, with her garish colors ready to lure a hapless toddler, to gumming and chewing ingestion of harmful xenoestrogens. She represents her tribe well and is a chilling reminder to all that buying plastic toys for toddlers has unseen perils involved. Wish I had known this when my little guy was in his teething and drooling stage! Beautiful and essential article Juliet! THANK YOU!
Juliet, what a gift you’ve given us! This is the most clearly-written and articulate treatment of this complicated subject I’ve seen, and I thank you for the work you’ve done in bringing it to us. I’m sharing this widely and with gratitude. xo Lissa
Twinkle Yochim says:
Wow, so well done, thanks for sharing your extensive knowledge with us, and so well communicated, I feel like I’ve taken a course. Would love to read anything you’ve got, thank you
Thank you so much, this is an invaluable resource for my daughters and my continuing journey! I had many lightbulb moments while reading this, covering 3 generations of women, my mum, mine and my daughters. I feel like this came just in time for my 13 year old, divine intervention I think!! Again I say a heartfelt thanks xx
Juliet Blankespoor says:
This is just the reason I wrote this article, thank you for taking the time to write and share!
Lindsay Wilson says:
Yes, a great article! And a great resource I will point women to over the years to come. Thank you for this lovely contribution to the wellness world! I have a couple things to add…
1 – I agree with everything you wrote about soy. *THANK YOU* ~ eating soy in its fermented, traditional form is really the ideal way to eat this legume. As you said, a raw soybean without traditional processing can really reek havoc on an unsuspecting digestive system (and the American gut is taxed enough). I also suggest that people eat soy in all the forms you suggested (tamara, tempeh, miso) and I also suggest the superfood, natto. It is also high in the essential vitamin K2.
2 – This article really links together many pieces of the puzzle that I have, personally, been arriving at more awareness about…so, it has been so satisfying to read! The link between whole foods sources of phytoestrogens, plant based ones as well…liver health…and gut health…and their synergistic relationship in balancing hormone levels. I also feel that lymph movement is pretty key as well and often take cleavers and suggest that women that I work with do as well.
Well, that’s all for now. What a great article…and so well thought out and written ~ thanks!
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Yes, thanks for calling in natto (i have an unfair bias against it, as I dont care for it, but it certainly is traditional and fermented) so thanks!
Iris Weaver says:
Thank you for a simple, clear, and intelligent explanation of estrogens and how to understand them. This is a very helpful article.
Wow, that was outstanding – what a gift! Thank you so much.