The role of oestrogen in women’s health
The hormone that usually dominates female health is oestrogen, (and its relatives – in fact oestrogen is not a single hormone but a collective name for a group of hormones). This hormone rises and falls as a female progresses from childhood to old age. Prior to puberty oestrogen levels are fairly low – enough to give female characteristics but not enough for sexual maturity. Approaching puberty, (which can take around 4 years) the ovaries are stimulated into producing more oestrogen and this is the signal for puberty to commence.
Once this phase has begun the presence of the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and androgens, influence the development of further female characteristics such as breast development, the distribution of fat around the hips and bottom, bodily hair and the commencement of monthly periods.
Around the age of 16-17 girls start to move into womanhood. The hormones, oestrogen, progesterone and androgens continue to interact to control the menstrual cycle.
If pregnancy occurs, then oestrogen and progesterone levels are kept high to maintain the body in an optimum state to maintain that pregnancy. After the birth then hormone levels drop rapidly.
As a woman gets older then production of oestrogen and progesterone declines as she approaches the menopause. Oestrogen is still produced by the ovaries after menopause but at a much reduced rate.
Where do we get our oestrogen?
All of us have a ‘pool’ of oestrogen within our bodies that is made up of a number of sources such as
- Naturally produced by our own bodies
- Ingested from food and drink
- Medicines and drugs
- Synthetic oestrogens from our environment
Unfortunately with today’s lifestyles many women have too much oestrogen accumulating in their bodies which can lead to health problems especially hormonally driven cancers.
So why do we have excess oestrogen?
You produce more:
- Eating a lot of fat increases oestrogen production.
- Large carbohydrate rich meals stimulate insulin production which in turn stimulates oestrogen levels
- High body fat can increase our steroid levels and produce more oestrogen
We take more in via our mouths:
- Some meats, particularly non-organic, contain oestrogen and growth hormones.
- Both the contraceptive pill and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) contain oestrogen
- Oestrogen is found in recycled tap water due to the widespread use of the above.
- Alcohol consumption raises oestrogen levels
You store more:
- Fat tends to store oestrogen and therefore if you have high body fat then you are more likely to store excess oestrogen.
- The general lack of fibre is many women’s diets means that waste products such as excess oestrogen are not properly removed from the body.
Exposure to synthetic oestrogens in the environment
Our environment is full of chemicals that, once in our bodies, mimic the actions of natural oestrogen. These include:
- Phthalates from plastics
- Perfume products
- Household cleaning products.
Why is excess oestrogen a problem?
- Excess oestrogen contributes to health problems especially cancer of the breast, uterus, colon and skin. Oestrogen can stimulate cancer cells, so if you have excess oestrogen this can make you more susceptible to hormone driven cancers.
- High oestrogen levels can also cause less serious diseases such as endometriosis, fibroids, lumpy breasts and heavy and painful menstruation.
- Excess oestrogen can also weaken the immune system, making you less able to fight off chronic illness.