Hormones are chemical messengers that influence body functions like blood sugar balance, reproduction, and stress response (just to name a few). Estrogen is the sex hormone responsible for a healthy menstrual cycle, pregnancy, strong bones, skin health, and libido.
Levels and types of estrogen shift throughout a person's life (yes, men have estrogen, too) and even throughout the month. For example, a drop in estrogen triggers your period, but estrogen levels increase during pregnancy.
You need estrogen for all these reasons but in the right balance with other hormones. Hormones work together like teammates to do their job, so the entire system is affected if one is higher or lower than it should be. Elevated estrogen, or estrogen dominance, can lead to insomnia, breast tenderness, fluid retention, and difficulty losing weight. Over time, excess estrogen can also increase the risk of certain types of cancer, such as ovarian and breast cancer.¹
In this article, you'll learn all about estrogen, what happens when it's out of balance or too high, and what you can do to optimize healthy levels.
What is Estrogen Dominance?
Estrogen dominance means someone has higher-than-normal estrogen levels, especially compared to another hormone, progesterone, which impacts reproductive function and mood.
Three forms of estrogen are present in the body, and levels can shift throughout someone's life:²
- Estradiol: The main form of estrogen in reproductive-age individuals.
- Estriol: The form of estrogen that increases during pregnancy.
- Estrone: The main form of estrogen after menopause.
Estrogen dominance can occur if someone has unusually high levels. However, estrogen dominance can also happen even if estrogen is technically "normal" and progesterone is lower than it should be. Estrogen becomes dominant if the delicate balance of the two hormones is thrown off.
High Estrogen Symptoms and Signs³
- Heavy or irregular periods
- Painful, tender, or fibrocystic breasts
- Mood swings and irritability
- Weight gain or difficulty with weight loss
- Headaches or migraines
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- Brain fog
- Hair loss
- Water retention
- PMS or painful periods
- Thyroid dysfunction
All of these high estrogen symptoms can be challenging to differentiate from other conditions, so it's important to check in with your doctor to rule out anything more serious. Hormone imbalance can significantly impact how you feel daily, so don't be afraid to advocate for yourself if you feel like something is off.
What Causes High Estrogen Levels?
Factors contributing to elevated estrogen or lower progesterone levels include endogenous (from inside the body) and exogenous exposure (outside the body):
- Endocrine disruptors and xenoestrogens. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals in everyday items like canned goods, fragrances, plastic, and personal care products. Chemical xenoestrogens are endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen in the body and contribute to higher-than-normal levels.⁴
- Gut dysbiosis. Proper estrogen detoxification and removal from the body requires a healthy gut—called the estrobolome.⁵ An imbalance of this beneficial gut bacteria can interrupt this detoxification process, so instead of breaking down and removing estrogen, it's reabsorbed into the body.
- Excess adipose (aka fat tissue). Fat tissue (adipose) contains an enzyme called aromatase that can make even more estrogen from testosterone (everyone has testosterone, even though it's associated with men).⁶ It's a tough cycle because higher estrogen encourages the body to hang onto more fat.
- Diet. Certain foods can promote estrogen clearance from the body, while others can further imbalance your hormones. Diet is also critical for gut health and supporting the estrobolome.
Diet vs. High Estrogen Levels
Since diet plays a vital role in estrogen levels, scientists are interested in studying foods that increase and decrease estrogen in the body.
The Western diet pattern—or a diet high in sugar, processed foods, and red meat and low in fresh produce and fiber—is linked to higher estrogen levels in postmenopausal women.⁷ Western diet patterns are also linked to excess body fat and insulin resistance, which are associated with estrogen dominance.⁸
The good news is that dietary patterns and foods are also linked to healthy estrogen levels. Including nutrients from fiber-rich carbohydrates, cruciferous vegetables, and anti-inflammatory fats make any of these a good choice for estrogen balance and overall health and wellness.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in monounsaturated fats, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and antioxidant-packed produce. It's linked to heart and brain health, better blood sugar, weight loss, and healthy hormone levels.⁹
Studies examining the Mediterranean diet and its impact on hormones have found that following this eating style can significantly lower estrogen levels.¹⁰ A systematic review also found that following a Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of breast cancer associated with estrogen-receptive tumors.¹¹
Plant-based diets can include vegetarian, vegan, or even contain small amounts of animal products. Regardless of how it is followed, a plant-based diet's overall goal is to emphasize fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based proteins. Many of these foods contain phytoestrogens, compounds that look and behave similarly to estrogen.¹²
When phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors, they can block the absorption of more potent estrogen into the body and decrease levels. Studies show that people with high levels of phytoestrogens in their diet may have a lower risk of estrogen-sensitive cancer.¹¹
Fiber can (and should) be a part of your diet no matter what pattern you follow. Fiber helps balance blood sugar, supports gut health, and is protective against chronic diseases.¹³ Remember the estrobolome mentioned earlier? Fiber is essential for keeping gut bacteria happy to detoxify and remove excess estrogen.¹⁴
Studies suggest an inverse association between fiber intake and estrogen levels. In other words, the more fiber you eat, the less estrogen is circulating in the body—likely due to excretion instead of reabsorption.¹⁵
High-fiber diets may also include a group of vegetables that contain a compound called di-indolyl-methane (DIM). DIM is a byproduct of a compound found in cruciferous vegetables (and supplements) that helps metabolize estrogen and remove it from your body.¹⁶
How to Lower Estrogen Levels Naturally
Add a variety of high-fiber foods to your diet—like vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Try to get at least 25-35 grams of fiber each day.
Replacing red and processed meats with plant-based proteins like lentils, beans, or tofu can help with estrogen balance. Lean proteins like poultry and fish are beneficial too but think of plants as the main course to get all those beneficial phytoestrogens.
Get Some Sleep
Sleep is essential for hormone balance and overall health. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night.
Watch Alcohol Intake
Alcohol consumption can increase estrogen levels, disrupt sleep, and increase the risk of breast cancer.¹⁷ Keep intake moderate (one drink or less for women and two or less for men), or just for special occasions.
Increase Lean Body Mass
Regular exercise can increase lean body mass, which can help reduce body fat. Try to include a combination of aerobic and strength training to optimize results.
Stress can increase cortisol levels, throwing off the balance of estrogen and other hormones. Find stress-reduction techniques that work best for you and make them a regular part of your lifestyle.
Reduce Exposure to Xenoestrogens
It can feel overwhelming when you realize how many products contain chemicals and endocrine-disrupting compounds. Start small by switching to natural skincare or organic makeup, replacing lotion and shampoo as you finish each bottle, and swapping out plastic containers for glass or stainless steel.
11 Foods to Lower Estrogen Levels
Based on the above, you can start incorporating some of the foods in these dietary patterns to help lower estrogen levels. If you're feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to start, adding the following foods can support healthy hormone balance:
Arugula is a cruciferous vegetable high in fiber. Add it to salads as a side, or top it with your favorite protein for a quick and easy meal.
Broccoli is another cruciferous vegetable that supports healthy estrogen metabolism. Steam it, roast it, or add it to soups and salads.
Lentils are an excellent source of fiber and plant-based protein. Make a lentil curry or soup, or add them to salads.
Flax seeds are high in fiber and contain lignans, a type of phytoestrogen that supports healthy estrogen metabolism. Grind them up and add them to smoothies, oatmeal, or yogurt.
Kale is another cruciferous vegetable high in fiber to support healthy estrogen levels. Try kale steamed or stir-fried, or make kale chips by roasting them in the oven.
The combination of healthy fats and high fiber makes avocados a great addition to any meal. Try adding them to salads and sandwiches or freeze them in ice cube trays to add to smoothies.
Bright blueberries are powerful antioxidants and contain lignans and fiber. Add them to smoothies, oatmeal, or a handful to top off a yogurt bowl.
Salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation and support healthy estrogen levels. Grill it, bake it, or try adding it to salads. You can find canned wild salmon for a quick lunch idea.
Choose frozen edamame for a fiber and plant-based protein source. You can steam them for a quick snack or add them to salads, stir-fries, or noodle dishes.
Chia seeds are high in fiber and contain lignans to support healthy estrogen. Add them to smoothies, sprinkle them on a salad, or make chia seed pudding.
Studies suggest mushrooms may inhibit the aromatase enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen.¹⁸ Add mushrooms to soups and stir-fries, or marinate them in tamari sauce and roast them in the oven.
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