My history with hormones has been rocky. During my early years, my cycles were irregular, I had varying degrees of PMS, and a painful history with acne. I’ve also been on various birth control methods over the years. It wasn’t until my late-20’s that I decided there had to be something I could do to make this better. I was also worried that it might be difficult for me to get pregnant, just as it was for my mother. It took her 5 years of trying to become pregnant with me and another 5 years before she was pregnant with my sister.
So I found a Naturopath & Traditional Chinese Medicine Doctor to work with. I changed my diet, I added supplements, I drank disgusting cups of Chinese herbs, I stopped oral contraceptives, and I took my stress management strategies much more seriously. It didn’t happen overnight but I was able to get to a place of happier hormones.
Now at the time I did all of this because I longed for easier and more regular periods and I really wanted to clear up my acne. An added benefit from all this work was that I was able to easily get pregnant with both of my children and had very comfortable pregnancies.
I also trust that the work that I have done to balance my hormones (& continue to do) will help me have a smooth transition into menopause.
And although I didn’t know the connection initially, I’m so grateful I started this work when I did as there’s an even more important benefit to taking care of my hormones. It reduces my risk for cancer!
The Connection Between Hormones & Cancer
Hormone related and reproductive organ cancers are some of the most common cancers of our time. These include breast, prostate, ovarian, cervical, uterine, endometrial, & testicular cancers. It also includes cancers of the thyroid or parathyroid.
Excess hormones can stimulate the growth & division of cells, including cancer cells. They can also cause immune suppression, promote inflammation, & increase blood flow to tumors. It also seems that cancer cells can dictate the amount of hormone receptor sites on their surfaces, just as they do with insulin receptors; making them even more sensitive to the growth stimulating effects of hormones.
Like with all cancer, this doesn’t happen overnight. Before cancer develops, there are many different signs of hormonal imbalance. Here are some of the more common ones: acne, infertility, thyroid disorders, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, early puberty, menopausal symptoms, PMS, low libido, depression, and weight gain.
It might surprise you to know that in a healthy body with balanced hormones it is not normal to experience PMS or menopausal symptoms. Knowing how common both of these things are, helps you to understand how widespread this issue really is.
Although there are many different hormones in your body, when it comes to cancer, estrogen definitely gets the most attention. A big part of this comes from the fact that ~70% of all breast cancers are sensitive to estrogen.
Estrogen stimulates growth in all cells, it drives angiogenesis, causes inflammation, & can modulate metabolism. When estrogen binds to an estrogen-receptor on a cell, it tells that cell to divide and grow.
Therefore too much estrogen = too much growth!
Cells in the endometrium, breast, ovaries, kidney, brain, bone, heart, intestines, & prostate all have receptor sites for estrogen. Making this hormone an important player in the risk for many different cancers, not just breast cancer. (study)
There are over two dozen different types of estrogen molecules in your body. Estradiol is the most potent of all estrogens in non-pregnant reproductive females and it provokes the most growth. This one is very easy to monitor with a blood test. Estrone is produced in the ovaries but also in fat cells in both men & women and is the dominant estrogen in postmenopausal women. Another important player is aromatase. Aromatase is an enzyme which converts androgen hormones (like testosterone) into estrogen in both men & women.
Key Players In Estrogen Balance
There are three key players when it comes to keeping estrogen levels in check.
- The Liver
- The Microbiome
First, the liver; which is responsible for manufacturing and regulating hormone levels. Specifically when it comes to estrogen molecules, they are metabolized and deactivated in the liver, where they can then be excreted via the urine or feces. When the liver is busy detoxifying alcohol or all the other toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis, hormonal detoxification will take a back-seat.
Second, the microbiome also impacts how estrogens are metabolized. There are a certain category of bacteria, known as the estroblome, which produce an enzyme that helps to metabolize estrogen. These bacteria are also responsible for helping in the detoxification of xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are chemicals found in the environment that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. Pathogenic bacteria can produce an enzyme known as beta-glucuronidase that can block this detoxification process.
Third, progesterone is another hormone; which helps to balance estrogen. A low progesterone level is just as much a problem as high estrogen levels. Chemical toxins, especially pesticides, along with certain nutrient deficiencies can cause low progesterone.
Hormone blocking medications are often first-line therapy for hormone sensitive cancers. Examples of this include Tamoxifen in ER+ Breast Cancer or Flutamide in Androgen+ Prostate Cancer. Although certainly helpful at lowering hormone levels, these medications are a band-aid to the deeper problem of WHY there is hormonal excess. They are not addressing the terrain or the underlying causes.
Understanding the mechanisms is helpful but taking steps to change your hormone levels is what’s most important. Let’s dive into the 3 action items that will help you create harmonious hormones in your body.
Step 1. Reduce Your Exposure To Hormone Disruptors
The first and most important step you can take is to reduce your exposure to hormone disruptors…and I don’t mean the estrogen your body is naturally producing. We are exposed to MANY different chemicals every day that disrupt our delicate hormonal balance.
Here are some of the more common endocrine disrupting chemicals that we are exposed to:
- Bisphenol-A: found in plastic wrap, plastic storage containers, plastic bottles, & canned foods & drinks
- Dioxins: found in bleached paper products (coffee filters, toilet paper, napkins, tampons), hand sanitizer, & herbicides
- Phthalates: found in synthetic fragrance, air fresheners, new carpet, shower curtains, raincoats, & plastic baby toys
- Perchlorate: found in drinking water & fertilizer
- PDBEs: found in nonstick pans, couches, mattresses, new cars, & computer monitors
- Glycol Ethers: found in cleaning products, paint, dry-cleaning chemicals, cosmetics, & whiteboard cleaners
- Parabens: found in shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen, & antiperspirants
As well as some other external sources of hormones like:
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Birth control pills
- Commercial (non-organic) animal & dairy products
You can read more about this topic plus ideas for helping you replace these items with better options here: Protecting Your Family From Hormone Disruptors.
Step 2. Support Detoxification…especially in your Liver
Once you’ve taken steps to reduce your exposure to hormone disruptors you can then add in strategies that will support the liver and boost your body’s ability to both detoxify these chemicals & your own hormones. Optimal detoxification is critical for hormonal balance.
1st, consider foods you may be consuming that are contributing to your toxic load. Foods like sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed meats, bad fats, non-organic food, artificial sweeteners, sodas, energy drinks, or even alcohol. Can you take steps to reduce the amount of these foods you’re eating while working towards the goal of avoiding them altogether.
2nd, bring in more of the foods that will nourish the liver and support your detoxification pathways. Foods like:
- Leafy Greens
- Cruciferous Vegetables
- Bitter Foods
- Probiotic-Rich Foods
- Citrus Fruits
- Fresh Herbs & Spices
- Green & Herbal Teas (especially dandelion, milk thistle, & stinging nettle)
You can see a full list of liver supporting foods here: Love Your Liver.
3rd, ramp up your fluids. Adequate hydration is also important for optimal detoxification. Most people need ~2 Liters each day. Mix it up with water, spa water, green tea, herbal teas, broth, or even fresh veggie juice. Starting your day with a large glass of warm water with freshly squeezed lemon juice is a great liver tonic.
4th, add some fasting. Fasting is an excellent way to boost detoxification, especially overnight when your liver can cleanse and regenerate. Aim for a minimum of 12 hours every night with your final meal (or snack) at least 3 hours before you go to bed. This makes sure that your energy is spent on detoxification rather than digestion.
Finally, add some sweating; which can help to push toxins out of the body. Ideally do something most days that encourages sweating. This could be from exercise or a sauna or even just taking a hot bath…which you can make even more detoxifying by adding some Epsom Salts and essential oils.
Get all the ins-and-out of supporting detoxification here: Detox 101.
Step 3. Add Hormone Balancing Foods
The final step is to bring in more foods that will both nourish and balance your hormones. Of course eating a plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet will offer general support. But there are specific foods that we can focus on within this dietary pattern that will offer more of an impact.
Hormones are created from fat, specifically cholesterol. So when you follow a low-fat or low-cholesterol diet this will negatively impact the balance of your hormones. First make sure you’re choosing the healthiest sources of fat possible (grass-fed organic butter or ghee, pasture-raised eggs, organic coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, raw nuts & seeds). Then make it a goal to include some healthy fat at every meal. This will make sure you’re getting enough over the course of the day.
In addition to supporting detoxification, foods like broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc can inhibit the formation of harmful estrogen metabolites. Cruciferous veggies have a unique compound known as Indole-3-Carbinol which becomes active with chewing and then when it comes into contact with stomach acid it’s converted into DIM. DIM is the compound responsible for inhibiting harmful estrogen. Keep in mind that stomach acid is necessary for this conversion to happen; which means if you’re taking antacids you will prevent this benefit from occurring.
These are plants, like soy, flax, & sesame, which contain compounds that offer a weak estrogen-like effect. The reason this is helpful is because when a phytoestrogen binds to an estrogen receptor it prevents a stronger estrogen from binding and actually turns off the growth stimulating effects of “real” estrogen. There have been many studies showing this protective benefit. You can read all about phytoestrogens plus see a complete list of foods here: Soy & Breast Cancer: Is It Safe?. The goal would be to include at least several servings a week of whole organic soy foods plus a daily dose of other phytoestrogen-rich foods.
Coumestans & Flavonols
These are phytochemicals which have very strong hormone regulating effects. They have been shown to reduce cancer risk in ovarian, breast, & pancreatic cancers. Coumestan is most commonly found in red clover sprouts. It is also found in smaller concentrations in spinach & brussels sprouts. Flavonols are found in kale, cacao (85% or higher), onions, chives, cranberries, turnip greens, & romaine lettuce.
I have always believed that food & plants can offer us all the medicine we need. As long as we know how to use them to their full advantage. Here are 3 plants that can make a big impact on your hormones.
Chasteberry (also known as Vitex) can increase progesterone while decreasing estrogen. It can help to normalize cycles, improve PMS, and support fertility.
Rosemary has the ability to inactivate estrogen by stimulating liver enzymes that switch off aggressive estrogen types. It can also increase glucuronidation; the liver detox process that helps remove estrogen. An added anti-cancer bonus is that the antioxidants found in rosemary have been shown to protect against the carcinogenic HCAs that form on meat when cooked at high temperatures.
Thyme has been found to induce cancer cell death in breast cancer cells. It has also been shown to protect DNA and have anti-cancer effects on liver, blood, skin, head & neck, & uterine cancers.
Calcium-D-Glucarate is a compound found in the peel of apples, and if you’re lucky enough to have access to them in highest doses in wild green crab apples. It has been shown to increase glucuronidation & inhibit beta-glucuronidase. Remember from above, glucuronidation is involved in the detoxification of xenoestrogen, human estrogen, drugs, chemical toxins, and more. Beta-glucuronidase is an enzyme that blocks this important estrogen detox process. Calcium-D-Glucarate is the calcium salt of D-Glucaric acid which is found in many fruits and veggies but at the highest concentrations in apples.
Lignans are one of the five major classes of phytoestrogen and are present in highest concentrations in flax seeds & sesame seeds. In some research, flax seeds have been found to be just as effective as tamoxifen in reducing the recurrence of breast cancer and slow breast cancer growth.
One strategy for getting more of these seeds into your diet is something known as “Seed Cycling”. I learned about this in Dr. Nasha Winter’s Book: The Metabolic Approach To Cancer. Because different seeds have different impacts on hormone levels, the idea is to choose certain seeds to match up with different phases of your menstrual cycle. Or if you don’t have a menstrual cycle then you can match it up to the lunar cycle.
A pumpkin-and-flax seed combo during the first 2 weeks after menstruation (or the first 2 weeks after a New Moon) helps detoxify the extra estrogen that occurs during this time of the month. A sunflower-and-sesame seed combo used in the second half of the 28-day cycle is rich in selenium, which helps promote progesterone production. This is how it would look:
- Days 1-14: Eat 1 Tbsp ground flax seed + 1 Tbsp ground pumpkin seeds every day
- Days 15-28: Eat 1 Tbsp ground sunflower seeds + 1 Tbsp ground sesame seeds every day
- To further help balance fatty acids you could also add Fish Oil the 1st 2 weeks & then Evening Primrose Oil the 2nd 2 weeks
Just as a caveat, this is not something I have personally tried, although I plan to. So I can’t speak to the effect it had in my own life.
Hormone Harmony Is Possible
Hormones have a lot of power. They are the tiny chemicals that tell your body – right down to the cells – what to do. They determine everything from how big you will grow, to how you process food, to how your immune system works. And as we have learned that can also influence the growth of cancer cells.
Diet is the most effective way at helping your body metabolize hormones and is a proven side-effect-free way to tackle imbalances.
To summarize, your 3 most important strategies to bring in are :
- Reduce your exposures to xenoestrogens & other hormone disruptors.
- Nourish the liver and boost detoxification with the foods & strategies listed above.
- Bring in more of the foods that will naturally help to balance your hormone levels.
In addition to those three steps there are a few other lifestyle pieces that will help. Spending time outside, in natural light, and even under the moonlight can help us connect to our biorhythm; which impacts the ebb and flow of our hormones.
Getting enough sleep, taking steps to support our circadian rhythm, and keeping stress in check will also influence the health of our hormones.
Knowing all of these influences on our hormones, it’s pretty easy to see how so many people are suffering from hormonal imbalance and why hormone related cancers are on the rise.
Hormone harmony is possible but there are many layers that must be addressed.
Start by downloading my Free Guide and work on getting these toxic foods plus the other toxins listed in this article out of your body. Then, step-by-step, gradually add in more of the foods & practices that will offer the most benefit.
If at any point you feel overwhelmed, or confused, or would simply prefer more personalized guidance, then please reach out for a Free Planning Session.