Today, there is more awareness than ever around hormones and the strength that these “chemical messengers” really have on how we look and feel on a day-to-day basis.
Estrogen is one of the most important sex hormones involved in female physical and emotional development. Estrogen is produced in the ovaries, two grape-shaped glands that makeup part of the endocrine system. Estrogen is also produced by the adrenal glands (located above both kidneys) and in fat cells which are distributed throughout the body.
In this article, we'll speak about this primary female sex hormone and speak about the foods that are said to lead to an increase or decrease in estrogen levels in the blood. We'll also talk you through a condition called estrogen dominance and the steps you can take to balance and boost estrogen levels naturally, should you face hormonal imbalance.
What foods cause high estrogen?
Foods that reportedly increase estrogen include flax seeds, soybean products, chocolate, fruit, nuts, chickpeas, and legumes.
Before we delve into why these foods are said to increase estrogen, we need to look at two important definitions; phytoestrogens and lignans.
Phytoestrogens refer to estrogens that occur in foods. Phytoestrogens are substances that occur naturally in plants, they have a similar structure to estrogen, and also have the ability to bind to the same receptors that estrogen does.
Lignans are a type of phytoestrogen found in grains, nuts, seeds, plants, wine, and tea. Lignans are said to have an antioxidant effect when bacteria that naturally occur in the body convert lignans to estrogen-like substances.
So, what evidence is there to show that flax seeds, soybean products, chocolate, fruit, nuts, chickpeas, and legumes may increase estrogen?
Flaxseed is said to be the richest source of dietary lignans. Research into breast cancer prevention has shown that flaxseed consumption may improve the levels of hormones that are thought to prevent breast cancer and reduce cancer risk. However, there are speculated concerns surrounding the consumption of flaxseed in those who have lived or are living with hormone linked cancers, and more research is needed.
Soybean products are said to contain “plant estrogens” known as isoflavones. There are claims that eating a certain amount of soybean products can produce volumes of isoflavones which are greater than or equal to the amount of estrogen circulating in the body and have a number of health benefits. Again, there are no concrete conclusions on the estrogenic effects of soybean products and often it depends on the woman's individual circumstances.
Plant-based products containing soybean include:
- Soy milk
- Meat alternatives
Chocolate belongs to a group of phenolic compounds known as catechins. This group includes cocoa, tea, and berries. Chocolate is classified as a phytoestrogen, which as we know holds a similar structure to estrogen compounds that circulate in the blood.
Fruits and vegetables
The plants we consume, such as fruits and vegetables contain phytoestrogens, one of the major classes of phytoestrogens are lignans, which make up plant cell walls.
Dried fruits such as dried apricots, dates, and prunes are also a good source of phytoestrogens.
Chickpeas also contain phytoestrogens. There are few human studies, one animal study found that the consumption of chickpeas may lead to moderate estrogenic activities in the treatment of estrogen deficiency.
Legumes are said to contain isoflavonoids (biologically active phenolic compounds) or isoflavones, which are thought to act on the estrogen receptor.
Examples of legumes include:
Recent studies state that for those who are trying to increase estrogen levels: “Current data are insufficient to draw definitive conclusions regarding the use of isoflavones as an alternative to estrogen for hormone replacement in postmenopausal women.”
Dr. Robert Mordkin says:
“There is no single food that has been linked definitely to affecting hormone levels, either up or down.”
Let’s call this example 1: if you are vegan and find that you eat a large volume of soy products, you might have a very marginally higher volume of isoflavones, which can have estrogen like activity, circulating in the blood.
Let’s call this example 2: if you are vegan and find that you eat a large volume of soy products, you have a family history of high estrogen levels, you are taking an estrogen dominant contraceptive and you are overweight, you are more likely to have a higher volume of estrogen in the blood.
See also: Estrogen Dominance: Signs and Symptoms
What foods cause low estrogen?
Foods that reportedly decrease estrogen include rye, red wine, and cruciferous vegetables. Before we delve into why these foods are said to decrease estrogen, we need to look at two important definitions; aromatase and aromatase inhibitors.
Aromatase is involved in a process called aromatization in which androgens (such as testosterone) are converted into estrogens.
Aromatase inhibitors are a class of drugs that reduce the production of estrogen in the body by blocking aromatase. This class of drugs is often used in the treatment of breast cancer in post-menopausal women. There are numerous studies that suggest high levels of circulating estrogen in women may have an impact on the risk of developing breast cancer.
Rye contains fiber and bioactive compounds. Fiber is said to reduce the circulation of estrogen between the digestive system and the liver and may cause lower levels of estrogen circulating in the blood. This fiber contains bioactive compounds including lignans and alkylresorcinolsalkylresorcinols, which are thought to act as antioxidants.
Red wine is said to contain aromatase inhibitors, these can reduce the number of androgens that are converted to estrogen in the body. In a study that tested the hormonal effects of red and white wine on premenopausal women, it was found that red wine may have anti-estrogenic effects, whereas white wine is unlikely to have a significant impact on estrogen levels.
Cruciferous vegetables are a good source of fiber and contain phytochemicals (biologically active compounds) and phytoestrogens. Studies have shown that the consumption of cruciferous vegetables, which contain isoflavones, may reduce the amount of estrogen produced in the body.
Cruciferous vegetables include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Green and red cabbage
What happens when estrogen levels are high?
Many symptoms may arise in women when levels of estrogen are high. It’s important to remember that an isolated increase in the level of one hormone does not usually occur. It is generally an overall hormonal imbalance that leads to one hormone being more dominant than the other.
As mentioned, high estrogen, which is often called estrogen dominance may occur when the level of circulating estrogen outweighs that of other hormones in the blood, most notably progesterone.
Some of the symptoms of high estrogen in women include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Breast tenderness
- Weight gain
- Irregular periods
- More severe symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome)
- Mood swings
How can I increase my estrogen levels naturally?
There are certain factors surrounding hormonal balance that are beyond our control, such as aging, prescription medications, and certain health conditions. Outside of the factors that are beyond our control, some of the steps that you can follow to promote hormonal balance also bring with them a number of important health benefits.
Follow a balanced diet
Cut down on refined sugars and carbohydrates and instead ensure that you are getting an adequate amount of protein, fruit, and vegetables. Incorporate healthy fats into your diet and aim to have three meals a day, including healthy snacks if you become hungry. Balancing your hormones also depends on balancing your portion sizes. Try not to let yourself get too hungry throughout the day, as this may promote overeating following the release of a “hunger hormone” called ghrelin.
Get adequate sleep
Sleep deprivation is now classified as a public health epidemic. Aim to get the recommended amount of sleep every single night to promote hormonal balance as well as improving all aspects of your physical health, your mood, concentration levels and overall feeling of well-being.
Exercise on a regular basis
Adequate exercise is one of the best health investments you can put in the bank of you. Exercise releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine. Exercise also stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical which is often targeted by antidepressants in the form of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors).
When it comes to hormonal balance, exercise is particularly important during the years leading up to menopause as estrogen begins to decline. Estrogen decline may mean weaker bones which is why weight-bearing exercises are particularly important later in life.
See also: Signs of High Estrogen in Women
What is the function of estrogen in women?
Estrogen is responsible for a number of distinguishing physical and emotional factors that differentiate males from females. When compared to males, females tend to have shorter and smaller bones, a smaller voice box (and often, a higher voice), higher fat distribution around the hips and thighs, and slight differences in cognition and emotional regulation.
Estrogen carries out a number of essential functions. Some of the primary functions of estrogen in women include:
- Regulate the development of secondary sexual characteristics in women
- Stimulate the thickening of the endometrium (lining of the womb) during the menstrual cycle, encourages vaginal lubrication, and helps to keep the vaginal wall thick during pregnancy.
- Aid bone formation and is involved in the maintenance of strong healthy bones.
- Promote the production of “good” cholesterol, known as high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol
- Maintain the thickness and quality of the skin via collagen production.
- Stimulate and maintain “feel good” endorphins released by the brain.
- Controlling hair growth and prevents hair thinning and loss.
What is hormone imbalance?
Hormonal imbalances are most common during periods of transition, such as puberty, pregnancy, and perimenopause (around menopause). The exact mechanisms of hormonal imbalance vary from person to person but are often significantly impacted by age.
It’s important to note that in most cases the body cannot simply produce a high or low volume of a particular hormone. The production of different hormones is interconnected, with one often relying on the other. If the body is producing a low volume of estrogen, it can mean that the body is producing high levels of progesterone or testosterone. On the other hand, if the body is producing a high volume of estrogen, it means that it is simply producing a higher volume of estrogen (“estrogen dominance”) than it is other hormones such as testosterone and progesterone.
Some of the most common causes of low estrogen include:
- Family history of low estrogen
- Thyroid disorders
- Excessive exercise
- Being underweight
- Ovarian failure
- Turner syndrome
Some of the most common causes of high estrogen include:
- Family history of high estrogen
- Being overweight
- Hormonal contraceptives
- Certain antibiotics
- Ovarian tumors
- Liver disease
See also: How can you Promote Hormone Balance?
Take A Test
The only sure way to have a better understanding of your hormone levels is to begin regular testing. LetsGetChecked offer female fertility and hormone testing to offer women the best insights.
The Progesterone Ovulation Test measures your progesterone levels and ovulation function. The Ovarian Reserve Test measures anti-mullerian hormone which offers insight into how many eggs you have left “in reserve.” Finally the Female Hormone Test measures follicle stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, prolactin and oestradiol (estrogen) to offer women a fully comprehensive view of their fertility status.
If you are experiencing symptoms of hormonal imbalance, you’re thinking about taking a test, or you simply want to find out more, contact us directly via live chat. We will tell you everything you need to know about our testing service, as well as our on-going clinical support.
Written by Hannah Kingston | Medically Reviewed by Dr. Susan O’ Sullivan