Diet to Increase Estrogen
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Some women may think, ‘why would I ever want to increase my estrogens?’ However for some it is very favourable to do so, particularly if levels are low when trying to fall pregnant or when estrogen drops due to peri-menopause or menopause.
But wait! Before I continue, there are two ways to spell estrogen/oestrogen (which is weird). I generally use the more universal spelling and phonetic ‘estrogen’.
There are good estrogens and bad estrogens. Some estrogens are understood to drive conditions such as cancers of the breast, ovaries and the uterus, but good estrogens are there to maintain healthy hormones for the reproductive system.
The different types of estrogens are called E1, E2 and E3 (estrone, estrodiol and estriol) which can be processed by the liver on differing pathways such as 2, 4 or 16 estrones.
The 2 is the healthy pathway and the 4 and 16 are considered to be either proliferative (which grows endometriosis, fibroids, cysts, breast lumps) or mutagenic (cancer promoting). Both 4 and 16 pathways can increase the risk of reproductive cancers.
These types of estrogens and their pathways can be determined with tests from an integrative doctor or naturopath.
Estrogen is predominantly produced by the ovaries and a small amount is made by the adrenal glands, but as we get older the ovaries slow down production and the adrenal glands take up the ‘slack’ so to speak.
For some ladies, estrogen activity can decline well before menopause and even at menopause the reduction in estrogen can leave many women feeling less than optimal, so helping to support estrogen levels can make life more enjoyable in many ways. But it’s not all about menopause, as many ladies in their 20’s can have problems with estrogen levels.
Some of the symptoms and conditions associated with low estrogen activity are:
- accelerated biological aging
- amenorrhea (cessation of periods)
- cognitive/memory problems
- dryness of the hair, skin, eyes and vagina
- hair loss
- heart disease
- hot flashes
- polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- symptoms of androgen dominance (excess male hormones like testosterone), giving rise to hair growth in the ‘wrong places’ for women, such as their face and breasts and loss of hair on their head
Chronic inflammation is one of the biggest drivers for low estrogen levels especially in younger, non-menopausal women. Sources of inflammation can be from:
- infection (parasitic, bacterial)
- toxicity (heavy metals, chemicals in personal care items)
- food sensitivities, stress (affecting cortisol and cholesterol levels)
- hyperinsulinemia (elevated insulin levels)
- nutrient imbalances (particularly things like B6, B12, iron and folate deficiencies)
- gluten sensitivity is also a big factor giving rise to inflammation of the bowel and consequent mal-digestion and mal-absorption of nutrients.
The types of foods you choose to eat can have a huge impact on estrogen levels. Not only from the factors discussed above, but also foods that affect cholesterol levels. Many health advocates speak about how bad elevated cholesterol is, but low cholesterol is often overlooked.
Cholesterol plays an important role. Without adequate cholesterol, the body just can’t make hormones.
If a person has low blood cholesterol, they should investigate why. Eating beef and eggs and having frequent meals can help to increase cholesterol, but it is best to look at the reason cholesterol is low.
Low levels of estrogen can also be a result of inadequate levels of the stress hormones cortisol and DHEA. Cortisol stimulates fat cells to convert DHEA to estrogen. Adequate fat is needed to make the hormones convert properly, so underweight women tend to have issues here.
Boron is a mineral that has been shown to raise estrogen levels in menopausal women, so eating boron rich foods may help. Boron rich foods include:
- Brazil nuts
- Red grapes
- Chickpeas and many other beans and legumes
Phyto-estrogens (phyto = plants) are naturally occurring plant derived compounds found in various foods, that have an estrogenic effect on the body, which is beneficial for those who need to increase estrogen.
Soy is a popular food substance used to naturally increase low estrogen, especially in menopause. Soy contains isoflavones, a type of phyto-estrogen, which are compounds structurally similar to estrogen. They have weak estrogenic activity, but taken in adequate concentration, have been shown to exert beneficial effects.
If you choose to eat soy foods or take soy supplements, make sure they are organic as soy products absorb loads of toxins from the soil. (I actually worked on a scientific research project that proved this).
Other ‘phyto-estrogens’ foods include:
- Dried Fruits
- Sesame Seeds
- Rice bran
- Alfalfa Sprouts
- Soy Milk
Note: there is controversy about whether soy products are good or bad for you. At the moment the reports for each seem to be equally divided, so I’m not going to make a call on that here. I do consume soy products occasionally – provided they are organic. But if you would prefer not to use soy products in your diet, then please avoid recipes containing the last 4 soy based ingredients listed above.
To protect the body from converting estrogens to the bad estrogens that can increase cancer risk, it is beneficial to consume cruciferous type vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts as these help to convert estrogen through the favourable pathway, or if you can’t eat these foods due to a FODMAPs sensitivity, then sunflower sprouts will do the same thing.
More about a diet to increase estrogen/oestrogen
A diet to increase estrogen is simply about providing healthy recipes so the body can do what it naturally does given the right environment. Added to this healthier way of eating are phyto-estrogenic foods as discussed above.
The idea is to incude foods that support and bring balance to the body, and eliminate foods considered detrimental. For this reason, recipes for this diet should be gluten and dairy free to help reduce inflammation in the gut which is often a cause of hormonal imbalance in the first place. Low sugar foods and good blood sugar balance is also part of this healthy way of eating.
Check with your health care provider to make sure that all potential issues that may hold you back from having good hormone balance are covered. Consider heavy metal toxicity, gut bio-balance (microbiome), cholesterol levels, stress levels and any possible biochemical imbalances that may be contributing to your low estrogen levels.
Healthy hormones in general (not just estrogen) need good balanced levels of zinc, copper, B6, B12, folate and vitamin D, so foods rich in these nutrients should be included in this diet.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client names and identifying information changed
Helen was a career women who didn’t give children much of a thought when she was younger, and she also professed that she never found the right man until somewhat recently. At 44 yrs old and already getting peri-menopausal symptoms, Helen thought her time was up to have children but wanted to ‘have a go’ and see where nature took her.
Helen’s doctor told her that her hormone and egg levels were very low and if she wanted a child then it would need to be done via IVF. This was not what Helen or her partner wanted to do, so they came to me to find out what could be done to increase their odds naturally.
Helen and her partner had been together for two years without falling pregnant so we had a look at their hormones and general health. Both were quite healthy. The only stumbling block was Helen’s declining hormone levels, particularly her estrogen and she was only ovulating once every 2-3 months.
The first step was to increase their nutrients with a healthy diet packed with nutritious foods.
Both had been eating lots of bread and pasta for quick meals, so this was changed to a high plant based diet rich in phyto-estrogens, especially when adding flax crackers served with hummus (which helped to make things easy for food prep). A guacamole (avocado) dip provided good fats, and eggs for breakfast increased her lowish cholesterol levels.
We included pumpkin and pumpkin seed dip for zinc (also needed for hormones) and B6 and B12 rich foods such as chicken livers (also used as a dip) and pasture raised beef and lamb. Basically they had eggs and veggies for breakfast, dips and flax crackers for lunches and quality proteins with loads of veggies or salads for dinner each night.
They both said that they had heaps more energy and vigour from this eating plan compared to their previous toast or cereal brekkie, sandwich lunch, and pasta dinners.
They felt so good eating this way that they didn’t really mind if they did or didn’t fall pregnant but if it happened it would be a joy. I think they were trying to not feel attached to the idea of having a baby in case they couldn’t.
I didn’t hear from them for about 14 months, but then heard the good news of the safe and healthy arrival of baby Joel.
I often jokingly (yet seriously) say to many of my female clients to ‘watch out as you get healthier, you might just have a baby’. Countless clients who change to a healthier lifestyle and way of eating fall pregnant…whether they’re trying to or not.