Progesterone is the precursor to estrogen, as well as its antagonist. Whether your estrogen levels are low or too high, increasing progesterone production is the key to hormonal balance. This will in turn increase estrogen if needed, or increase the progesterone to estrogen ratio if estrogen is too high. Also, it can be critical to support the function of the adrenal and thyroid glands to optimise hormonal health.
Diet: Eating foods high in natural magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6 will help increase your body’s progesterone production. Also, to counter estrogen dominance, you need to reduce the burden of xenoestrogens on your body. The first important stage in treating a hormone imbalance is to remove any external factors contributing to the problem. The xenoestrogen products listed previously is a good place to start. Choose eco-friendly cleaners, eat organic food and reduce your use of plastics, especially for food and drink storage. In this way, you significantly reduce the number of toxins you ingest and absorb from your everyday environment.
Manage stress: Dealing effectively with problematic issues or situations that are stressful for you is important. To reduce the load on your adrenal glands, you need to reduce your burdens and improve your quality of life. Regular exercise, meditation or relaxation techniques and self-nurturing practices all positively affect your endocrine function.
Medicinal and balancing actions of everyday foods
The next stage is to focus on your internal physical environment and support your body to normalise hormonal activity. Your liver is responsible for the breakdown of excess hormones in the body, so improving your liver function is central to hormonal health. Reduce your intake of foods that are hard on the liver: animal foods including meat, cheese, cream and ice cream; coffee, alcohol, sugar, chocolate, peanuts and any highly processed foods.
Wheat germ, kelp, walnuts, turmeric, thyme and oregano are good examples of progesterone promoting foods to include in meals. Cruciferous vegetables (a.k.a. brassicas) like broccoli, kale, cress, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and others from this plant family are great estrogen inhibitors and liver detoxifiers. They contain Di-indolylmethane (DIM), which has been shown in biomedical research studies to have significant anti-cancer and immune modulating actions. DIM has a specific role in excess detoxifying estrogens in the body. Maca root is another cruciferous plant known for its hormone regulating action.
The cleansing properties of onions and garlic also help to remove excess hormones from the liver. Squeezing lemon juice into your drinking water helps stimulate liver activity. Fibrous nuts and seeds such as linseeds and almonds help bind liver toxins for elimination via the bowel. They’re also rich sources of omega three essential fatty acids (EFAs) which help stabilise mood swings caused by hormonal dysfunction. Green ‘superfoods’ such as chlorella or spirulina and organic vegetable juices are some other good liver stimulating agents.
Estrogen inhibiting foods
It’s best to avoid any foods that are estrogenic promoters, and include those that are estrogen inhibitors. The inhibitors are plant foods containing phytonutrients that have a specific threefold action to protect against excess estrogen by inhibiting production, reducing receptor activity and altering estrogen metabolism in the body.
In addition to the afore-mentioned brassicas and onions, other examples of estrogen inhibiting foods are organic corn, nuts, seeds, avocados, green beans, millet and buckwheat. Good fruit options include citrus, berries, figs, grapes, melons, pears and pineapples.
Estrogen promoters to reduce or avoid
Top of the list is animal meats, dairy products, wheat and unfermented soy products. Eat only organically grown fruits and vegetables because the pesticide and herbicide sprays used on commercially grown produce are estrogen promoters, as are hormones in meat and dairy foods.
Modern manufacturing of soy products is very different from the traditional process of slow fermentation used historically in Asian countries. Phytoestrogens in properly fermented organically grown soy products – such as miso, tamari (soy sauce), tempeh, natto, fermented soymilk and fermented tofu – are safe and beneficial to our health, as many studies confirm. Moderate consumption improves vitamin and mineral absorption, reduces cancer, and promotes hormonal health.
Conversely, unfermented soy isoflavones found in many modern products are toxic xenoestrogens that undermine the immune system, disrupt hormone pathways and contribute to a long list of hormone-related disorders.
Foods and drinks in plastic packaging, especially if subjected to extreme temperatures (i.e. freezing or cooking) have an increased estrogenic action due to the volatility of plastics. Processing of manufactured foods tends to increase the concentration of existing estrogen promoters. This is particularly true for commercially processed dairy and soy products, which may contain more estrogen promoters than organic, unprocessed milk or soy.
The following are foods identified as natural estrogen promoters in the body – and therefore best to eat infrequently in cases of estrogen dominance. Fruits and vegetables in this category include apples, cherries, dates, pomegranates and rhubarb; alfalfa and red clover (other plants from the legume family related to soy); and the culinary herbs anise, fennel and sage.
The imbalance of omega 6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids seen in a typical modern diet is thought to be another factor in estrogen dominance, largely due to over-consumption of vegetable oils such as canola, corn, safflower and soy which are high in omega 6 and prevalent in packaged food products.
The medicinal herb black cohosh has an estrogenic action and in cases of estrogen dominance is generally contraindicated. Read more about this herb in the following section.
What herbs and nutritional supplements can help?
The function of herbal medicine is to support and nourish the body to regain harmony and balance. Many medicinal herbs have a specific balancing effect on the endocrine system. Some familiar herbs prescribed for women’s hormonal health are listed below, and these are generally more effective in combination with other herbs. Sheena Hendon Health can advise you on a combination that suits your symptom picture.
Chaste tree has a specific effect on the pituitary gland – the master gland of the endocrine system. It is a progesterone promoter and best known for its hormone regulating and balancing action.
Wild yam is another progesterone promoter when needed, as its action is adaptogenic. Dong Quai, Liquorice, Sarsaparilla root and the Ginsengs are also herbal adaptogens, which means they respond to the needs of the individual and influence the endocrine system accordingly. In this way they may either promote or inhibit estrogen activity, as needed.
Passionflower and chamomile are two effective estrogen inhibitors. These herbs may be well indicated in cases of estrogen dominance.
Black cohosh is an estrogen promoter, so only indicated when estrogen levels are low. Studies show favourable results compared to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in such cases. It is an anti-inflammatory and great for reducing hot flushes and other menstrual or menopausal irregularities. Some studies have linked black cohosh with increased breast cancer risk, because excess estrogen is also a factor in some breast cancers. Do not take this herb if your estrogen is high. Black cohosh is also contraindicated in pregnancy.
Prolonged use of any herbal formula is not recommended without the guidance of a qualified herbalist.
Some specific vitamins and minerals are needed for healthy endocrine function.
- Vitamin E promotes progesterone secretion.
- Zinc is a progesterone-promoting mineral and a copper antagonist. If zinc is low or copper relatively high, hormonal imbalances develop.
- Vitamin B6 is indicated for improving hormonal health, having a direct role in the production of many hormones and neurotransmitters.
- Magnesium is also important for maintaining the right progesterone/estrogen ratio and is usually deficient in cases of estrogen dominance. Both B6 and magnesium are needed by the liver to metabolise estrogen, and magnesium is critical for calcium to function well in the body.
- Excess estrogen will also inhibit your vitamin B12 absorption, and you may need to supplement it.
- Vitamin C and bioflavonoids are important factors in adrenal and thyroid function as well as boosting immune health.
- If depression, mood swings, fatigue, memory loss and insomnia are your symptoms, then vitamin D may be deficient. The active form of vitamin D is a hormone, so it is an integral component of the endocrine system. Regular exposure to sunlight is your best source, and if you’re missing out on the sun’s rays, a vitamin D supplement may be needed.
- Evening primrose oil can be a useful supplement in controlling PMS symptoms due to estrogen fluctuations. However long-term use may contribute to estrogen dominance in some cases. It’s always good to take a break from a supplement and review your need for it once your symptoms improve.