According to new government predictions, the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer will rise by as much as 50 percent by 2030. Researchers say the increase in tumors will be fueled by the hormone estrogen. While this is a natural hormone produced by the body that is responsible for reproduction and bone growth in both men and women, environmental exposure to xenoestrogens— an unnatural sub-category of estrogen— is at an all-time high.
Xenoestrogens can be found in everything from the food you eat to the products you use in the shower. When your body is exposed to xenoestrogens, it affects how your body breaks down natural estrogen and can even mimic estrogen in the body. These effects lead to a dangerous state known as estrogen dominance.
Estrogen dominance is a form of hormone imbalance that can contribute to increased inflammation throughout the body, as well as disease, including testicular, uterine or breast cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Xenoestrogens, like Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Bisphenol A, promote estrogen dominance by changing the rate at which estrogen is broken down by the body or mimicking estrogen and binding to its receptors in the body. Both scenarios cause an abundance of estrogen and an increase in the overall effects of estrogen on the body, leading to symptoms of hormone imbalance. Some of these effects include infertility, mood swings, headaches, foggy thinking, fatigue, sleep disturbances, hot flashes and digestive issues and, among men, gynecomastia (man boobs).
Aside from these symptoms, too much estrogen can also have another devastating effect: DNA damage. DNA damage is a pathway to disease and the extent of this damage is affected by two things: your genetics and your environmental exposures. Newer studies show that our environment can affect whether certain genes are expressed. This concept is known as epigenetics.
You already know that you can’t change your genetics. Indeed, some individuals are predisposed to metabolize estrogen at higher rates, increasing the risk of breast cancer and other diseases. Your environmental exposures, however, are vastly in your control and can influence your genetics— increasing or decreasing inflammation and, ultimately, your risk of disease.
Epigenetic factors that influence inflammation levels include exposure to xenoestrogens, stress levels, weight, physical activity, sleep quantity and quality, nutrition, and lifestyle choices, such as smoking or alcohol consumption.
Estrogen and inflammation
High levels of inflammation in the body are notorious for increasing the risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, but inflammation fueled by estrogen dominance can also have multiple (and very scary) effects on the body.
The recent increase in estrogen-positive breast cancers and the explosive increases predicted in the coming years are largely correlated with the high rate of overweight and obese individuals in developed countries.
Estrogen can be created in fat cells. Too much fat increases inflammation, affecting the breakdown of estrogen. One inflammation pathway related to estrogen is known as the obesity-aromatase-inflammation-axis. When this pathway is initiated, inflammation upregulates the enzyme, aromatase, increasing the conversion of testosterone to estrogen.
Excess inflammation also shrinks the number of progesterone receptors in the body, inhibiting sensitivity to progesterone, which balances estrogen and acts as a natural anti-inflammatory.
As mentioned, inflammation levels are heavily influenced by your environment and can have an impact on your epigenome—a record of the chemical changes to your DNA that can result in changes to the structure and function of your genome. How you manage your weight, what you eat and how often you exercise are just a few of the ways you can influence inflammation levels in the body and—for better or worse—your genetics.
A 2013 randomized test on premenopausal women revealed that increasing aerobic fitness and lean body mass, while also decreasing body fat, lowered the risk of breast cancer among subjects. To effectively achieve these goals, aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, five times a week.
Experts, and even the public at large, are now acutely aware of the intense influence diet can have on disease prevention. This is because the foods you eat can not only help you manage a healthy weight and reduce inflammation, but those choices can be key determinants in the level of exposure to dangerous toxins, like xenoestrogens. Fresh, locally grown, organic whole foods should dominate your diet. Cruciferous vegetables are rich in sulfur-containing compounds, and have been shown to lower the risk of several types of cancers. These vegetables include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale.
In addition to drinking more water (from a non-plastic, BPA-free container), you may also try adding green tea to your diet. Studies show green tea can promote weight loss, and its catechins have also been proven to protect cells against DNA damage. Flax seeds are another easy way to promote healthy outcomes through your diet. Flax seeds contain phytochemicals that appear to reduce the risk of breast cancer and inhibit the action of excess estrogen in the body. Grind flax seeds to optimize benefits, and sprinkle them on top of your favorite foods.
Targeted supplementation is also important for reducing inflammation and promoting hormone balance. Curcumin, resveratrol and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) are potent inflammation-fighters. In a September 2013 study, all three of these phytonutrients blocked activation of NF-kb (an inflammatory signal in the body) in the presence of saturated fatty acids known to induce inflammation, as well as blocking inflammation that upregulates aromatase. Evening primrose oil has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, reduces PMS symptoms, and reduces progesterone resistance.
The enzyme aromatase, known for increasing the conversion of testosterone to estrogen, is upregulated by obesity, alcohol consumption, age and insulin levels. Quercetin, glycyrrhiza (found in licorice), grape seed extract and resveratrol are shown to naturally inhibit aromatase.
Stress management and sleep are important factors as well. Practicing relaxation and mindfulness techniques, along with making plenty of quality sleep a priority in your daily routine, can significantly reduce inflammation levels.
Understanding that the environment and genetics determine how estrogen is processed by the body is important, but recognizing that there are things you can do to protect yourself from estrogen dominance and the threat of breast cancer is crucial to your health and quality of life.
Dr. Jennifer Landa is Chief Medical Officer of BodyLogicMD, the nation's largest franchise of physicians specializing in bioidentical hormone therapy. Dr. Jen spent 10 years as a traditional OB-GYN, and then became board-certified in regenerative medicine, with an emphasis on bio-identical hormones, preventative medicine and nutrition. She is the author of "The Sex Drive Solution for Women." Learn more about her programs at www.jenlandamd.com.