We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. This week’s topic: signs your body is producing too much estrogen.
Q: I’ve been experiencing some weird symptoms. I recently noticed that I was gaining weight, which is unusual for me. And my brain is feeling fuzzy, like I can’t concentrate that well. I’m also getting really bad PMS, when I never used to before. I called up my mom’s best friend, who’s a doctor, and she said that I’d have to get tested but it sounds like it could be that I have too much estrogen. How is that possible? Is it something I can fix?
A: For those of us with female reproductive systems, estrogen is extremely important for driving our monthly menstrual cycle. Throughout the month, it spikes and dives, orchestrating ovulation and helping trigger our period. Estrogen levels vary widely between people, but basically, it’s all about balance! Your body is always making estrogen, but you could end up making too much if you have a lot of excess weight, have diabetes or high blood pressure, are pregnant, have a tumor, or are stressed. Environmental causes include drinking lots of alcohol (because your liver is what metabolizes this hormone and alcohol can mess with your liver so it is unable to do that job), being exposed to estrogen-like toxins in the environment, or eating certain foods that have estrogen-like compounds in them.
If your estrogen levels are high compared to your other hormones, that’s often called estrogen dominance — because that one hormone is dominating the others. In particular, it’s high relative to the hormone progesterone, the other hormone that helps orchestrate your menstrual cycle. (Note: I’m going to limit this article to high estrogen in folks with female reproductive systems, but high estrogen can cause difficulties in people with male reproductive systems too. The symptoms are different and there isn’t enough space to go into them here.)
So how do you know if your doctor should be monitoring your estrogen levels? Let’s look at the ways your body might be tipping you off that its estrogen cup overfloweth.
1. You’re Gaining Weight
One of the main symptoms of too much estrogen is weight gain, particularly in the hip area. If you have too much estrogen, you might end up gaining weight. You might also experience bloating, and/or difficulty getting rid of extra weight. This is because your estrogen actually needs to be balanced in order for your body to be able to lose weight and maintain weight loss over time.
2. Your Breasts Are Swollen Or Tender
Your breasts are extremely sensitive to hormone changes, which you may already know since many people experience breast changes every month during their cycle. If you notice that your breasts are more swollen than usual or are feeling sore, it could be due to high estrogen levels. Look in particular for soreness on the front of your breast and around your nipples.
3. Your Breasts Are Fibrocystic
Fibrocystic breast changes are when the quality of your breast tissue changes, becoming more lumpy or rope-like. Your breasts may also be painful or tender to the touch (usually on the top or side of your breast). This happens because of high estrogen and low progesterone levels — aka estrogen dominance. Specifically, this balance (or rather unbalance) of hormones causes the connective breast tissue to grow more than usual, creating the ropey or bumpy quality of tissue we call fibrocystic.
4. Your Period Is Irregular
There are tons of reasons why your period could show up early or late. High estrogen is just one, but it is a potential culprit, so it’s good to know about if you’re worried about your hormone levels. Your period is orchestrated carefully and gloriously by the complex dance of multiple hormones. So if one hormone is elevated, the whole operation can be thrown out of whack.
5. You Period Is Heavier Than Usual
Also good to know is that high estrogen levels can cause your period to be heavier. That’s because this hormone is responsible for thickening the lining of your uterus — so if you have more of it, your lining will be more, um, plentiful.
6. You Have Mood Swings
Estrogen doesn’t just impact your period — it is also very important for your emotions and mental state. To illustrate this point, consider the monthly mood rollercoaster that is your menstrual cycle. All those changes and swings are because of what your hormone levels are doing.
If you have high levels of estrogen, your mood is likely to tend toward anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. One doctor specifically calls the feeling lots of people with high estrogen get “agitated depression,” because people with elevated estrogen often experience a mix of anxiety and depression at the same time.
7. Your Sex Drive Is Lower Than Usual
You may have heard that your sex drive can diminish when your estrogen is lower, like when you start going through menopause. However, many people with high levels of estrogen also notice that their sex drive is diminished. There still isn’t much research on the subject, unfortunately.
8. You’re Getting Headaches
Did you know that humans with female reproductive systems are more likely to get headaches and migraines? The hormone levels in our systems are a big factor in headaches. Fluctuations in estrogen levels (like what happens to you every month as your body goes through ovulation to menstruation) are one reason why you could be getting headaches. Also, it turns out that pretty much everyone gets a headache when they have more estrogen than progesterone in their systems.
9. Your Hair Is Falling Out
If you have too much estrogen, your hair can start to thin. Specifically, if you have estrogen dominance and as a result your progesterone is lower than it should be, you can end up shedding more hair than usual. Over time, this can result in hair loss.
10. Your Hands And Feet Are Always Cold
The reasons for this aren’t very well explained, but many people with high estrogen levels also have poor circulation and as a result get cold hands and feet. We do know that estrogen has something to do with circulation, but more research needs to be done in this area as well.
11. Your Memory Isn’t Great
Low estrogen has been associated with Alzheimer's and other memory loss. However, doctors have found that if you have high estrogen, you’re also likely to have difficulty remembering things. More research has to be done to explain why this is happening. (You noticing a pattern yet?)
12. It’s Hard For You To Sleep
Estrogen is an exciting hormone — it gets your body hyped. If you have a lot of it, it’s going to be hard to sleep. Progesterone, in contrast, is the hormone that helps you chill out. So if you notice that you’re having a hard time winding down, estrogen dominance could be the culprit.
13. You’re Exhausted
This stems directly from the item above. If you’re not sleeping, it would make sense that you’re going to feel more fatigued than you usually do. Lots of things make us tired, particularly in this face-paced world we’re living in, so exhaustion could be because of a long list of things. But if you’re noticing that you’re tired more often than usual AND you have some of the other symptoms on this list, that could indicate that you have high estrogen.
What Can I Do About It?
Sure, some of these symptoms suck, but is having high estrogen a potentially scary thing? It turns out it can be — because having more of this hormone puts you at risk for medical conditions you don’t want. These include breast, uterine, and endometrial cancer, high blood pressure, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and depression.
To know if your estrogen levels are too high, you have to go to your doctor to get tested — probably more than once, so your doctor can monitor trends in how your levels rise and fall across your cycle. A single number isn’t going to cut it because the normal amount of estrogen someone has in their body is always fluctuating. She may put you on hormone replacement therapy so you can get back in balance and start feeling better.
There are also a lot of things you can do on your own to help! Cutting back on drinking alcohol is a big one, since we now know that if your liver is messed up it can’t process estrogen out of your system. Eating organic can help you cut out any pesticides or other chemicals you may be eating that are acting like estrogen once you have them in your system. It can also be helpful to eat weak phytoestrogenic foods, like pomegranates, flax seeds, berries, oats, and barley, which actually counteract estrogen’s effects. (Steer clear of soy, which does just the opposite.) Exercising can help you cut excess weight that may be causing your estrogen imbalance. Sleeping enough each night is important, because if you don’t get enough sleep your body doesn’t make as much of the hormone melatonin, which helps you maintain healthy estrogen levels. Finally, managing stress is critical, because the stress hormone cortisol is actually made in part by progesterone. So if your body is making lots of that hormone, it’s using up your progesterone stock, making your estrogen levels higher by comparison.
Either way, there's no way to know what's going on without a doctor's help, so if these symptoms sound like you, go and get checked out so you can start feeling better!
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