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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Jan 2016 edition of TTAC’s Heroes Against Cancer member newsletter
Oncologists are afraid of estrogen; to them it is to be feared and therefore like a poisonous spider, must be banished, or stomped on. Yet is estrogen really that bad? No! You need estrogen for lowering your risk of heart disease and for developing strong, healthy bones. In fact, estrogen is essential to the health of all parts of your body – from your eyes, to your heart, to your brain and everywhere else.
Are you concerned about estrogen and breast cancer? It is true that estrogen stimulates the growth of cancer cells and thus increases breast cancer risk. But there is much more to the story than that! We need estrogen to live; it is just so terribly misunderstood.
The Dance of Estrogen & Progesterone
Did you know that estrogen and progesterone oppose one another to achieve balance, or “homeostasis”? However, if you have too much estrogen and too little progesterone, the body no longer functions in perfect homeostasis. Progesterone acts to balance estrogen’s actions. While estrogen is associated with breast and other cancers, progesterone has anti-cancer effects.
Estrogen also promotes water retention whereas progesterone is a natural diuretic – which is one of the reasons women who are low in progesterone have greater PMS symptoms. And when there is unopposed estrogen because of a deficiency in progesterone levels, there is an increased risk of developing cancer.
Blaming estrogen is a bit like blaming girls at a dance. If there are ten girls at a party but only five boys, is it the girls’ fault if not all of them have a partner? Yes, one could always invite fewer girls to the party, but wouldn’t it make more sense to invite more boys?
In the same way, if estrogen levels are normal – or lower than normal – does it really make sense to lower progesterone levels? In fact, it may be a better idea to raise progesterone levels to match those of estrogen, so that the normal balance is restored. When the opposing force of progesterone is increased, the potentially toxic effect of estrogen is decreased.
The Science behind Estrogen, Progesterone, and Cancer
Estrogen has been shown to trigger the activity of, or “turn on” the BCL2 gene, which when expressed at high levels causes cancer cells to grow rapidly and aggressively.
On the other hand, progesterone increases the expression of the so-called “tumor-suppressor” gene P53, which is also known as “the guardian of the genome” because of its ability to prevent mutations in DNA. More P53 causes cancer cell growth to stop, or even die by inducing them to commit suicide (a process known as “apoptosis”).
High levels of the BCL2 gene, therefore, stimulate growth of cancer cells and thus increase the risk of cancer. Progesterone counteracts the actions of the BCL2 gene by stimulating production of the P53 gene, causing cancer cells to die. For instance, progesterone has been shown to induce cell death in T47-D cancer cells (breast cancer cell line for invasive ductal carcinoma/metastasis with hormone receptors) in a laboratory setting.
So if estrogen triggers high BCL2 levels and progesterone stimulates P53 production, why not change the focus to supporting P53 gene activity? Indeed, it seems we can.
The late integrative oncologist Mitchell Gaynor, MD, was famous for his passion for explaining that we can change the way our genes behave by making good dietary choices. According to Dr. Gaynor, resveratrol in red grapes and red wine (organic please) can activate the P53 gene. As you may know, resveratrol belongs to a group of plant compounds called polyphenols, which are believed to have antioxidant properties and protect the body by lowering risk for cancer and heart disease.
Cruciferous vegetables – especially watercress, but also cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts (with their high content of the naturally occurring anti-cancer compound PEITC, or phenethylisothyanate) have been shown to support expression of P53. Additionally, herbs such as sage, rosemary, ginger, as well as curcumin (the main active ingredient in the spice turmeric), and ashwagandha (also known as Indian ginseng) have also been found to support P53 activity.
Vitamin C is another promoter of P53, which is one of the reasons intravenous vitamin C therapy is so effective against cancer. On the other hand, processed foods, refined flours, and sugars have all been shown to impair P53.
Recap of P53 Supporters:
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Sage, ginger, curcumin (turmeric), and ashwagandha
- Essential fatty acids, for example omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil and sage (all rich in ursolic and rosmarinic acid, both believed to have antioxidant properties) have been found to inhibit BCL2 gene activity. For more gene-changing foods and lifestyle habits, read Dr. Gaynor’s book, The Gene Therapy Plan, Taking Control of Your Genetic Destiny with Diet and Lifestyle.
What’s Stealing Our Progesterone?
Progesterone deficiencies and cancer were quite rare before the industrial revolution, when people ate a whole-foods diet devoid of pesticides and added hormones, and before the advent of heavy chemical use and a dramatic increase in air pollution. Why?
Most likely because added hormones, xenoestrogens (see below), synthetic hormones, and pesticide residues have chemical structures similar to estrogen which fool our body, upsetting homeostasis. Compounding the problem is the constant level of stress most of us live with now. No wonder hormone imbalance has become rampant.
Low progesterone levels are also the result of poor adrenal function, impaired thyroid function, as well as poor liver function (hence the sluggish removal of toxins). Important to note is that gluten, commonly found in foods made with wheat, rye, and barley, can also impair the thyroid and adrenal glands by blocking the absorption of vital minerals and nutrients.
Estrogen and Breast Cancer: All Estrogen Is NOT the Same
Estrogen is the general term used for several types of estrogen-like hormones produced by the body, including estriol, estrone, and estradiol. Estriol is a weak estrogen and does not promote cancer formation. Estriol may actually be cancer protective as it balances the pro-cancer effects of estrone and estradiol. Estrone is stronger, while estradiol is the strongest and is unfortunately the most predominant of naturally occurring estrogens.
In pre-menopausal women, estrogen is produced naturally in the ovaries, adrenals, and fat tissues. During menopause, estrogen production declines by over 50 percent and is produced primarily by the adrenals and fat cells. When the body is in hormonal homeostasis, progesterone opposes estrogen, thus keeping estrogen in check. When you have more estrogen than you need in comparison to progesterone, you are considered to be estrogen dominant. Even a woman with low estrogen levels can have estrogen dominance if she is not producing enough progesterone.
Why You Need to Avoid Xenoestrogens
The most harmful estrogens of all are the so-called “xenoestrogens” – which are chemical estrogens that the body does not recognize and which dramatically increase the risk of cancer.
Xenoestrogens are found in personal care products as well as in plastic containers and water bottles. They are harmful because they are endocrine disruptors known to alter the normal function of naturally-occurring hormones in the body.
These chemicals have the ability to mimic natural hormones and bind to hormone receptors. When xenoestrogens enter the body, estrogens accumulate, contributing to estrogen dominance.
Unfortunately, xenoestrogens are not biodegradable, so they are stored in our fat cells – and breast tissue is mostly fat cells. While the liver does an amazing job of detoxifying natural estrogen, it cannot possibly be expected to detoxify the daily onslaught of harmful synthetic estrogen-like chemicals sent its way.
Phytoestrogens: The Anti-Estrogen
Phytoestrogens, while lumped together with other estrogens by allopathic medicine, are generally speaking helpful, not harmful.
Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens which can actually act as anti-estrogens by reducing estrogen activity in the body and protecting us from the stronger estrogen (estradiol) our body produces as well as the xenoestrogens found in environmental chemicals. Not only that, they actually contains compounds that have been shown to reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells.
Phytoestrogens such as lignans found in flaxseeds act more like estrogen blockers than like estrogen; they help modulate the production, availability, and actions of hormones.
Managing High Estrogen Levels
For women who have an overabundance of natural estrogen (again, often a result of toxin overload and chronic stress), reducing the levels of an enzyme known as aromatase can be helpful. Aromatase is also known as estrogen synthetase or estrogen synthase – and is an enzyme responsible for the production of estrogens.
However, it is not necessary to rely on pharmaceutical aromatase inhibitors (which cause terrible side effects) to lower aromatase levels. Foods such as button mushrooms, pumpkin seeds, and flaxseeds can effectively help keep things in check.
Additionally, supplements such as DIM (diindolylmethane) may help to protect against breast, uterine, and colorectal cancer. DIM is believed to work by acting like estrogen – although under certain circumstances it might also block the actions of estrogen.
Another supplement, calcium-D-glucarate, is similar to a naturally occurring chemical called glucaric acid found in our bodies, as well as in oranges, apples, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage. Calcium D-glucarate can be used to remove cancer-causing agents, toxins, and steroid hormones from the body.
When the liver and colon become sluggish due to low thyroid function, stress, and an overburden of toxins, the body cannot break down and remove excess estrogen adequately from the system. The excess unbalanced estrogen gets stored in the fat cells of breast tissues when it is not properly eliminated. Supporting the liver with detoxifying foods such as cruciferous vegetables, onions, whey powder, and supplements can be very helpful.
Again, reducing estrogen is not always the goal – instead, the goal is to address the cause of high estrogen or hormone imbalance by eliminating xenoestrogens, boosting production of progesterone, reducing stress, and making other appropriate lifestyle changes that can help to create homeostasis and improve health.
Why Can’t I Just Supplement With Progesterone?
Before you reach for supplemental progesterone – know that while natural progesterone has an anticancer effect, synthetic progesterone (found in birth control pills and hormone replacement supplements) does not stimulate activation of the P53 gene. Additionally, as it occupies progesterone receptors, synthetic progesterone prevents natural progesterone from occupying these receptors.
Regarding natural progesterone creams – simply applying these creams and not altering lifestyle habits does not get to the real cause of the problem. Toxins in our food and in our environment and living in a constant state of stress drain the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis!
Also, using progesterone cream may interfere with the body’s ability to make its own progesterone. Still, some women find tremendous relief and resolution of symptoms of imbalance by using these creams. Keep in mind that it is always best to work with a professional healthcare provider to increase progesterone levels naturally, resorting to supplemental use only if necessary until you bring the body back to homeostasis.
9 Lifestyle Choices for Balancing Hormones
Hormone levels go out of balance when we subject our bodies to a lifestyle that includes refined and processed foods, inadequate exercise, poor-quality sleep, and exposure to harmful xenoestrogens.
Here are 9 ways you can support hormone homeostasis:
- Consume phytoestrogens – Phytoestrogens exist within plants as a natural defense against herbivores. Plants secrete these hormones to control the fertility of animals that may eat them to reduce further attacks. They modulate the production, availability, and action of hormones while also slowing down cell division.
Phytoestrogens are a bit tricky to grasp, because the can both mimic estrogen and act as an estrogen antagonist. The most wellknown phytoestrogens are probably the “isoflavones” found in soy. And although soy was initially considered a superfood, the reality is that soy is typically something we should avoid.
But phytoestrogens actually contain compounds that have been shown to reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells, for example…
- A 2009 study of 5,042 breast cancer patients in China showed a significant decrease in death and recurrence in patients on a phytoestrogen rich diet. Phytoestrogens can block cancerpromoting estrogens from attaching to the estrogen receptors on breast cells. They have also been shown to stop tumor growth, prevent metastasis, and shut off new blood vessels in growing tumors. Fermented soy, such as tempeh and miso are preferable to unfermented versions such as tofu as the fermentation process increases free radical scavenging activity. Additionally, fermentation removes the nutrient blocking effect that soy can have – for example, the phytic acid in unfermented soy can block absorption of key minerals such as magnesium and zinc.
Soy in a highly processed form (like soy protein isolate or soy protein concentrate) added to many processed foods should be avoided as they have the greatest ability to block nutrient absorption. Due to the fact that most soy is genetically modified, it is highly recommended to consume only organic, fermented soy.
- Phytoestrogens called lignans in flaxseed modulate the production, availability, and action of hormones. These lignans lower production of estrogen by blocking the aromatase enzyme that makes it (similar to aromatase inhibitors). They also block estrogen receptors similar to Tamoxifen, a medication prescribed to prevent and treat breast cancer.
When lignans are consumed, intestinal bacteria convert them into weak estrogens. These estrogens attach themselves to estrogen receptors, stimulating them weakly and blocking estrogen binding. This prevents the body’s natural estrogens estradiol and estrone from attaching to the estrogen receptors and strongly stimulating them. Similarly, they also block environmental toxins, making breast tissue more resistant to these toxins.
Take a Vitamin E supplement – Vitamin E is crucial to maintaining a healthy balance between progesterone and estradiol. Take a daily mixed tocotrienol/mixed trocopherol supplement containing alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherols (found in formulas extracted from rice bran oil). For example Pure Encapsulations Rice Bran Oil Tocotrienols.
- Supplement with Magnesium – Magnesium is another key nutrient for increasing progesterone levels, as it plays an important role in maintaining a healthy hormonal balance in the body.
- Eat good quality whole foods – A diet rich in whole, primarily plant-based foods will support the adrenal glands and boost every function of the body.
- Physical Activity – Exercise helps reduce stress and positively affects gene expression; additionally, it also helps to balance hormones.
- Clean out your closets and cupboards – Replace synthetic health, home, and beauty products with natural, non-toxic alternatives. A quick visit to the Environmental Working Group website will enable you to evaluate the products you use at home.
- Reduce stress – Stress challenges adrenal function and makes direct physiological changes to DNA, not to mention that it
significantly raises estrogen levels and depletes progesterone. Engage in yoga, prayer, meditation, and other mind-body therapies that release negative emotions and help to relieve past traumas.
- Drink clean liquids – Choose filtered water (remove chlorine, fluoride, and other toxins in tap water). Avoid alcohol, but if you drink wine, make it organic – you wouldn’t eat conventional grapes, so don’t drink conventional wine. And, while red wine does prevent breast cancer (resveratrol helps to metabolize estrogen and activates the P53 gene), don’t go overboard. Remember that your liver has to process that alcohol and if you drink too much, it won’t be able to metabolize estrogen efficiently.
- Go with your gut, take a probiotic – Probiotics support gut bacteria and improve digestion, helping to prevent constipation. This is important because when the stool remains in the bowel for extended periods of time, excess estrogen is re-absorbed and recirculated. Plus, immune function depends on healthy gut bacteria, which affects cancer genes too!
Once again it is important to remember that cancer is primarily an environmental disease. It comes about over time through the individual’s experiences, habits, and dietary choices. And yet, looked at another way, cancer is certainly a genetic disease in the sense that it is those same experiences, habits, and dietary choices that affect the way our genes behave. Everything you eat, drink, and think influences the likelihood of the “dis-ease” known as cancer.
So, before you allow your oncologist to bully you into taking Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, ask them how the recommended treatment will correct hormone imbalances, improve your health, or change the cancer environment. If they can’t answer your questions, find a qualified healthcare provider who can.
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Estrogen is a very misunderstood hormone. While it’s true that estrogen stimulates the growth of cancer cells and thus increases breast cancer risk, it is also essential to the health of all parts of your body – from your eyes, to your heart, to your brain and everywhere else.
Progesterone acts to balance estrogen’s actions in the body. While estrogen is associated with breast and other cancers, progesterone has anti-cancer effects.
Progesterone increases the expression of the “tumor-suppressor” gene P53 which causes cancer cell growth to stop, or even induces cancer cells to die by committing cell “suicide.” Consuming the following plants and nutrients helps support P53 in the body:
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Sage, ginger, curcumin (turmeric), and ashwagandha
- Essential fatty acids, for example omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
Estrogen is the general term used for several types of estrogen-like hormones produced by the body including estriol, estrone, and estradiol. Estriol is a weak estrogen and does not promote cancer formation. Estrone is stronger, while estradiol is the strongest.
The most harmful estrogens of all are “xenoestrogens” – chemical estrogens that the body does not recognize and which dramatically increase the risk of cancer. Xenoestrogens are found in personal care products, plastic containers, and water bottles.
Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens which act more like estrogen blockers than like estrogen. They help modulate the production, availability, and actions of hormones and even contain compounds that help reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells.
Here are 9 ways to support hormone homeostasis (balance) in your body:
- Consume phytoestrogens
- Take a vitamin E supplement
- Supplement with magnesium
- Eat good quality whole foods
- Regular physical activity
- Get rid of toxic personal care and cleaning products
- Reduce stress
- Drink “clean” liquids (i.e. filtered water)
- Take a probiotic