As the list of autoimmune diseases continues to rise, research has shown that women may be more at risk for developing autoimmune disorders than men. In fact, out of the nearly 23 million people who have an autoimmune disease in the United States, 78% are women. But why?
The reason may be a hormonal one. As women are more impacted by hormonal fluctuations throughout their lifetime, they are more likely to experience disruptions in immune function. This is due to the production of the sex hormone estrogen, which is higher in women than it is in men. Today we are going to explore the connection between estrogen and the immune system.
What is estrogen?
Estrogen the sex hormone responsible for regulating the reproductive system, as well as maintaining heart, skin, and bone health. It’s also the hormone that causes the physical changes seen in women during puberty, such as breast growth and menstruation. Women contain higher levels of estrogen than men, because estrogen helps to regulate the menstrual cycle. Estrogen production is highest in women during their reproductive years, with levels dropping after menopause.
What is the connection between estrogen and autoimmunity?
Much research has been done in recent years exploring the connection between estrogen and autoimmune diseases. One conclusion we can make is that when estrogen levels become imbalanced, they stimulate inflammation in the immune system, leading to more antibody production.
Why is it that higher levels of estrogen creates more antibodies? Good question. The reason for this increased activity is to create a higher immune response that protects the body against invaders during a woman’s reproductive years. However, too much estrogen in relation to progesterone can cause antibodies to attack its own tissues, rather than the invaders it’s supposed to. But why would your body seemingly betray you out of nowhere? Understanding how an autoimmune disease develops is the first step to reversing your symptoms. I talk more about the 3 factors that contribute to autoimmune disease here.
One thing is for sure, this overstimulation of the immune system is a leading cause in developing an autoimmune condition, or worsening an existing one.
Similar autoimmune flare ups can be seen for women experiencing menopause, or in some cases postpartum when the ratio of estrogen to progesterone is out of balance. As the reproductive cycle changes, estrogen production increases and decreases at rapid rates. With this variation comes an increase and decrease in antibodies as well, leading to heightened immune response and symptom flare up. For this reason, many women find releif with their autoimmune symptoms after menopause, as estrogen levels drop and the immune response begins to regulate.
For women, balancing estrogen production may be a key component to reducing their risk of developing an autoimmune condition. Unfortunately, estrogen dominance has become a common occurrence in today’s world.
What is Estrogen Dominance?
SImply put, estrogen dominance is a hormone imbalance in which estrogen levels are too high in relation to progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone act as a checks and balance system in the body, regulating each other’s functions. The problem occurs when one is incredibly high or low in relation to the other. This can happen naturally during times of puberty, pregnancy, or menopause, or it can occur due to environmental changes. Estrogen dominance is currently at an all time high, with factors such as diet, environmental toxins, and chronic stress, playing a major role.
Our modern day diet contains many hormone disrupting chemicals that increase estrogen levels in the body. Conventionally raised animals are injected with growth hormones and antibiotics that make their way into your system, disrupting your body’s natural balance. Pesticides and herbicides used in conventional farming also disrupt your hormones.
Environmental toxins found in many household and personal care products contain endocrine disrupting chemicals known as xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens mimic the body’s natural production of estrogen, leading to an imbalance in hormone production and estrogen dominance. Xenoestrogens are commonly found in household cleaners, plastics, fragrances, skin care products, and hair care products.
Chronic stress levels can lead to elevated cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the ”fight or flight” hormone responsible for helping you handle stressful or dangerous situations. Since cortisol and progesterone are produced by the same hormone (pregnenolone), more cortisol production means less progesterone production. Without the progesterone there to keep estrogen levels in check, estrogen rises, leading to estrogen dominance. Managing your stress, and keeping your cortisol production regulated will help keep progesterone and estrogen levels balanced.
If you believe estrogen dominance is a factor in your autoimmune condition, here are some symptoms to watch for:
- Irregular, heavy, or painful periods
- Tender or swollen breasts
- Weight gain
- Headaches or migraines
- Hair loss
- Mood swings, anxiety, and depression
How to Minimize Estrogen Dominance
Luckily, there are steps you can take to regulate estrogen levels and decrease your chances of developing an autoimmune disease. Even if you are already struggling with an autoimmune condition, these tips are a good start to relieving and even reversing your symptoms!
Choosing organic grass fed meat, dairy products, and produce such as strawberries, leafy greens, apples, grapes, peppers, cherries, peaches, pears, celery, and tomatoes, as these are the most contaminated fruits and veggies.
Reduce your environmental exposure
Avoid exposure to xenoestrogens and clean up your personal care routine by avoiding products with these ingredients:
Focus on your gut
Not only can gut dysbiosis lead to higher levels of estrogen, but poor digestion can interfere with your body’s ability to eliminate it. Focus on improving your gut by eating foods rich in probiotic fiber. Great sources of fiber include cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale, artichokes, berries, avocado, oats, and seeds such as flax, and chia.
The best way to gain clarity is with comprehensive hormone testing done by a certified and reliable practitioner. This testing can tell you a lot about where your estrogen levels are in relation to the rest of your hormones, as well as whether or not your body is metabolizing them efficiently. My go-to test I use with patients is the DUTCH hormone test. You can learn more about it in this video.
Women should not have to bear the burden of autoimmune disease alone. Luckily, by getting estrogen levels to a healthy rate, and working with a certified practitioner, you can begin relieving and even reversing your autoimmune symptoms today.
Our adaptation program has helped hundreds of patients improve their autoimmune conditions with our personalized protocols. Book your free discovery call to see if endocrine dominance is influencing your autoimmune condition, and make a plan to restore your health.
About the Author: Dr. Seth Osgood is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certified Practitioner. Dr. Osgood received his post-graduate training in Functional Medicine through the IFM and from working with Dr. Amy Myers. He has helped people from around the world improve their health utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.