What’s estrogen got to do with it?
by Wendy C. Smith
Menopause. It’s one of the more dreaded passages of an American woman’s life. Those of us who haven’t been through it, dread it. We hear the horror stories of hot flashes, hormone replacement and suddenly saggy skin and we distress about old age. Although I have met a few women who took menopause completely in stride, for most American women, it’s a challenge.
Menopause has not always had the “disease” stigma that it does now. Half a century ago, menopause was a pretty simple transition from youth to middle age. In fact, in most underdeveloped nations, menopause is still no big deal. It’s only in the United States and other industrialized nations that menopause is something to approach with apprehension.
The timing has also changed. Many decades ago, menopause used to happen to most women in their late 40s or early 50s. Now perimenopause (the pre-menopausal stage) or even menopause is happening to women in their early 30s.
Since the ’60s, the theory has been that when a women hits menopause, she becomes hormone deficient, especially in estrogen. Life magazine toted estrogen as the magic hormone that would keep women from becoming dried-up, cranky, sexless old hags. Estrogen was the answer to staying young forever. Thus, the practice of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was born.
Lately, however, the theory has changed. It’s now known that the production of progesterone slows down much faster than the production of estrogen. The lack of progesterone causes a hormone imbalance and the woman can become estrogen dominant. The same complaints that are attributed to menopause, including mood swings, breast enlargement and weight gain, may also be attributed to estrogen dominance. Indeed, the symptoms of perimenopausal women mimic those of adolescent girls, who have high estrogen levels (although they have a much lower number of hot flashes).
The current problem of women experiencing perimenopausal symptoms at an earlier age is a phenomenon of developed, industrialized nations. In the United States, we live in a sea of estrogen. Off-gassing of plastics, birth control pills, car exhaust, pesticides, produce hormones, mineral oil (found in many cosmetics)…all of these and more contain xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are compounds that the body reads as estrogen. This hormonal imbalance causes many problems from early menopause to early puberty as well as much more severe menopausal symptoms and an increased rate of heart attacks, breast cancer and strokes. But this estrogen sea reaches beyond women. High estrogen levels are also being seen in men and have been linked to prostate cancer, infertility, breast growth and early puberty.
Dr. John Lee, who wrote an excellent book called What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause , believes that only a small percentage of women suffer from enough menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness, to need HRT. He feels that the majority of women with such symptoms are more likely to be estrogen dominant and can remedy their discomfort through a proper diet and exercise. Others can find relief with herbs, vitamins and minerals, or a natural progesterone cream that helps bring the body back in to a natural balance.
Women undergoing perimenopausal symptoms or menopause might want to try to alleviate the symptoms before jumping to HRT. Because there is the possibility that the symptoms may be caused by estrogen dominance, attempting to bring the body back into balance is a logical first step. Exercise and purify the diet. Eat organic foods and stay away from foods treated with pesticides or hormones. Get rid of cosmetics and other products used on the skin that contain petroleum or mineral oil bases. Fabric softeners fall into this category as well. Don’t store food in plastic containers and never microwave food in plastic, even if it states it is food-safe. Try to rid the house of petrochemically based products. Take a supplement such as Profema that contain chaste tree (a progesterone precursor) and black cohosh, which has been used for centuries for numerous feminine complaints. ProMeno is a wild yam salve that has been rated as successful in remedying menopausal problems. Both wild yam and chaste tree are progesterone precursors (catalysts) and thus promote progesterone production.
It’s probably a good idea for women of all ages to be aware of estrogen dominance. Besides an increased rate of heart attacks, there are other health and wellness concerns. For example, fetuses exposed to greatly elevated levels of estrogen in the first trimester have a higher rate of birth defects. And weight gain is another culprit of estrogen dominance.
Menopause doesn’t have to be the “disease” that it is currently made out to be. Hopefully, if a woman is careful about maintaining her hormonal balance, menopause can be just part of the natural life cycle instead of a roller coaster ride.