Estrogen plays many important roles in the body. For example, it is necessary for a woman’s menstrual cycle and for reproduction. It also supports cardiovascular and bone health. And, while estrogen is needed for the development of breasts, too much exposure to estrogen can also increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Estrogen can stimulate breast cell division and can support the growth of estrogen-responsive tumors.
Within the body, there are different estrogen metabolites which are known to be either beneficial or harmful. Simple urine tests are available to measure the metabolites and ratios to assess one’s risk. For example, the company Metametrix offers a test that measures the 2-hydroxyestrone (“good” estrogen) to 16-α-hydroxyestrone (“bad” estrogen). The 2:16 ratio can assess a woman’s long-term risk for breast, cervical, and other estrogen-sensitive cancers. Higher concentrations of 2-metabolites and lower concentrations of 16-metabolites may reduce breast cancer risk as well as the risk for other hormonally-related cancers. The good news is that nutritional interventions can promote a healthy 2:16 ratio.
In a recent study involving 47 premenopausal and 49 postmenopausal women, the results indicate that supplementation with an herbal formula may reduce the risk of breast cancer. The women were randomized to placebo or supplementation with a mixture of HMR lignan (plant lignan form the Norway spruce), indole-3-carbinol, calcium glucarate, milk thistle, Schisandra chinesis and stinging nettle, for a period of 28 days. At the end of the study, a significant increase in 2-hydroxyestrone (“good” estrogen) concentration and a trend toward an increase in 2:16 ratio was observed in the herbal group. Thus, the authors of this study conclude, “Supplementation with a mixture of indole-3-carbinol and HMR lignan in women significantly increased estrogen C-2 hydroxylation. This may constitute a mechanism for the reduction of breast cancer risk as well as risk for other estrogen-related cancers. Further studies with higher numbers of subjects are indicated.”
Beyond supplementation, eating a healthy diet – one rich in vegetables in the cabbage family, high fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains), and high quality protein and healthy fats, all promote a beneficial estrogen balance. In addition, regular exercise, low alcohol intake, healthy weight management, and limiting your exposure to harmful synthetic estrogens or “xenoestrogens” found in various plastics are other important factors shown to support healthy estrogen metabolism.