This is part 3 of our 4-part series in how hormones affect autoimmune diseases.
Estrogen is an important hormone in the female body. It is the counterpart to progesterone and is produced in the ovaries, adrenal glands as well as from fat cells. Once it is produced, it can do many things. In women, it helps to stimulate ovulation, promotes vaginal wall thickness and lubrication, and regulates blood flow in the uterus. It also helps to form breast tissue and why it is one of the main stimulators in breast cancer.
Apart from its reproductive effects, estrogen also helps contributes to cognitive health, bone health and the cardiovascular system. Low levels can impair memory, cause temperature regulation issues like hot flashes, and lower bone density. Estrogen also has an effect on the immune system as well. High levels can stimulate certain immune markers for autoimmune diseases, and it’s this effect that we will talk about today.
Estrogen’s Effect on the Immune System
Estrogen has a strong effect on the immune system. When levels are high, the immune system is more likely to trend towards an autoimmune response. This is because estrogen tends to push immune system signals towards autoimmunity through stimulation of antibodies. There are some studies that show that there might be an increase in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus in women that have been on oral birth control or hormone replacement therapy for many years.
It is not just high estrogen that can stimulate immune system response. Low levels can stimulate the immune system as well and make people more susceptible to things like allergies or colds/flus. So hormone balance is important when we consider how it might affect the immune system.
But is seems to be that the thing that matters more is the balance between estrogen and progesterone. If there is not enough progesterone, and more estrogen, this can lead to more inflammation and autoimmune triggers. Or once women go through menopause, it is likely that the unopposed estrogen that happens when progesterone is gone, stimulates some autoimmune diseases. Women that have not yet gone through menopause may see problems with estrogen imbalance if their menstrual cycles are off, or they have swings in mood or anxiety during their cycle.
How to Treat Estrogen Levels
If you think that your estrogen levels are off, then there are a number of ways to test them. The common way is a blood test. This may be helpful if you are testing progesterone levels in the follicular phase (the time between the first day of your period and when you ovulate). If your cycles are irregular, the best time to test this is right after any form of a period that you might have. Measuring estrogen levels are not as sensitive as progesterone levels during a women’s cycle and they can be measured any time in men.
Similar to progesterone, you can also do basal body temperatures to help assess your estrogen levels. You can chart the temperatures over time, and the data that you get will tell you what your hormones are doing daily. When estrogen levels are high in the follicular phase, your temperatures should be on the low side. Temperatures often rise when estrogen levels are low (hence why women often get hot flashes)
If your estrogen levels are too high, or you have an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone, then there are several ways you can treat this. Usually you will want to make sure that you increase progesterone levels if that is low. That can counteract the estrogenic effects on the immune system. Some other supplemental approaches that can help are things like indole-3-carbinol and DIM, which help with the breakdown of estrogen. Liver support is also super important as it helps with hormone breakdown in the body.
If estrogen levels are too low, you can support the bodies own production of estrogen through apoptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, wild yam and angelica. You can also consider using phytoestrogens, which are foods or herbs that can have a weak estrogenic effect on the body.
Women that are on hormone replacement therapy or oral hormonal birth control and who have an autoimmune disease should consider talking with their doctor about how these medications might be affecting their conditions. Many different types of hormone therapies can be modified so that they minimize stimulation of the autoimmune response. And women with a uterus who are taking estrogen should NEVER do so without also taking progesterone. This helps reduce the risk of uterine cancer.
In any rate, you should always work with a provider that is well versed in understanding the effects of estrogen on the immune system. If you have questions about therapies that our providers use, or if you are wondering whether or not your hormone therapy might be impacting your health, you can contact our office to schedule a free phone consult with one of our physicians today.