Inflammation, Estrogen, and Environmental Toxins
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and marks an important time to evaluate our lives and think deeply about how our internal and external environments impact our overall health. Breast cancer is a frightening reality for many and an intimidating concept for many others. Genetics and family history certainly play a role in the development of breast cancer, especially in women who are diagnosed around menopause.1 However, genes are responsible for only 5-10% of breast cancer diagnosis, and factors such as inflammation, excess estrogen and environmental toxins play a major role in this disease.2
Part of a healthy lifestyle is utilizing a healthy diet to reduce obesity and inflammation. Obesity increases the risk, not only of breast cancer, but also diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and a host of other disorders that tax the body. In fact, obesity itself is inflammation. I suggest reviewing Janet McKee’s article, “Anti-Inflammatory Eating: The Key to Lasting Health” for more information.
The typical American diet is becoming more energy dense and nutrient poor. A diet high in saturated fat encourages inflammation throughout the body and the creation of visceral fat around the midsection. Visceral fat actually acts as an endocrine organ, part of the body’s system of transporting hormones. It is stimulated by excess estrogen, which it tends to trap and store.3 Saturated fat is found in abundance in animal protein and a high intake of meat has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.4
While estrogen seems synonymous with femininity, excess estrogen, trapped in the body, plays a role in the development of breast cancer. In addition to high amounts of fats, the typical American diet includes an excess of simple carbohydrates, found in refined flour and sugar. Insulin, produced in excess by the pancreas in the metabolism of simple carbohydrates, increases the amount of excess estrogen in the body. A surplus in the production of estrogen that is being stored in the body may contribute to the high incidence of breast cancer.5
Eating a low-glycemic, high fiber diet can help to lower insulin production, and in the process reduce amounts of free estrogen. A diet high in fruits and vegetables also has protective effects against the development of cancer. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, spinach and cabbage, contain indole-3-carbinol, thought to provide antioxidant and anti-cancer effects.2,5 A plant-based diet contributes fiber as well, which encourages the processing and elimination of excess estrogens through the bowels. Eating 30 grams of fiber per day can reduce cancer risk by half in premenopausal women.2
Moderate physical activity also helps in reducing levels of excess estrogen and can be beneficial in the prevention of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.3 In our increasingly sedentary society, maintaining a healthy activity level does more than help to control weight. The endorphins released during physical exercise create a feeling of wellbeing and also help to improve confidence. Activity also encourages leaving the home or office and enjoying our interconnectedness with nature and its wonders. We regularly come into contact with environmental toxins that either act as estrogen in the body or disrupt hormones in some other way.6
Bisphenol-A (BPA)-Once used as hormone replacement therapy, it is still utilized in many of the plastic products we see today. Since it is very durable, BPA is found in plastic water bottles, it is used to make sporting equipment and also coats the inside of many canned goods found in the grocery store in order to assure freshness.
Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)-These are created by cooking the muscles of animal meat at high temperatures and altering their amino acids.
Phthalates-Used to make plastic wrap flexible, phthalates are also found in many cosmetics. They are estrogen mimickers, disrupting hormones and playing a role in precocious puberty, the visible onset of puberty before age 8 in girls.
Parabens-These are another toxic preservative that keeps bacteria from growing in cosmetics, shampoos, lotions and soaps. They are also thought to feed breast tumors and have been found in numerous biopsies of malignant tumors.
Polychlorinated Biphenols (PCBs)-Were used in manufacturing through the 1970s but have been banned due to solid confirmation of their contribution to cancer. Unfortunately their residual effects remain in the soil and contaminate our food and water.
Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)-Are found in air pollution, tobacco smoke, charbroiled meats and auto exhaust. PAHs store in fat cells and make their way into the liver and kidneys, where they can remain if present in large amounts.
Heavy metals are another common toxin, found in predatory fish and unfiltered water. These can disrupt hormones, as can many fragrances and home cleaning products commonly found on store shelves.
Removing excess estrogen and toxins from tissues and organs is another way that women can take control of their bodies. I suggest reading Janet McKee’s articles “Spring Clean and Detox your Body for Vibrant Health” Part 1 and Part 2 for information on detoxifying.
Fall is a wonderful time to revisit your health and many of the foods that can offer the support your liver needs while it works to cleanse your body, such as beets and those cruciferous vegetables are ripe for the picking. They also contain the fiber necessary to keep your digestive system working in full swing. Herbs such as burdock, dandelion root and milk thistle can also help to protect and support the liver while detoxifying.3,6
Decreasing stress, both exposure to and reaction to is extremely important in working toward a healthier lifestyle, as stress can trigger poor lifestyle choices. Connecting the mind, body and spirit can also help in fostering a positive attitude that improves immunity.
Our modern world seems filled with toxins, stressors and unhealthy lifestyles that are normalized by a culture of excess. It is important to slow down and identify our personal strengths in order to improve upon our weaknesses when it comes to the factors that affect our health. We are all mortal, and the goal is not to live as long as possible but to enjoy a beautiful quality of life while we are here.
- Weinberg C, Shi M, DeRoo L, Taylor J, Sandler D, Umbach D. Asymmetry in Family History Implicates Nonstandard Genetic Mechanisms: Application to the Genetics of Breast Cancer. Plos Genetics [serial online]. March 2014;10(3):1-8. Accessed September 12, 2014.
- Moyer V. Risk assessment, genetic counseling, and genetic testing for BRCA-related cancer in women: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. Annals Of Internal Medicine [serial online]. 2014;160(4):271-281. Accessed September 12, 2014.
- Weinhold H. (2015). Naturopathic Support for Women Living with Breast Cancer. [PowerPoint slides, lecture].
- Boyd NF, Stone J, Vogt KN, Connelly BS, Martin LJ, Minkin S. Dietary fat and breast cancer risk revisited: a meta-analysis of the published literature. Br J Cancer. 2003 Nov 3;89(9):1672-85.
- Evans J. An integrative approach to fibroids, endometriosis, and breast cancer prevention. Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal [serial online]. October 2008;7(5):28-31. Accessed September 11, 2014.
- Marchese M. 8 Weeks to Women’s Wellness. Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications; 2011.