Estrogen is often blamed for spotty and irregular periods, mood swings, hot flashes, and other "women’s issues," but what about men's health? Could a man's lack of energy, decreased libido, and even growing breast tissue be due to his estrogen levels as well?
If your first thought is "What? I didn't even know men had estrogen!" you are not alone. But the truth is that although testosterone gets most of the fame, men do have estrogen. And it could be causing more problems than you think.
The relationship between testosterone and estrogen.
Testosterone levels naturally decline as men age—you may have heard of "low-t," which affects many—but it's important to understand that this decline is only half of the equation. As a man's testosterone levels lower, he also experiences an increase in estrogen—and together these hormone changes cause undesirable symptoms.
Let's start with testosterone: It's essential for libido, arousal, and orgasm, but it also helps maintain lean muscle mass, synthesizes neurotransmitters that support good brain function, inhibits fat accumulation, and improves bone density. Therefore, when a man’s testosterone naturally declines—1 percent every year after the age of 30—it results in a wide range of symptoms including decreased energy and mental ability, increased abdominal fat, depression, decreased libido, and erectile dysfunction.
These symptoms are pretty common, yet many men don’t seek treatment for them, often thinking it's just something they need to live with as they age. A lot of men will opt for Viagra as a solution, but Viagra does not really treat "low-T"; it treats erectile dysfunction (ED). And ED is just one symptom of low testosterone, which is a risk factor for many other illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and other health issues. Remember, though, a man’s testosterone measurement is only part of the equation.
The role of estrogen in men's health.
At the same time that this natural decline of testosterone is occurring, a man’s estrogen is typically on the increase! Did you know the average 60-year-old man has more circulating estrogen in his blood than the average 60-year-old woman? There are many factors that contribute to an increase in estrogen as men age, including:
1. Enzymes and fat storage.
As testosterone levels decline, men pack on the pounds more easily, and fat tissue loves to store estrogen. Another significant factor is the activity of enzymes in the body called aromatase enzymes, these enzymes—found in fat tissue—convert testosterone into estrogen. In fact, it's a natural process for a man’s body to create estrogen, which in small amounts is important to bones and other bodily processes. But as many men age and pile on the belly fat, aromatase enzyme activity increases, and this is where the problem occurs.
How do you test for this? There's a health measurement called the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio, and with increased aromatase enzyme activity, this ratio is significantly altered. When this occurs, more of the already-diminishing testosterone is converted to estrogen and it results in all of the typical "low-T" symptoms. As our population has become more obese and our diet unhealthy and full of sugars, white foods, grains, unhealthy fats, and endocrine disrupters, we will likely see increased aromatization in men, which can even cause them to develop breast-like tissue.
2. Hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Another significant factor is the increasing number of hormone disrupters in the environment, particularly a group called xenoestrogens. These hormone disrupters mimic estrogen, and they also build up in the body, stored in fat cells. Xenoestrogens have been linked to testicular cancer, infertility, early onset puberty, and more. Researchers have studied how the average testosterone levels in men have been dropping over the years, and hormone disrupters are blamed for total testosterone levels in men dropping about 22 percent between 1987 and 2004.
3. Meat and dairy.
Another factor in the estrogen-testosterone connection? Estrogen hormones in our food. These hormones, such as estradiol, are stored in foods like meat and dairy and can contribute to hormone imbalance.
The good news is that there is a lot one can do to combat declining testosterone levels and balance escalating estrogen levels. Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and lifestyle choices is huge, and if you're working with a hormone specialist they may also suggest supplements and bioidentical hormone therapies. Avoiding xenoestrogens by learning more about household cleaning products and cosmetics can greatly reduce exposure to estrogen as well, and always buying grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish is another great way to decrease the estrogen hormones in food. Lastly, it's important to get accurate lab tests; this will paint an accurate picture of the initial problem and monitor the progress you're making.