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What is estrogen and how does it work in MY body?

This diagram from VITAGEN-X  provides you with a great graphic to see how the hormone cascade works together with the key genes involved in estrogen detox. As you will see it all starts with cholesterol, which is sometimes referred to as the "father of all hormones" because it helps to make your sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. 

Estrogen is one of two major female steroid sex hormones, the other being progesterone. The main source of estrogen in females prior to menopause is the ovaries, after which the main source becomes the adrenal glands and fat tissue. Estrogen is also produced by the placenta during pregnancy. Estrogen levels fluctuate throughout life, naturally increasing during puberty and pregnancy, and falling after menopause. During the menstrual cycle, estrogen levels peak during ovulation dropping off if pregnancy doesn’t occur. This is truely amazing!

The main roles of estrogen in the body are to increase the growth and production of cells, the development and regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics - breasts, pubic hair etc. Estrogen is also involved in maintaining bone density, plays a role in blood clotting and affects skin, hair, mucous membranes, and the pelvic muscles.

The body produces 3 different types of estrogen:

  • E1 - Estrone: medium strength, predominant after menopause (adrenal glands)
  • E2 - Estradiol: strongest form, predominant during childbearing age (ovaries & adrenal glands)
  • E3 - Estriol: weakest form, predominant during pregnancy (placenta & liver) 


E1 and E2 are produced directly from the androgens androstenedione and testosterone respectively. E3 is produced from E2 according to the body's needs. Although androgens are considered male hormones, they play an important part in female physiology since all estrogens are made from androgens. In every tissue where estrogen is produced, it is made from an androgen.

Phytoestrogens, or 'plant estrogens', are naturally occurring in certain plant foods including soya and legumes. Their estrogenic effect is much weaker than our body's natural strong estrogens. Weak plant estrogens can attach to our estrogen receptors so our own strong estrogens can't bind and cause unwelcome symptoms of estrogen excess and excessive division of cells that have estrogen receptors like breast cells.

Selective Estrogen Response Modifiers or Receptor Modulators (SERMS) are plant chemicals that may have estrogenic effects in some tissues and anti-estrogenic effects in others. This shields certain tissues from potentially harmful effects such as the signal to multiply or 'proliferate'. Certain herbs have been shown to have these beneficial effects, for example, Black Cohosh. They may help to modulate menopausal symptoms and also protect reproductive tissues from cancer risk. Remifemin has research trials behind it proving its safety.

In menopause, weak plant estrogens can help reduce the severity of menopausal symptoms by reducing the secretion of the pituitary hormones that are one of the main triggers for hot flushes.


The CYP17A1 enzyme initiates the first step in estrogen production by converting pregnenolone and progesterone into estrogen precursors, including DHEA. The CYP19A1 enzyme is responsible for controlling the rate at which androstenedione and testosterone are converted to estrogen.

Once produced, circulating estrogen is converted via phase I detoxification enzymes:

CYP1A1produces 2OH estrogen which is ‘weak’ in action and thought to be neutral or even beneficial to the body. This is the most favourable pathway in terms of estrogen metabolism.

CYP1B1produces 4OH estrogen and generates harmful free radicals in the process. 4OH estrogen has stronger oestrogenic properties than 2OH estrogen and has been associated with undesirable estrogen-linked conditions and to DNA damage. As a result, this is the least favourable pathway of estrogen metabolism.

CYP3A4produces 16OH estrogen, thought to be stronger than 2OH and potentially harmful, although further research needs to be done. As a result, this is thought to be a less favourable pathway. 

Knowing which phase I pathway/s your body favours is useful since it gives a clue as to which forms of estrogen might be dominant in circulation and the diet and lifestyle measures you should take care to implement or avoid in order to maintain a healthy balance. This is truly empowering. 

Key genes involved in phase 1 estrogen detox


Once produced, estrogen moves through the blood and exerts its influence in the body by binding to estrogen receptors (ERs). ERs are important since they are also known to bind to DNA and control gene expression.

There are two types of estrogen receptors encoded by two separate genes:

ER alpha (ESR1- found in the highest concentration in the endometrium, ovaries, and hypothalamus (in the brain). ESR1 increases the action of the attached estrogen

ER beta (ESR2) - found in highest concentration in the ovaries, kidneys, brain, bone, heart, lungs, intestinal mucosa and endothelial cells. ESR2 weakens the action of the attached estrogen.

After phase I conversion, estrogen metabolites pass through phase II detoxification where they are neutralized and prepared for excretion via urine and bile.

The 4 main estrogen detoxification enzymes are:

COMT (Methylation): the COMT enzyme turns 2OH and 4OH into the neutral compounds, 2-meOH, and 4-meOH respectively via a process called methylation. Methylation is a major mechanism for preventing the potentially harmful effects of estrogen in the body.

GSTs (Glutathione Transferases): the GSTs are vital phase II detoxification enzymes responsible for providing protection against toxins by neutralising free radicals in the body with the help of the powerful antioxidant, glutathione.

SULT (Sulphation): estrogen metabolites are also deactivated via sulphotransferase enzymes

UGT (Glucuronidation): the UGT enzymes render estrogen more water-soluble and ready for excretion via the bile to the small intestine

Knowing which of your phase II pathways might be sluggish or in need of extra support is important to prevent your exposure to the toxic estrogen metabolites that have been linked to estrogen-positive breast cancer.

Key genes involved in phase 2 estrogen detox


Phase 3 estrogen detox is just a fancy term for 'pooping'! It is very important that your estrogen metabolites remain "packaged" in the bowel and are eliminated effectively. If not, they could be reabsorbed and re-circulate your body in their toxic form.

A diet high in fiber and the inclusion of calcium d-glucrate will ensure a healthy phase 3. 

Featured test

The DUTCH test

The DUTCH test enables you to measure and track which pathway your body is using to metabolise estrogen.

You may suffer from hormonal imbalances. Whether it is menopause, weight gain, fatigue, low libido, premenstrual symptoms (PMS), mood swings, or depression, these symptoms can lead to more serious problems if misdiagnosed.

Identifying the root cause of chronic health issues is certainly correctable, but only if properly identified. The DUTCH test was created to provide insight into many of these concerns, working to deliver the most complete assessment of sex and adrenal hormones along with their metabolites, in one easy-to-do test.

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In today's fast-paced, ultra-stressed, increasingly toxic, estrogen-ising world, it's very easy for the delicate ratio of our sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, to become unbalanced. Most people end up with too much estrogen or too little progesterone.

In women, this can lead to a variety of symptoms including breast swelling and tenderness, fluctuating moods, altered menstrual patterns, heavy menstrual bleeding, and even breast cancer initiation.

Certain herbs may assist in restoring hormonal balance by helping to reduce your stress response, insulin and estrogen, help raise your progesterone, and help you sleep better. In the case of low progesterone, you might be a script for progesterone from a doctor qualified to prescribe bioindentical hormones.


Menopause is a normal phase of a woman's life, one that more than 4,000 women enter each day! It is defined as the period in time when the ovaries cease functioning and menstrual periods stop. During this time woman are looking for relief for their menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes and vaginal dryness.

It's also a time when you may be faced with making choices about HRT. This is a good time to test your estrogen genes as well as estrogen detox pathways before committing to HRT. 


Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is one of the major health issues for childbearing-age women, as both physical and psychological symptoms can affect health and quality of life. Epidemiological studies show that 75% of fertile women have mild to moderate symptoms of PMS; 3-8% may present severe symptoms. Hormonal dysfunction can impact mood, sleep, and appetite and lead to symptoms such as anxiety, pain, hot flashes, and even memory impairment. 

“There’s no ‘one’ hormone involved in PMS—this is a complex dance and interaction between hormones,” says Functional Medicine Educator Margaret Christensen, MD. “What we want to do from a functional standpoint is to address the actual underlying hormonal imbalances and triggers. Is it high-stress hormones? That’s one of the number one contributors to PMS, and it is lack of things like sleep, lack of adequate nutrients like B vitamins and magnesium, which are critically important in hormonal balancing pathways.”

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