It’s been stated that overall breast cancer risk may be closely related to lifetime exposure to estrogen. Understanding how estrogen works in the body, knowing about how chemicals in the environment can affect body estrogen levels, and how diet and lifestyle factors affect estrogen exposure over a lifetime, may help women make more informed decisions about their bodies and their environment.
Estrogen is a hormone that is necessary for the normal development and growth of the breasts and organs important for childbearing. It helps control a woman’s menstrual cycles and is essential for reproduction. Estrogen also helps maintain the heart and healthy bones.
According to the Sprecher Institute for Comparative Cancer Research, at Cornell University, estrogen may be implicated in breast cancer risk because of the following:
- 1. its role in stimulating breast cell division
- 2. its work during the critical periods of breast growth and development
- 3. its effect on other hormones that stimulate breast cell division
- 4. its support of the growth of estrogen-responsive tumors
- Diet: The foods that women eat can affect levels of estrogen in their bodies. Diets that are very low in fat, and high in fiber may decrease the levels of estrogen in the body. Obesity is thought to increase the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer.
Dietary phytoestrogens: Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens found in foods like soybeans, tofu, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and certain spices and herbs. The word “phyto” is from the Greek word for plant. A diet rich in phytoestrogens has been proposed as a way to decrease breast cancer risk. Some, but not all studies show that women with a diet high in phytoestrogens, including vegans (who eat no animal foods) and women who eat diets high in soy products, have lower rates of breast cancer.
Body weight: Recent studies have suggested that adult weight gain, especially just before and after menopause, increases breast cancer risk. One change women can make in their lives to reduce their risk of breast cancer is to try to limit weight gain while getting older by eating a healthful diet, and making exercise a part of their daily routine.
Exercise: Studies have shown that women who exercise regularly have a lower risk of breast cancer. Some evidence suggests that circulating levels of estrogen are lower in women who exercise regularly. Body fat is often reduced in women who exercise and body estrogen levels may also be reduced.
Alcohol: Research has suggested that drinking alcohol may increase breast cancer risk, and the increased risk is tied to the amount of alcohol consumed. One proposed explanation for the relationship between alcohol and breast cancer is that alcohol consumption may increase the amount of circulating estrogen in the bodies of women who drink.
- Environmental chemicals: Many different chemicals have been identified as being weak environmental estrogens. These include several pesticides (including some forms of DDT), the food preservatives BHT and BHA, the industrial detergent by-products nonyl- and octaphenol, compounds used in plastics including bisphenol A and some phthalates, the food dye Red #3, and the solvent formaldehyde which was used in carpet manufacturing, and is still used in making plywood.
- Birth control pills: A recent analysis of 54 studies of women who use(d) birth control pills found a small increased risk of breast cancer among those currently taking the pills, and this increased risk persisted in the 10 years after the use of the pills was stopped. However, there was no evidence for an increased risk of breast cancer more than 10 years after use of the pill was stopped. In addition, in another study, breast cancer diagnosed in women who had used birth control pills tended to be less advanced than in women who had never taken birth control pills.
Source: Breast Cancer and Environmental Research at Cornell University
A balanced wellness program is one way to manage breast health and decrease potential factors for tumor growth. Dr. Stephen Holt recommends, “A useful baseline support regimen for breast health is to use multivitamins, supplemented with powdered extracts of fruit, vegetables, berries and greens. The phytochemical content of this regimen provides potential protection by antioxidant actions, inactivation of carcinogenic chemicals and inhibition of enzymes that encourage cancer growth.”
We know that estrogen is essential for normal growth and development of a woman’s reproductive system and the breast. Lifetime exposure to estrogen may affect a woman’s risk for breast cancer. Understanding how estrogen works in the body and how it may affect the development of breast cancer are critical steps towards making more informed decisions about personal health.
“Living well…one healthy step at a time”
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