The Key To Healthy Breasts: Hormone Balance

The Key To Healthy Breasts: Hormone Balance

October is dedicated to raising awareness about breast cancer, an issue that has been significantly on the rise in recent years. The common saying goes that genetics may load the gun, but it's our environment that pulls the trigger, and this couldn't be more true when it comes to the connection between healthy breasts and the delicate balance of the hormones inside our body. 

The role played by hormonal imbalances, particularly involving estrogen and progesterone, has been extensively studied concerning breast cancer. The encouraging part about this is that you can exert more influence over your risk than you might believe, even if breast cancer runs in your family.  The key is to grasp the underlying bioindividual imbalances and collaborate with professionals who embrace an integrative, holistic approach to wellbeing, recognizing the body as a holistic entity.  

We spoke all about this with Alannah Slingsby, CEO of Moment Health, a virtual healthcare clinic that tests and treats hormones from a whole-body-whole-person approach. Here, we touch deeper on how hormone imbalances are connected to the development of breast cancer, what hormone receptors are and how they relate to the treatments we should be receiving, and we debunk some common myths about hormone replacement therapies along the way. We also touch on stress and its connection to our thyroid function, and how that can affect the health of our breasts. And Alannah gives us some practical strategies we can all start using today, to ensure we are proactively taking care of ourselves from a whole body perspective! (KEY!) 

How do hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, influence the development and progression of breast cancer?

It's remarkable how our own bodies can actually contribute to cancer. Cancer arises from disturbed cell behavior. Cellular respiration is one of the most important cell behaviors, and anything that disturbs this process is considered a carcinogen. Interestingly, certain hormones fall into this category.

Most breast cancers are hormone-related. Hormones are chemical messengers that keep your body in motion. But, if your body is over- or under-exposed to a certain hormone, a cell's metabolism can ultimately become deranged and the hormone acts as a carcinogen.

Estrogen, in particular, is a culprit for disrupting underlying cell metabolism in most breast cancers, leading to uncontrolled cell division. And if that division gets out of control, it can result in cancer. 

Why does the body even have this action? 

Cell proliferation is needed to reproduce. It's almost paradoxical that the very substances essential for regulating various bodily processes could also play a role in fueling malignancy.

In a healthy person, cell division and proliferation is controlled by hormones that oppose estrogen (progesterone, thyroid, pregnenolone, etc.) as they act as a counterbalance. Adequate progesterone is key!

Studies show that women with progesterone levels that are low relative to estrogen levels are more likely to get breast cancer and have poorer treatment outcomes. When progesterone is raised to healthy levels relative to estrogen, it can prevent breast cancer from occurring and reduce the size of existing tumors. One study even noted that bioidentical progesterone "put the brakes" on breast cancer. 

Hormones have a beautiful duality, serving as both instigators and inhibitors of cancer.

What is the role of hormone receptors in breast cancer, and how do they affect treatment options?

A hormone receptor is a protein that binds to hormones, allowing them to influence cellular processes.  When someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, a doctor will often perform a tissue biopsy that is then sent to a lab to test for hormone receptors. 

About 70% of breast tumors express hormone receptors including estrogen receptors (ER) and progesterone receptors (PR) in a tissue. 

The presence of these receptors means that the cell is able to produce and respond to those hormones. Estrogen and progesterone receptors allow estrogen and progesterone to influence the behavior of cells. It is commonly known that ERs are a main driver of cancer, and as a result, anti-estrogen drugs like Tamoxifen are commonly used. The presence of PR receptors in breast tissue is far less researched. 

If ER positive breast cancer means estrogen facilitates cancer growth, doesn’t PR positive mean progesterone facilitates growth as well? 

Emerging research tells a different story. In normal cells, the presence of estrogen prompts the activation of progesterone receptors. Therefore, the presence of these receptors serves as an indicator of cellular normality. However, when these receptors are present without the concurrent presence of progesterone, it signifies the presence of estrogen alongside the absence of progesterone. In essence, the presence of empty receptors can itself be detrimental.

This is why some doctors use bioidentical progesterone to treat PR positive breast cancers effectively. Researchers suggest that when progesterone is present it leads to cells becoming dormant (a state where they don't divide).

Interestingly, the most aggressive type of breast cancer, known as triple-negative breast cancer does not have any receptors. 

So if a receptor does not appear in the tissue, does that mean that hormones are not playing a role in cancer? 

Some researchers believe it is possible that a sex hormone can impact cancer even without the presence of a receptor. The receptor theory suggests that a receptor is needed for a hormone to modify a cell, but the case is not closed. A recent study in mice showed that estrogen can directly cause that cancer to develop without the presence of any estrogen receptor inside the cell. In layman’s terms, localized estrogen levels may be more responsible for disease than just the presence, or lack of presence, of a receptor.

How does hormone replacement therapy (HRT) impact a woman's risk of breast cancer? What are the considerations for women considering HRT?

There's a common misconception that lumps all HRT together under a single notion of "HRT causes cancer." However, supplementing progesterone is not even close to or similar to supplementing estrogen. Each hormone has distinct effects on the body, and their roles in hormone therapy vary significantly.

If HRT is dosed at physiologically normal levels, clinical data indicates that bioidentical hormones are associated with improved health conditions including stress, aging, chronic inflammation, thyroid problems, infertility, and more. What physiologically normal levels means is administering progesterone and estrogen in amounts that closely resemble what occurs naturally in women. The aim here is to restore hormone levels and functions to their natural state, thereby reaping genuine health benefits. In other words, the goal is to bring hormone levels back to their normal range for optimal health outcomes.

Can early puberty or late menopause influence a woman's likelihood of developing hormone-sensitive breast cancer?

The average onset age of puberty in girls has undergone a significant shift, becoming earlier and earlier since the 1920s. Early puberty in girls has been associated with elevated health risks. As Dr. Lisa Chapa (Breast Surgical Oncologist at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Health System) points out, "Early puberty in girls has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, obesity, and even diabetes in adulthood, some of which are attributed to extended and early exposure to estrogen from the active ovarian cycle."

The phenomenon of early puberty is influenced by a multitude of factors including poor nutrition, maternal stress during pregnancy, exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, childhood trauma, and more. 

How do mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes increase the susceptibility to breast cancer, and what are the implications for individuals with these mutations in terms of screening and prevention strategies?

Patients who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations have an underlying genetic predisposition for breast and ovarian cancers. One of the major findings of BRCA research is that tissue with this mutation is more sensitive to hormones. This means that individuals with these gene mutations should be even more careful about maintaining optimal hormone levels.

What is the relationship between stress and breast cancer?

The real connection between stress and cancer lies primarily within the intricate workings of the thyroid. The more stress an organism is under, the more thyroid dysfunction. As we age, we encounter more stressors. The thyroid function may decline as the body conserves energy due to heightened stress, resulting in a slower metabolism and the potential accumulation of fat cells that can synthesize estrogen. This forms a self-perpetuating cycle, further leading to hormonal imbalances.

Moreover, stress induces the release of cortisol, a hormone that activates the aromatase enzyme which is responsible for estrogen biosynthesis. In the absence of progesterone, cortisol becomes even more active, intensifying aromatase activity. One study underscored this link, revealing that breast cancer patients exhibited significantly elevated basal cortisol levels compared to controls, with metastatic breast cancer patients registering higher cortisol levels than those with early-stage breast cancer.

What practical tips and strategies can individuals incorporate into their daily lives?

Preventing breast cancer hinges on comprehending its true underlying causes and disrupting the patterns that pave the way for this disease. Some areas to consider would be:

  • Balancing Hormones: Ensuring optimal levels of progesterone and estrogen is vital. You can easily understand levels through testing offered by reputable providers like Moment and others. Understanding your hormone levels and striving to maintain them within the optimal range is crucial.
  • Managing Stress: Stress management plays a pivotal role in breast cancer prevention. High stress levels can lead to thyroid dysfunction and excessive cortisol production, both of which can contribute to cancer risk. Find stress-reduction methods that work best for you, whether it's through exercise, therapy, meditation, or other approaches. 
  • Maintaining a Nutrient-Rich Diet: Eating a well-balanced diet and preventing nutritional deficiencies are key. Proper nutrition helps support overall health and bolsters your body's natural defenses.
  • Avoiding Toxins: Steer clear of environmental toxins, including radiation. Exposure to certain chemicals and radiation can heighten cancer risk. It's especially important to be cautious about unnecessary exposure to radiation, as it can disrupt mitochondrial function, leading to inflammation and increased lactic acid production.
  • Considering Hormone Therapies: If you're facing health challenges, consider safe and effective hormone therapies like progesterone, pregnenolone, and natural desiccated thyroid. These treatments can provide valuable support for a range of health issues.

By taking proactive steps such as these, you can significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer and promote your overall well-being. It's about understanding your body, managing stress, maintaining a balanced lifestyle, and making informed choices to protect your health.