Sex Hormones, Hormonal Balance, and Mold-Related Illness
In the realm of mold-triggered illness, discussions on thyroid, adrenal, and growth hormone abound, but discussions on mold’s effect on sex hormones–estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone–are less frequent. The complete, whole-body picture cannot be understood without also discussing sex hormones and how they impact health and long-term wellness as a whole, though. In this article, I am going to focus on sex hormones and estrogen hormones, in particular, to help shed light on the role they play in the body and what happens when they fall out of balance and health suffers.
The Role of Hormones
The body produces hormones primarily in various glands (such as the thyroid, adrenal, and pituitary glands) as well as in other organs and cells. Hormones circulate in the bloodstream, which distributes them to cells throughout the body. Receptors within these cells are sensitive to particular hormones that cause them to react; the more hormones that are present in the cell or the more sensitized the receptors, the more intense the reaction.
Hormones comprise a delicately balanced system in the body. People with a healthy hormone balance tend to enjoy long, healthy, and productive lives, but long-term hormone imbalances may take their toll on myriad aspects of health. In women, for example, one or more hormone imbalances may contribute to many common problems:
Breast health, including cancer;
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Some hormonal imbalances may occur as part of genetic wiring. You may have heard of the term “estrogen dominance”, which indicates that more estrogen is not only being produced but held in the system longer than usual. This is an important link for women who are exposed to mycotoxins, pesticides, and other environmental toxins. A very interesting study from years ago demonstrated that female primates who were exposed to DDT developed endometriosis, a disorder previously never found in primates. The presence of environmental toxins causes a twofold problem: they interfere with the natural breakdown through the liver of estrogen, allowing partially broken down hormone, which is even more stimulatory to organs than the full hormone, to continue to circulate in the system; secondly, some of these toxins are estrogen mimics. They impact the system similarly to the hormone, and even though levels of estrogen may appear normal, the impact on breasts, uterine lining, and neurotransmitters is as if large doses of estrogen were being administered. Mycotoxins are estrogenic to the body and cause this hormonal accumulation in many mold-affected patients.
Estrogens are some of the most powerful hormones in the human body. Almost all tissues have receptors that make them responsive to estrogens. In women, estrogens help the urinary tract, breasts, skin, blood vessels, and uterus to stay toned and flexible. The total amount of estrogens significantly declines after menopause.
While the human body produces several types of estrogen, those commonly used in estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) include estrone (E1), estradiol (E2), and estriol (E3). In younger women, estrone is converted primarily from estradiol in the liver. After menopause, it is mainly produced in fat cells, where it is derived from testosterone.
Progesterone’s Role in the Female Reproductive System
Progesterone plays an important role in women’s reproductive health. In menstruating women, progesterone is produced by the ovaries. Progesterone supplementation often may be beneficial for women struggling with infertility or symptoms associated with the menstrual cycle, such as PMS or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Before ovulation, the levels of progesterone are about 2 to 3 mg per day. When ovulation begins and the corpus luteum develops, the production of progesterone rapidly rises to an average of 22 mg per day. A week or so after ovulation, it reaches peak production as high as 30 mg per day. If fertilization does not occur after 10 or 12 days, then the production of progesterone falls dramatically, triggering the shedding of the lining of the uterus and resulting in menstruation.
Progesterone is also an important hormone during pregnancy. It prepares the lining of the uterus for the fertilized ovum and is necessary for the survival and development of the embryo. Progesterone is produced in the placenta (which maintains pregnancy) and is secreted at a level of 300 to 400 mg a day during the third trimester.
In a woman’s menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels should rise from the time of ovulation until just before menstruation. If progesterone levels are inadequate, only estrogen levels rise, potentially causing the following symptoms:
Low blood sugar levels;
Salt and fluid retention;
Fibroid or tumor development;
Increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels;
Reduced oxygen levels in the cells;
Retention of copper;
Loss of zinc;
Interference with thyroid hormone function, which may lead to weight gain and feelings of exhaustion.
(I find particularly interesting this retention of copper and loss of zinc issue, as the proper balance of these minerals is essential for proper thyroid function, good detoxification, and balance of neurotransmitters for mood. The use of zinc as a nutraceutical for immune function for things like mold exposure and COVID prevention is a matter of fine balance because of zinc’s effect on copper in the body. Additionally, when it comes to mold, mineral depletion is a big concern, because the kidneys are working overtime to detoxify the body, lowering mineral levels severely as patients feel thirsty and constantly drink and urinate, but remain dehydrated, because they are not absorbing the water or minerals in their cells. With mycotoxin exposure, cells sense the toxic danger and slam shut to guard the body against the toxins.)
Other Roles of Progesterone
After menopause, the ovaries no longer make progesterone, but it continues to be produced elsewhere in the body such as in the adrenal glands and nerve cells. Although progesterone is considered primarily a “reproductive hormone,” it provides benefits to all cells in the body, including those in the brain, heart, nerves, and bones. Here are some examples of its benefits:
Helps form the protective layer around nerve endings known as the myelin sheath, which insulates the nervous system and speeds up neurotransmission;
Protects against cardiovascular disease by lowering high blood pressure, reducing arterial spasms, and inhibiting cholesterol buildup;
Stimulates new bone growth while inhibiting bone loss, thus offering protective effects against osteoporosis;
Acts as a precursor of other sex hormones (i.e., estrogens and testosterone);
Protects against fibrocystic breasts;
Acts as a natural diuretic;
Helps us use fat for energy;
Acts as a natural antidepressant;
Promotes thyroid hormone action;
Normalizes blood clotting;
Normalizes blood sugar;
Regulates zinc and copper levels;
Restores proper cell oxygen levels;
Stimulates osteoblast-mediated bone-building;
Promotes cortisone synthesis as a precursor in the adrenal cortex which really helps with chronic adrenal fatigue.
While all of this about progesterone is important, and, as you can see, would help with many of the issues created in the body by mold and mycotoxin exposure, I want to add a cautionary word here: Not every individual is a candidate for just taking a bunch of progesterone. Some people are exquisitely sensitive to the addition of any hormone whatsoever. There is not a simple or standard dose for all. You must work with a qualified practitioner to help with testing and adjusting your levels of this hormone. And even before addressing hormones, the order of things when dealing with mold must be 1.) clean the air, 2.) clean up the diet and the water, 3.) open the detoxification pathways, and then 3.) consider homeopathic therapies, like CellTropin to naturally spur hormonal balance, and/or consider adding or augmenting hormonal therapies after testing and seeing where the foundational therapies take you.
While testosterone is often synonymous with masculinity, it also plays an important role in estrogen balance and a woman’s normal physiology. Women produce a small amount of testosterone, which is critical to the healthy functioning of most of the tissues in the body. On average, women with functioning ovaries produce 0.3 mg of testosterone per day while men produce 20 times as much.
Testosterone’s obvious function in both men and women is sexual:
At puberty, testosterone promotes the growth of pubic and underarm hair (along with estrogen);
Testosterone initiates oil production in the skin, which contributes to teenage acne but also gives shine to the hair and a healthy glow to the skin;
In women, testosterone receptors in the nipples of developed breasts, in the clitoris, and the vagina make these areas sensitive to sexual stimulation;
During pregnancy, testosterone signals the cells of the genetically male embryo to develop as a male.
Additionally, testosterone plays an important role in keeping the cells of the body functioning efficiently, promoting healthy bones and muscles, and making the best use of nourishment for growth and maintenance.
Testosterone and estrogen are carried on the same protein in the blood, known as the sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). Between 97-99% of testosterone is attached to this protein, leaving little left over to affect the tissues in the body. Estrogen stimulates the production of more SHBG, which binds up more testosterone, leaving less available to work on the cells.
Women commonly experience a decrease in testosterone after menopause, which may result in symptoms of decreased sense of well-being, a loss of vital energy, and reduced sexual libido. When taking supplementary estrogen at menopause, women tie up a little more of the testosterone that’s left, which may cause symptoms of testosterone deficiency. However, some women are reluctant to try testosterone supplementation because they’ve heard that significant growth of facial and body hair is a side effect; however, these unwanted side effects usually occur only at excessive dosage levels, and discontinuing testosterone supplementation reverses this adverse effect. There are many premenopausal women who are also deficient in testosterone as well This can be for a number of reasons, especially when toxicity and excessive stress are present. For example, receptor sites for testosterone can become resistant due to the mycotoxins, and levels continue to be low even when the adrenal deficiency is addressed. Symptoms are often things like the inability to produce or maintain muscle–a “doughy” physical appearance, loss of energy, and a loss of drive and a sense of purpose in all things.
Conversely, we also see some women in their teens and early adult life develop a syndrome called PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome. This is actually more of a metabolic disorder, and while I will not go into all of the ramifications of it here, there is quite commonly elevated testosterone present in this syndrome. Treating it also requires marked attention to detoxification and dietary interventions.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) monitors, supports and regulates the functions of other steroids in their immune system activity. It is the most abundant steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. The body uses DHEA to produce testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and corticosterone.
The function of DHEA appears to be important in retaining the metabolic balance of youth. Levels of DHEA are high in the developing fetus and continue to rise until about the age of 25. After this point, its production drops off sharply: the average woman at age 50 has less than one-third of the DHEA she had at age 19.
Mold and Sex Hormones
Circling back to where we started and a topic we have explored in previous articles, one of the primary organs that mold has been known to affect is the pituitary gland. This is part of the brain that actually controls your entire endocrine and hormonal system. When adrenals and reproductive organs are affected, you’re naturally going to start to have abnormalities in your estrogen levels, your progesterone levels, and your testosterone levels. Several different types of mycotoxins including trichothecenes and Zearolone have known estrogenic effects, acting as “xenoestrogens” on estrogen receptors. For example, Zearolone can cause early puberty in young girls. In women with mycotoxin exposure, we can also start to see an elevation or an increase in testosterone levels, which can lead to polycystic ovary syndrome or the development of thyroid issues. With men, we tend to see low testosterone levels. It’s hard to say exactly why this happens. In reality, the biggest thing to take away is the pituitary gland is dysfunctioning and it’s not allowing the hormones to be produced properly.
If you’re someone battling with hormone problems, you’re trying to address the hormones, and you’re having limited success, or you’re on supplements and then you come off of your supplements and you go right back to where you were, you have to really consider, is there something more? Is there something else going on? Is mold the culprit? You want to address, obviously, the underlying cause so you can successfully balance your hormones.
Conversely, if you are suffering from mold-related illness and have cleaned your surroundings, your belongings, and your diet, and are still not your best, then an assessment of your sex hormones would be a good idea. Depending on your practitioner, levels may be assessed by blood, by saliva or by urine, or a combination of all of these. There are reasons and rationales for each method and they all have value, but one may be more helpful than another. History must always be taken into account before ordering tests!