When it comes to hormones, you might automatically think of testosterone as the male sex hormone and estrogen as the female sex hormone. There’s some truth to that, of course. But men also need estrogen, and women need testosterone for optimal health. Among other things, estrogen in men is important for helping regulate sex drive, erectile function, and sperm production.
It all comes down to a delicate balance. Guys definitely need estrogen, but high estrogen in men may promote certain diseases (1). And super-low estrogen in men isn’t great either.
Here we dive into the role of estrogen in men, what happens when estrogen is out of balance, and how off-kilter estrogen levels can be treated.
Androgens and Estrogens
All humans—all mammals, really—need androgens and estrogens. Men need a higher concentration of androgens, and women need a higher concentration of estrogens, or bodily processes can get out of balance. But, to be clear, we all need both categories of hormones.
Testosterone is the most prominent androgen for everyone, and some other androgens even convert to T. In men, testosterone is primarily produced and secreted from the Leydig cells in the testes. In addition to playing key roles in the puberty processes for guys, testosterone drives your sex drive, promotes muscle mass and strength, regulates fat distribution, helps with bone density and strength, and is required for sperm production (2).
This androgen is also produced in the testes, as well as in the adrenal glands. In men, the testes produce most of the body’s androstenedione, but it doesn’t do much on its own. Androstenedione is converted into testosterone by other parts of the body (3).
DHEA is made in the adrenal glands—and to a lesser extent, in men, in the testes—DHEA can be converted into testosterone and estrogen. In addition to helping with sex hormones, DHEA also may affect insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1) levels, which, in studies, has been found to be important for insulin sensitivity and muscle development (4).
DHT is converted from testosterone, via an enzyme found in the body, including in the testes. DHT is a more powerful version of T (5). If your body is sensitive to DHT, this may contribute to male pattern baldness.
Estradiol is the main estrogen in men. About 20% of circulating estrogens are produced in the testes by way of an enzyme called aromatase after it breaks down testosterone. Additional estrogens come from the metabolism of T in fat tissue, skin, bone, and the brain (6). Estradiol in men is essential for regulating libido, erectile function, and sperm production.
This type of estrogen is metabolized from androstenedione, mostly in the adrenal glands. Estrone is a weaker estrogen that the body can convert to estradiol when it needs it, so it may play a role in bone health, cognition, and erectile function.
Why Do Men Need Estrogen?
Men need estrogen for many reasons, including brain health, sexual function, fertility, and physical health.
Both men and women have lots of estrogen receptors in the brain. These receptors play various roles in regulating mood, sexual behavior, body temperature, and mental functioning. A growing body of evidence supports the idea that estrogen may have protective effects against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as Parkinson’s. While more studies are needed, research increasingly suggests that estrogen may help stave off some of the effects of brain aging (7).
The delicate balance of testosterone and estrogen is also essential for getting and maintaining an erection (8). That’s because estrogen stimulates the production of nitric oxide, which is necessary for the dilation of blood vessels in the penis.
Research shows that estrogen also affects reproductive development in women and men. In men, estrogen is involved in sperm production.
Estrogen also helps keep men physically healthy. It helps prevent bone loss (9). One study found that without certain estrogen receptors, abdominal obesity increased, suggesting that estrogen may affect weight and fat formation by regulating energy production.
Normal Estrogen Levels in Men
Adult men should have an estradiol level of 10-40 picograms per milliliter (pg/mL) and an estrone level of 10-60 pg/mL.
The Connection Between Low T and Estrogen
In men, testosterone and estrogen have to work in careful balance. If less testosterone is produced, less estrogen is made in the testes.
But low T can also exist at the same time as high estrogen levels. Remember, only about 20% of the estrogen in your body is produced as a by-product of testosterone in the testes. Other tissues, such as fat, produce the rest, which can convert testosterone to estrogen. More visceral fat (fat around the midsection) may drive estrogen production and deplete testosterone, for example.
What Causes Estrogen Imbalance?
Aging can gradually bring about a hormone imbalance. Testosterone levels can generally decrease as men age. At the same time, men tend to lose muscle mass and may gain visceral fat as they get up in years (10). Low T is associated with weight gain and obesity—a problematic cycle (11). Here’s why: Fat cells have been associated with a high expression of aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen. If you gain weight, you likely have more aromatase converting your T into estrogen, which can cause testosterone levels to fall.
That’s why insulin resistance, prediabetes, and Type 2 diabetes are all risk factors for low T and high estrogen for men. All of these conditions drive fat storage, which ramps up estrogen production.
High estrogen also may further lower T because of the hormone’s impact on something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. The brain’s hypothalamus region produces and secretes gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This hormone stimulates the pituitary gland to produce and release luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). In men, LH triggers testosterone production in the testicles. But excess estrogen may cause trouble along this axis, including impacting T production—again creating a vicious cycle (12).
Environmental factors may cause an estrogen imbalance, as well. Every day, we encounter endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from pollution, plastics, herbicides, pharmaceuticals in drinking water, flame retardants in furniture, and coatings on cookware. Even small amounts can be harmful (13). Research is ongoing in this area, but studies indicate their potential impact on hormones: they may lower T levels, increase or lower estrogen levels, and also may wreak havoc on the HPG axis (14).
Some medical conditions are associated with changes in estrogen, including various cancers and autoimmune disorders. And so are certain medications.
Symptoms of Estrogen Imbalance in Men
An estrogen imbalance in men may cause or be linked to a host of health problems. Both high and low estrogen levels may manifest problems, including:
- Breast enlargement (gynecomastia)
- Breast tenderness
- Cognitive issues
- Erectile dysfunction
- Excess body fat
- Mood issues
- Loss of bone mass
- Changes in muscle mass
- Loss of sex drive
Testing for An Estrogen Imbalance
You can test for an estrogen imbalance via Hone’s at-home analysis. It’s as easy as pricking your finger and mailing the sample to an accredited lab to get accurate results and a consultation from a board-certified physician. Your primary care doctor can also test your estrogen levels.
Risks of Estrogen Imbalance in Men
In addition to affecting sexual function, fertility, and overall well-being, an estrogen imbalance may put you at risk for other health concerns. While low estrogen may still cause undesirable symptoms, typically the larger risk for men may occur with high estrogen.
High estrogen may play a role in the development and progression of prostate cancer (15), according to several studies. It is also implicated in male breast cancer (16). And higher-than-normal estrogen has been associated with an increased risk of blood clots and pulmonary embolism, a clot that lodges in a lung artery and causes a blockage (17).
Treating an Estrogen Imbalance
If a test shows you have an estrogen imbalance, simple lifestyle and diet changes may help. Managing your weight, eating a healthy diet, and limiting alcohol consumption can help you balance out your hormones. Red meat and dairy may contribute to an increase in estrogen levels, according to a few studies, so it may be wise to eat these in moderation. But more research is needed to determine which foods may raise or lower estrogen.
Sometimes estrogen imbalances in men need medical treatment, which will vary depending on the cause of your estrogen imbalance. For example, when excess estrogen causes symptoms such as breast enlargement or tenderness, testosterone replacement therapy can often help. In other cases, estrogen excess is treated with medications called aromatase inhibitors, which stop testosterone from metabolizing into estrogen.
Soy is one of those hotly debated topics in the health space. Some sources tout it as a healthy and beneficial source of protein, others claim it raises estrogen levels, and still others purport it to lower estrogen levels—and interestingly enough, all of this is true to a certain extent. However, that’s not a bad thing.
In a meta-analysis of 41 clinical studies (19), neither soy foods nor isoflavone supplements were found to have negative effects on male reproductive hormones, and neither alter measures of bioavailable T concentrations in men (20). Furthermore, it was found that soy does not exert feminizing effects on men, even at intake levels equal to and even considerably higher than typical (21).
If you’re looking to raise your estrogen levels, research suggests that these foods can do just that:
- Dairy and meat
- Soy products
Want to lower your estrogen levels? These foods might be able to help:
- Soy products
- Cruciferous vegetables (like cauliflower, bok choy, brussels sprouts, and broccoli)
- Curcumin and turmeric
- Fiber-rich foods
The Bottom Line
Although estrogen is the dominant sex hormone for women, it’s still crucial for men, in proper balance. An estrogen imbalance may occur because of low T, lifestyle factors like weight gain, environmental factors like pollution, and more.
An estrogen level that is out of the normal range can cause fertility issues, sexual dysfunction, and mood changes. Plus, it may put you at risk for other health issues. If you have concerns about your estrogen levels, get tested and have a consultation with a physician. Often, an estrogen imbalance can be treated so you can get back to better health and feel more like yourself.