Bioactive Compounds Series, Phytoestrogens

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The word Phytoestrogen comes from the Greek ‘Phyton’, meaning ‘Plant’. The second part of the word, oestrogen, refers to the hormone by the same name[1], which is one of two ‘sex hormones’ which women produce, the other being progesterone. Oestrogen is the hormone which is responsible for sexual and reproductive development in women. Men also produce oestrogen but in much smaller amounts.[2]

What are Phytoestrogens?

Phytoestrogens are natural substances found in plants which mimic the effects of oestrogen. The chemical structure of Phytoestrogens is similar, both functionally and structurally, to that of the oestrogen produced by the human body.[3]

In order to understand how Phytoestrogens work, it is first necessary to know a little (without being blinded by science) about oestrogen and oestrogen receptors.

In women, oestrogen is produced primarily in the ovaries. The oestrogen travels through the blood, searching for receptors – imagine the oestrogen as keys and the receptors as locks, not all keys will fit all locks. When the two marry up, they send a signal to the body to produce proteins, which then carry out a certain task[4] – in the case of oestrogen this is sexual and reproductive development.

Some women are oestrogen dominant, or oestrogen deficient, meaning they are either producing too much or too little oestrogen.

In oestrogen dominant women, this can be caused by xenoestrogens – chemically produced oestrogens which are much stronger than the hormone found in plants. Xenoestrogens are endocrine disruptors, which means that our whole endocrine (hormonal) system is out of kilter. These man-made oestrogens (which can be found in plastics, paint, nail polish, body care to name a few) bind themselves to the receptors, thereby blocking other hormones from binding. You might be asking why you would take a phytoestrogen when you are already oestrogen dominant, and it’s a good question. The answer is that, by taking phytoestrogens daily, these plant-based hormones can bind to the oestrogen receptors and prevent the xenoestrogens from taking hold, and since phytoestrogens are weaker than their chemical counterparts, this can reduce the levels of oestrogen in a woman’s system.

By the same token, taking phytoestrogens will boost the levels of the hormone in a woman who is deficient.[5]

The Controversy

As with any health related topic, Phytoestrogen is not without controversy, and rightly so – when it comes to our health it should come as second nature to do some research so that we can make an informed choice. Like any supplement or dietary ingredient, phytoestrogen is not a one-size-fits-all and it does appear to be better suited to women over the age of 50, although that is not to say that anyone under that age should be excluded.

Symptoms of Oestrogen Imbalance

Many of the symptoms of oestrogen imbalance can be attributed to either oestrogen dominance or deficiency – in other words, any imbalance of the hormone can cause the same symptoms. For instance:

  • Sore, painful, tender breasts
  • Menstrual irregularity
  • Headaches
  • Mood Swings
  • Tiredness or Fatigue
  • Memory Issues or Inability to Concentrate

These can all be caused by either an abnormally high or low level of oestrogen. Other symptoms such as reduced libido, cold hands and feet, weight gain, bloating and insomnia can indicate oestrogen dominance, whereas lack of vaginal lubrication, UTIs, depression and hot flashes can all be indicative of oestrogen deficiency.[6,7]

Which Foods Contain Phytoestrogens?

So, which foods are considered to be rich in Phytoestrogens? The list is surprisingly long. Soy is often the first food thought of when it comes to foods in this category, but there are many other foods which are also high in the natural hormone, including:

  • Alfalfa
  • Barley
  • Beans
  • Brown Rice
  • Fennel
  • Fenugreek
  • Ginseng
  • Hops
  • Lentils
  • Liquorice
  • Peanuts
  • Pomegranates
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Sunflower Seeds[8]

This list is not exhaustive, however, and there are many more foods (nuts, fruits and vegetables) which contain Phytoestrogens in varying amounts. The list above are the foods in which Phytoestrogen is the most highly concentrated.

To give an idea of how much the recommended daily intake of Phytoestrogens would be, it is roughly the equivalent of 25 grams of soy protein (1/2 cup dried soy beans).

Isoflavones, which are the most potent type of phytoestrogens (look on the nutritional contents label of any food to gauge the level per serving) can be beneficial at anywhere between 40 – 160 mg per day.[9]

(It is well worth noting that the average intake of isoflavones in the Western diet is less than 1 -2 mg per day.[10]

Health Benefits of Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens can benefit many conditions. The most well-known is, of course, the menopause, but there are other conditions in which Phytoestrogens can help.

Menopause and Perimenopause symptoms can be greatly alieved by increasing levels of oestrogen. Many women are worried about taking synthetic hormones because of the side effects, so a plant oestrogen is a fantastic natural alternative. Symptoms such as Hot Flashes, Vaginal Dryness, Breast Pain, Fatigue, Loss of Libido, Menopausal Migraines, Depression, Mood Swings, Osteoporosis, and Memory Loss can all be helped by taking phytoestrogens.[11]

Cancer. There have been numerous studies carried out on the effects of Phytoestrogens on cancer, and many have shown promising results. For instance, in 2009 a study of over 5000 women with breast cancer showed that those women with a diet which was high in non-soy phytoestrogens had significantly fewer deaths and recurrences of the disease.[12] Furthermore, a study published in The Lancet[13] stated “There is a substantial reduction in breast-cancer risk among women with a high intake (as measured by excretion) of phyto-oestrogens-particularly the isoflavonic phyto-oestrogen equol and the lignan enterolactone. These findings could be important in the prevention of breast cancer.”

(Always seek advice from your GP before taking any supplement if you are suffering, or have suffered in the past, with cancer.)

Heart Health can be greatly improved using Phytoestrogens, especially in menopausal women, by reducing the fatty build up in the arteries, known as arteriosclerosis.[14]

Weight Loss. A study published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2002 suggested that soy foods (which are high in phytoestrogens) can help weight loss in obese patients. More research is needed, but the results have been promising.[15]

Libido. As oestrogen is a sex hormone, when levels start to fluctuate, it can have a negative effect on your sex drive. By regulating levels with Phytoestrogens, it stands to reason that libido can be restored.[16]

How Can You Increase Your Phytoestrogens?

As well as increasing your levels of Phytoestrogens with foods such as those listed above, there are supplements which you can take. Dong Quai, Soy Isoflavones, Sage, Black Cohosh, and Red Clover are all excellent examples of Phytoestrogen supplements.

In conclusion, when taken as directed, particularly in peri and/or post-menopausal women, Phytoestrogens can have a substantial effect - reducing or, possibly, removing many of the symptoms associated with this time of, and greatly increasing the quality of, life.

 

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