Phytoestrogens – all you need to know
Everyone is mentioning phytoestrogens as the natural solution to refill our body’s decreasing estrogen during menopause. If this is the reason you are consuming large quantities of soy milk and other soy products, this article is for you.
WHAT ARE PHYTOESTROGENS?
As the name says, phyto – plant (greek) and estrogen, phytoestrogens are substances that occur naturally in plants and plant-based foods. Their structure is similar to our own body’s estrogen (one of the main female hormones), and are able to bind to the exact same receptors like estrogen does, although it does so in a weaker way compared to physiologic estrogen.
TYPES OF PHYTOESTROGENS
Phytoestrogens are categorized in three groups:
Isoflavones – the most common organic compounds found in high concentrations in soy beans and soy bean products (tofu)
Lignans – the second most common phytoestrogen found in flax and sesame seeds
Coumestan – the least common phytoestrogen found mostly in some legumes, especially beans and split peas.
HOW DO PHYTOESTROGENS WORK?
Phytoestrogens actually imitate the effect of estrogen because their structure is very similar to that of the body’s estrogen. When they enter the body, they are treated by the body’s estrogen receptors exactly in the same way as estrogen.
However, phytoestrogens do not bind to the estrogen receptors as firm as the body’s own estrogen, making their effect much weaker.
BENEFITS OF PHYTOESTROGENS FOR MENOPAUSE SYMPTOMS
Hot Flashes relief
Hot flashes occur in response to unexpected changes in the diameter of blood vessels, especially those closer to the skin surface. Studies have pointed out that the supplementation with phytoestrogens shows extreme improvements in vasomotor activity.
The Journal of the North American Menopause Society published a study in which women suffering from hot flashes were given either 60mg of isoflavones or a placebo over a period of 12 weeks. The results showed a 43% reduction in night sweats as well as a 57% fall in hot flashes. Read more about natural methods to reduce hot flashes here.
Unlike other symptoms of menopause, osteoporosis isn’t transitory. A reduction in bone strength is a serious condition with debilitating long term effects.
Although osteoporosis affects both genders, the sudden drop in estrogen associated with the onset of menopause in women over 50 is a risk factor that shouldn’t be ignored.
We know that regular exercise can support the body to strengthen bones as well as a diet rich in nutrients and calcium. In addition, it seems that phytoestrogens also play a role in maintaining bone density.
A 2011 study found out that phytoestrogens did help improve the bone strength.
Improvement of mental ability
Although not a big change, tests showed positive improvement in the mental flexibility and planning ability.
Fighting breast cancer
A 2009 study found that consuming phytoestrogen rich soy foods decreased the risk of death and recurrence in women with breast cancer
Another 2015 study found that phytoestrogens inhibited the growth of breast cancer cells although another study during the same year suggested that the role of phytoestrogens in breast cancer depends on what stage of menopause a woman is in.
It looks like in case of breast cancer, anyone considering taking phytoestrogens should discuss it with their doctor first.
Improved cardiovascular health
Cardiovascular disease is known to be one of the major effects of decreasing estrogen levels due to the increase of total cholesterol levels as well as LDL (“bad cholesterol”).
Some studies have found isoflavones beneficial for heart health while others have found little or no impact and it seems that more studies are needed for a clear picture. Read more about how to improve your cardiovascular health here.
RISKS AND SIDE EFFECTS
Studies show that phytoestrogens may provide similar benefits to estrogen used in hormone replacement therapy, however, they act in similar ways and may carry the same risks.
A study from 2010 found that high levels of soy in a woman’s diet could affect the function of her ovaries.
Reality is, that more research is needed in order to be able to safely define the risks and benefits of plant estrogens and how they work in the body.
Scientists, however are encouraging menopausal women to switch to a mainly plant based diet as many plants contain phytoestrogens in a safe quantity that can never be harmful.
FOODS RICH IN PHYTOESTROGENS THAT YOU SHOULD INCLUDE IN YOUR DAILY DIET
NUTS AN SEEDS
Soy and soy products are rich in phytoestrogens, nevertheless the most recommended are the fresh,fermented or sprouted ones.
soy bean sprouts
tamari (fermented soy sauce)
red wine (YES, you read it correctly!)
Phytoestrogens are plant-based substances that mimic estrogen in the body.
They have been found beneficial for many menopausal symptoms although more studies are necessary to firmly confirm their effects.
They are beneficial for peri menopausal and menopausal women and are best consumed in form of a mostly plant based diet.
There are risks to consuming high quantities of phytoestrogens as their risks are not fully understood.
LAURA PEISCHL, BA, INHC
Laura is a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Holistic Menopause Health Specialist and Certified Hormone Health and Wellness Practitioner. She is the founder and owner of Feel Good Menopause.