What are phytoestrogens? Benefits and foods

Phytoestrogens are a naturally occurring compound present in plants and plant food. They can affect a person, when eaten, in the same way that the body produces estrogen.

This article explores phytoestrogen health benefits and risks. It also lists foods that are high in phytoestrogens.

What are phytoestrogens?

Soy foods, including soybeans, tofu, miso, and tempeh, contain phytoestrogens.
Soy foods, including soybeans, tofu, miso, and tempeh, contain phytoestrogens.

Phytoestrogens or dietary oestrogens are compounds found naturally in plants. Many of these plants already form part of an individual ‘s diet.

Estrogen is a hormone released in the body of a woman which regulates her menstrual cycle. It is the endocrine system of the body which produces this hormone.

In adolescence, oestrogen plays a role in a woman’s breasts, armpit hair and pubic hair development. Estrogen controls a woman’s periods up to the menopause.

Foods that contain phytoestrogens include:

  • vegetables
  • fruit
  • some grains
  • legumes

When a person consumes plant-based foods containing phytoestrogens, they may have a similar effect to body-produced estrogen. The phytoestrogens are also classified as dietary estrogens.

There are phytoestrogen supplements but it is a safer option to receive them from natural food sources.

How do phytoestrogens work?

Phytoestrogens resemble estrogen because they have a very close chemical structure to that of body estrogen.

When phytoestrogens enter the body, these are treated as if they were estrogen by the body’s estrogen receptors. Phytoestrogens are endocrine disruptors as they disrupt natural hormonal activity as chemicals.

Phytoestrogens, however, do not bind estrogen receptors as strongly as the body’s created estrogen so its effects may be weaker.

Benefits

Happy lady
hormone imbalances, making them beneficial for women near menopause.

Phytoestrogens can be useful for women trying to rebalance their hormones as menopause approaches.

Throughout perimenopause, which is the time until a woman enters menopause and begins menstruating, her body’s hormone levels can fluctuate, causing different symptoms.

Perimenopause typically starts in the 40s of a woman, and lasts until menopause. Perimenopausal signs include:

  • hot flashes
  • tender breasts
  • low sex drive
  • tiredness
  • irregular periods
  • mood swings

Such effects can be disagreeable, and some women are using hormone replacement therapy to help regulate them.

Phytoestrogens offer the synthetic estrogen used in hormone replacement therapies a natural alternative.

Also, phytoestrogens have a number of other potential benefits including:

1. Relieving hot flashes

Phytoestrogens can help in relieving painful hot flashes. A study carried out in 2014 found that phytoestrogens reduced the frequency of hot flashes in menopausal women with no serious side effects.

2. Preventing osteoporosis

After menopause oestrogen deficiency can affect bone health and cause conditions such as osteoporosis.

Hormone replacement therapy ( HRT) may help alleviate this and encourage bone strength, but it may have side effects that are unpleasant. Phytoestrogens may be a natural alternative to this.

A study carried out in 2011 found that phytoestrogens helped fight postmenopausal osteoporosis.

Researchers however noticed that certain possible side effects occurred. As phytoestrogens are currently not approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration ( FDA), the study did not recommend taking them for osteoporosis.

3. Combatting menstrual issues

When the levels of estrogen in a woman decrease, this may influence the levels of mood and energy.

At this time , some people tend to consume foods which are high in phytoestrogens to regulate their hormone levels and alleviate symptoms.

Further work is required to support this use of phytoestrogens.

4. Treating acne

The cause may be an increase in male hormones (androgens) in their bodies, when women get acne. Phytoestrogens can help rebalance hormone levels to combat acne.

The theory is partially supported by a 2017 review, but further work is needed to prove that phytoestrogens are an effective treatment for acne.

5. Fighting breast cancer

Some suggestions have been made that phytoestrogens are useful in the fight against hormonal cancers, for example breast cancer.

A 2009 study showed that soy food intake decreased the risk of death and recurrence in females with breast cancer. Soy foods abound in phytoestrogen.

A further 2015 study found that phytoestrogens inhibited breast cancer cell growth. Nevertheless, a further 2015 study indicated that the role of phytoestrogens in the survival of breast cancer is complex and depends on what stage a woman is in for menopause.

Further work is required to better understand whether phytoestrogens could play a useful role in the prevention and treatment of cancer. The phytoestrogens are not appropriate for all cancer types. Anyone who is considering taking phytoestrogens should discuss this first with their doctor.

6. Promoting heart health

Phytoestrogens can be helpful for heart safety. A research in 2016 showed that in postmenopausal women, phytoestrogens helped treat a disease that affects the arteries and improves the heart safety.

Risks and side effects

Research show phytoestrogens in hormone replacement therapy may have similar benefits to the synthetic estrogen used.

It does not, however, mean they ‘re better than synthetic estrogen. Similarly they behave and can bear the same risks. This may involve an elevated risk for:

  • obesity
  • cancer
  • problems with reproduction

This 2010 study found that high soy levels in a woman’s diet might affect how the functioning of her ovaries.

Eating a plant-based diet is thought to be healthy, and many plant feeds contain phytoestrogens.

More research is required to better understand how phytoestrogens function, as it is not clear if high-level intake carries any health risks. Nonetheless, unless a person is taking supplements with phytoestrogen, it is unlikely they will consume a harmful level.

A person should always speak with a doctor before they start taking any new supplements, including phytoestrogen.

Food list

The following foods groups are rich in phytoestrogens:

Nuts and seeds

Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseeds contain high levels of phytoestrogens.
Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseeds contain high levels of phytoestrogens.

The following nuts and seeds are high in phytoestrogens:

  • flaxseeds
  • sunflower seeds
  • sesame seeds
  • almonds
  • walnuts

Fruits

Certain fruits are rich in phytoestrogens, including:

  • apples
  • carrots
  • pomegranates
  • strawberries
  • cranberries
  • grapes

Vegetables

Certain vegetables are a good source of phytoestrogens, including:

  • yams
  • lentils
  • alfalfa sprouts
  • mung beans
  • sprouts

Soy products

Soy and soy products are rich in phytoestrogens. These include:

  • soybeans
  • tofu
  • tempeh
  • miso soup
  • miso paste

Herbs

The following herbs contain phytoestrogens:

  • red clover
  • licorice root
  • hops

Liquids

The following beverages and oils are sources of phytoestrogen:

  • coffee
  • bourbon
  • beer
  • red wine
  • olive oil
  • jasmine oil

Grains

Some grains contain phytoestrogens. These include:

  • oats
  • barley
  • wheat germ

Takeaway

Phytoestrogens are molecules that imitate estrogen in the body, based on plants. They have been found to be helpful in treating oestrogen deficiency symptoms and conditions. This can be especially advantageous for premenopausal and postmenopausal women.

Phytoestrogens can also play a part in the fight against cancer. To understand that, though, much more work is required.

The risks involved in eating high amounts of phytoestrogens are still not completely known. Their side effects will likely be similar to synthetic oestrogen.

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