Phytoestrogens and Their Effect on Body Estrogen Levels and Health

Estrogen is the primary sex hormone regulating the menstrual cycle and affecting the reproductive system in the female body. However, not many people know that estrogen affects almost all other body tissues, including the brain. In the brain, estrogen increases serotonin levels and the number of serotonin receptors, controlling the amount of endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals.

Estrogen also plays a significant role in male sexual function as it modulates libido, erectile function, and sperm formation.

Low estrogen levels can hinder sexual development and reduce sexual function in both men and women and increase the risk of suffering from obesity, osteoporosis, and heart disease.

High estrogen levels will lead to blood clots, leading to stroke and heart attack. High estrogen levels may also lead to cancer, especially breast cancer and diabetes. 

In males, estrogen must be balanced with testosterone and in females with progesterone.

High estrogen levels may happen when using hormone therapy, contraceptives, or when a person is overweight since fat tissue absorbs and stores estrogen. Fat tissue also produces estrogen from other hormones. High estrogen also occurs when there is liver disease or liver weakness due to certain medications affecting the liver and when taking certain antibiotics or herbal remedies.

Estrogen also influences calcium levels affecting bone health, and estrogen helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

To keep estrogen levels in balance, one must limit alcohol and processed meat consumption and regularly exercise while consuming fresh fruits, vegetables, and foods high in phytoestrogens.

Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like, naturally-occurring compounds derived from plants that mimic estrogen in the body.. ‘Phyto’ is a Greek word meaning ‘plant,’ and estrogen is the primary female sex hormone. Still, it is found in both men and women, where it regulates different bodily functions in both men and women.

Phytoestrogens are structurally similar to the estrogen form 17betaoestradiol. This structural similarity enables phytoestrogens to cause anti-estrogenic and estrogenic effects by binding to different estrogen receptors.

There are two types of estrogen receptors in humans, alpha and beta receptors. Unlike the estrogen that the body produces, which primarily binds and activates the alpha receptor (ER?), phytoestrogens from foods preferentially and most often bind to and activate the beta receptor (ER?). 

These two types of receptors have different and most often opposite functions. Beta activation from foods rich in phytoestrogens has an anti-estrogenic effect, inhibiting the growth-promoting effects of actual estrogen. 

Therefore, these phytoestrogens may have an anti-proliferative impact on some cancer cells, even in low concentrations achieved by eating even one serving of these foods a day. 

However, some research suggests that at times, plant-based phytoestrogens may also function much like human estrogen and our bodies respond as if our natural estrogen is present. Therefore, care should be taken when consuming phytoestrogens in cases where estrogen levels in the body are very high. 

In most cases, people benefit from consuming foods rich in phytoestrogens. [1] 

Benefits of Phytoestrogens

Numerous beneficial health effects have been attributed to phytoestrogens, such as lower risks of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, obesity, brain function disorders, brain protection, breast, and prostate cancer, and a lowered risk of menopausal symptoms (including hot flashes, and osteoporosis). [2-5]

A 2009 study found that consuming soy products can decrease the risk of recurrence or death from breast cancer. [6-7] This is primarily due to its genistein content which inhibits pathways important for cell growth and proliferation. [8-13] Genistein is an isoflavone in soy products. 

Phytoestrogens are also good antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. [14]

Phytoestrogens are also highly beneficial to women when combating menstrual issues. When a woman’s estrogen levels drop, it can affect her mood and energy levels. 

Eating food rich in phytoestrogens is advisable to balance the hormone levels and relieve symptoms. 

Phytoestrogens may also help to combat acne by rebalancing hormone levels. A 2017 study supports this claim. [15]

There are other benefits of phytoestrogens, including their effects on male hormones and their impact on testicular cancer, that I mention in my article HERE.

Phytoestrogens are beneficial in reducing symptoms caused by estrogen deficiency, such as slow sexual development and decreased sexual function. 

Phytoestrogens have also been found to be useful as hormone replacement therapy. [16-17]

So, Where Can You Find Phytoestrogens?

A balanced, plant-based diet is rich in natural phytoestrogens in healthy quantities. Vegetables, fruits, legumes, and some types of grains all have phytoestrogens.

The most significant sources of phytoestrogens are:

  • Angelica
  • Black cohosh
  • Carrots
  • Chaste tree berry
  • Coffee
  • Dong Quai
  • Evening primrose
  • Flaxseeds
  • Legumes (beans, peas, peanuts)
  • Licorice root
  • Oranges
  • Red clover
  • Soy (tofu, tempeh, miso, soymilk, miso paste, miso soup, soybeans)
  • Tea 

Other foods also have phytoestrogens but in lower levels. These foods include sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, apples, pomegranates, strawberries, cranberries, yams, lentils, sprouts, red wine, and beer. 

Phytoestrogens can also be taken in supplement form. However, it is advisable to be careful when taking phytoestrogen supplements, especially if you’re taking them long-term and in high doses as hormone replacement therapy. It is always better to consume phytoestrogens naturally from food.

Some foods help regulate estrogen balance in case of excessive estrogen levels.

These foods include:

  • cruciferous vegetables(broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale), whole grains, red grapes, and mushrooms.

It must be noted that over 60% of soy in the Western world diet comes from processed foods. If you are suffering from issues affecting estrogen levels avoid processed foods containing soy and soy isolate and avoid soy supplements. Instead, go for natural soy products such as edamame, tempeh, and tofu.

The Bottom Line

Phytoestrogens can be especially beneficial in relieving premenopausal, premenstrual, post-menopausal, and menstrual symptoms. Phytoestrogens also play a role in fighting different types of cancers in both men and women. 

However, few studies claim there may be a potential health risk if consuming phytoestrogens when suffering from excessive estrogen levels; however, there is insufficient evidence for this claim. 

However, to err on the safe side, if you suffer from high estrogen levels, I recommend consuming the foods that help balance estrogen levels, as mentioned above, along with a well-balanced whole-food diet that supports weight loss, without processed soy products, with regular exercise such as walking, and minimal alcohol and processed meat consumption. 

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Dr. Galit Goldfarb

References:

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  2. Gorzkiewicz J, Bartosz G, Sadowska-Bartosz I. The Potential Effects of Phytoestrogens: The Role in Neuroprotection. Molecules. 2021;26(10):2954. Published 2021 May 16. doi:10.3390/molecules26102954
  3. Desmawati D, Sulastri D. Phytoestrogens and Their Health Effect. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. 2019;7(3):495-499. Published 2019 Feb 14. doi:10.3889/oamjms.2019.044
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  6. Xiao Ou Shu, MD, PhD; Ying Zheng, MD, MSc; Hui Cai, MD, PhD. Soy Food Intake and Breast Cancer Survival. Environ Mol Mutagen. JAMA. 2009;302(22): 2437-2443. doi: 10.1001/jama.2009.1783. 
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