Phytoestrogens and Their Effect on Body Estrogen Levels and Health

In the female body, estrogen is the primary sex hormone regulating the menstrual cycle, and affecting the reproductive system. However, not many people know that estrogen also affects almost all other tissues of the body 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 major role in male sexual function as it modulates libido, erectile function, and sperm formation.

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

High estrogen levels will lead to blood clots, which can lead 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 an 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 also helps maintain healthy levels of cholesterol.

To keep estrogen levels in balance, one must limit alcohol and processed meat consumption, and take part in regular exercise while consuming fresh fruits, vegetables and foods rich 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 but 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 17???oestradiol. This structural similarity is what enables phytoestrogens to cause anti-estrogenic and estrogenic effects by binding to different estrogen receptors.

In humans there are two types of estrogen receptors, alpha, and beta receptors. Unlike the estrogen that the body produces which mostly binds and activates the alpha receptor, phytoestrogens from foods, preferentially and most often bind to and activate the beta receptor. 

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

Therefore, these phytoestrogens may actually have an anti-proliferative impact on some cancer cells, even in low concentrations that are 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 he body are very high. 

In most cases people benefit largely from consuming high levels of 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, breast and prostate cancer, and a lowered risk of menopausal symptoms (including hot flashes, and osteoporosis). 

A 2009 study found that consuming soy products can decrease the risk of recurrence or death from breast cancer. [2]

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

It is advisable to eat food rich in phytoestrogens 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. [3]

There are other benefits of phytoestrogens, including their effects on male hormones and their effects on testicular cancer that I mentioned in my article here: https://www.theguerrilladiet.com/why-phytoestrogens-should-form-part-of-a-healthy-diet-for-men-and-women/

Phytoestrogens have also been found to be 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.

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 notable 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 be also 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.

There are also foods that help regulate estrogen balance in case of excessive estrogen levels.

These foods include:

  • cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale, whole grains, red grapes and mushrooms.

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 that there may be a potential health risk if consuming phytoestrogens when suffering from excessive estrogen levels, however there is not sufficient 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 reduce estrogen levels, along with a well-balanced diet that supports weight loss if needed, and very limited alcohol and processed meat consumption. 

When there is no excess estrogen in the body, then the benefits of consuming phytoestrogen rich foods outweigh any risks if there are any, and will help balance hormone levels.

Feel free to comment below and let me know what you liked best about this article.

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Dr. Galit Goldfarb

References:

  • [1] Rietjens IMCM, Louisse J, Beekmann K. The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens. Br J Pharmacol. 2017;174(11):1263-1280. doi:10.1111/bph.13622
  • [2] 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. 
  • [3] Ashley K. Clark,Kelly N. Haas, andRaja K. Sivamani. Edible Plants and Their Influence on the Gut Microbiome and Acne. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2017, 18(5), 1070; doi.org/10.3390/ijms18051070.

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