What are phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are compounds that naturally occur in plants. They’re also found in a wide range of plant foods. If you eat fruits, veggies, legumes, and some grains, you get phytoestrogens from your diet. A plant-based diet is very rich in natural phytoestrogens in healthy amounts, especially from soy.
“Phyto-” is a Greek root word meaning “plant.” Estrogen is a female hormone that regulates functions in both women and men. Phytoestrogens, though plant-based, function much like animal estrogen in humans. When we eat phytoestrogens, our bodies may respond as if real estrogen were present.
What can phytoestrogens do for your health?
To a limited extent, phytoestrogens could serve as a type of natural hormone replacement therapy. This is especially the case with phytoestrogen supplements.
Because they mimic real estrogen in your body, phytoestrogens accomplish some of the same things. Other potential benefits of phytoestrogens include:
Relief from hot flashes
Perimenopause is a reproductive stage in a woman’s life usually starting in her late 40s. During this time, her body stops making as many female hormones. One of these hormones is estrogen. This transitions into a time when her periods have stopped for at least 12 months, and she is now in menopause.
Perimenopause can bring on many uncomfortable symptoms, including hot flashes, mood swings, and decreased libido, and these may continue after menopause.
One study showed phytoestrogens greatly reducing hot flashes. Numerous other studies are finding positive effects for hot flashes and other perimenopausal symptoms, and more research is being conducted for this use of phytoestrogens.
Osteoporosis prevention in women
Other studies show that phytoestrogens could help prevent bone loss in aging women. Natural estrogen is known to help maintain normal bone density. When women age, estrogen levels drop, making them more vulnerable to osteoporosis.
Because phytoestrogens act much like estrogen, taking them may stop this from happening. Still, more research is needed before a doctor would advise this use.
Some women use phytoestrogens as natural or herbal remedies for relieving menstrual issues or irregularities. Estrogen levels can drop during certain times of the menstrual cycle, causing uncomfortable symptoms.
If estrogen can be replaced (such as with phytoestrogens or through a pill), these symptoms may be relieved. More research is needed about how to do this safely.
Treating acne with phytoestrogens may also be possible. The idea is that estrogen counters androgens (male hormones), which can contribute to acne in women.
Because phytoestrogens act similarly to estrogen, they may counter androgens and relieve or prevent acne as a result. Some research supports this, but more is needed.
Should you be careful taking phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens may provide some of the same benefits as natural and synthetic estrogen. But that doesn’t necessarily make them safer than synthetic hormones.
In recent years, synthetic estrogen has received a bad rap for negative side effects. This includes increased risks for obesity, cancer, reproductive disorders, and birth defects in pregnant women.
While phytoestrogens are natural and seem safer, they act in the same way. They may create the same risks. These include:
- changes in hormonal cycles
- difficulties with lactation
- increased risk of breast cancer
- increased risk of endometriosis
- increased risk of endometrial cancer
- increased risk of nonviral toxic hepatitis
- increased risk of uterine fibroids
More research is needed to understand the full extent of what phytoestrogens do. Thus far, a diet rich in plant foods poses only health benefits. There are no known health risks from eating more plant foods.
Avoid taking phytoestrogen supplements in high doses and over long periods, just to be safe. Talk to your doctor before taking a phytoestrogen supplement or considerably upping your phytoestrogen intake.
What foods and herbs contain phytoestrogens?
Many plants and plant-based foods contain phytoestrogens. Some contain more than others, and may have a more significant impact on your health.
Some herbs are high in phytoestrogens and can be taken in supplement form. Supplements may have higher levels of phytoestrogens than foods, so talk to your doctor before taking them.
The most significant and notable sources are:
- black cohosh
- chaste tree berry
- dong quai
- evening primrose
- legumes (beans, peas, peanuts)
- licorice root
- red clover
- soy (tofu, tempeh, miso, soymilk)
The bottom line
Phytoestrogens may have some benefits to your health, but take them with caution. This is especially the case with long-term and high doses. While they may seem safer than synthetic estrogen, this may not be the case. Talk to your doctor before taking an herbal supplement or greatly increasing your daily phytoestrogen.
Herbs and supplements aren’t monitored for quality, purity, dosage, or packaging by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. Research the companies that sell these products so you can make the safest choices. Always try to take in phytoestrogens naturally, through food, before you consider herbs or supplements.
You should be safe getting phytoestrogens from food by eating a varied diet. Make sure to eat fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes to experience the benefits.