Phytoestrogens are compounds that naturally occur in plants. If you eat fruits, veggies, legumes, and some grains, you get phytoestrogens from your diet.

“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 our own estrogen were present. In this article, we’ll go over how phytoestrogens can be beneficial, as well as what foods they can be found in.

A plant-based diet is very rich in natural phytoestrogens in healthy amounts, especially from soy.

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 your body’s own estrogen, phytoestrogens accomplish some of the same things. Other potential benefits of phytoestrogens include:

Relief from hot flashes

Perimenopause is a reproductive stage in a person’s life that usually starts in their late 40s. During this time, the bodies of people born with a vagina stop making many female hormones. This includes, but isn’t limited to, estrogen.

This transitions into a time when a person’s periods will stop for at least 12 months. This is known as menopause.

Perimenopause can bring on many uncomfortable symptoms. These include hot flashes, changes in mood, and decreased libido. These symptoms may continue after menopause.

One 2014 review of studies showed that phytoestrogens greatly reduced hot flashes. Other research, including one 2016 study, have also found positive effects for hot flashes and other perimenopausal symptoms.

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.

Menstrual relief

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 (like with phytoestrogens or through a pill), these symptoms may be relieved. More research is needed about how to do this safely.

Acne treatment

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.

As with any nutrients, it’s best to get phytoestrogens naturally from plant-based foods.

In recent years, synthetic estrogen has received a bad rap for negative side effects. This includes increased risks for obesity, cancer, reproductive disorders, and cardiovascular diseases.

But such risks haven’t been proven while consuming plant-based phytoestrogens. One example is soy, a plant-based source of protein that also contains a group of phytoestrogens called isoflavones.

Long-term clinical studies have shown that soy isn’t linked to an increased risk of breast cancer — and that it may also be helpful for people who live with it. One 2009 study concluded that soy foods were found to decrease breast cancer recurrence and death.

Unfortunately, there are some misconceptions surrounding phytoestrogen-containing foods, including that they could increase the risk of certain cancers.

In fact, 2020 review of studies found that phytoestrogens may actually have a protective effect for the following cancers:

  • breast cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • endometrial cancer

But there’s also no concrete human evidence showing that phytoestrogens can prevent uterine fibroids. Overall, researchers also believe that supplements have little to no effects on menopausal symptom relief.

While more evidence is needed, research has found the possibility of improved cardiovascular and bone health from phytoestrogens.

A 2019 study also looked at soy isoflavone consumption in Asia, where a lower risk of both cardiovascular disease and dementia is hypothesized.

One 2018 study that looked at nearly 2,000 adults in the Mediterranean area found a possible link between dietary phytoestrogens and a reduced risk of hypertension. Another 2018 study found that the risk of type 2 diabetes was reduced in women who took phytoestrogens.

Still, more research on human subjects 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.

As a rule of thumb, you should avoid taking phytoestrogen supplements unless your doctor tells you otherwise. Researchers believe that the phytoestrogen contents in such supplements greatly vary, and could have unintended consequences on your health.

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 with your doctor before taking them.

The most significant and notable sources are:

  • angelica
  • black cohosh
  • broccoli
  • carrots
  • chaste tree berry
  • coffee
  • dong quai
  • evening primrose
  • legumes (beans, peas, peanuts)
  • licorice root
  • oranges
  • red clover
  • soy (tofu, tempeh, miso, soymilk)
  • tea

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 with your doctor before taking an herbal supplement or greatly increasing your daily intake of 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, and make sure to talk with your doctor before you use them.

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.