Ongoing debates about the benefits and safety of phytoestrogens have created misunderstanding and skepticism. Here, I would like to share some key facts about these therapeutic compounds that research has suggested may have a positive impact on the prevention of menopausal symptoms, cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, liver disease and skin aging.
Our bodies are exposed to three sources of estrogens, endogenous estrogens, xenoestrogens and phytoestrogens. With similar chemical structures as human estrogen, phytoestrogens are natural, plant-derived dietary compounds that exert a variety of health benefits. Isoflavones, coumestans, and lignans are major phytoestrogens found in our diet. Soy is a popular phytoestrogen food that contains isoflavones, particularly genistein and daidzein. Food sources rich in phytoestrogens include spinach, Brussel sprouts, pinto and lima beans, alfalfa and Clover sprouts, tempeh and tofu, and flax seeds.
Current research indicates that phytoestrogens are beneficial for health, with their impact varying during different life stages. Phytoestrogens act as selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) because of their ability to bind to estrogen receptors and exert weak estrogen-like activity. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, inhibiting cancer cell growth, and improving insulin sensitivity, glucose and cholesterol metabolism are other observed benefits.
Because phytoestrogens and human estrogen have similar chemical structures, there has been concern regarding the safety of phytoestrogen’s estrogenic activity. However, current research suggests that consuming phytoestrogen-rich foods is safe and beneficial for the general population, including women with breast cancer or individuals at risk. The use of high doses of phytoestrogens continues to be investigated. Keep in mind that age, the source and dose of phytoestrogens, and microbiome status are a few factors that can impact how phytoestrogens affect the body.
Stephanie Rubino, ND