Phytoestrogens is a hotly debated topic in nutrition. This is because this group of plant compounds can mimic or block the effects of estrogen. Studies have found that phytoestrogens can offer several health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and helping to maintain healthy bones. However, some people believe they can reduce fertility and alter hormones. This article details both the benefits and risks of phytoestrogens and thus determine whether they are healthy or harmful.
What are Phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are a group of natural compounds found in many plants. Foods that contain phytoestrogens include tofu, soy and flaxseed. The name comes from a combination of the Greek word plant, which is “phyto”, and the structure of the compound that is similar to the sex hormone estrogen. Estrogen is an essential hormone for female development and fertility. Men also have estrogen, but at much lower levels. Because phytoestrogens are structurally similar to estrogens, they can interact with receptors in the body. Moreover, some phytoestrogens mimic the effects of estrogen, although others may block the effects of the hormone. These effects allow phytoestrogen to offer a variety of health benefits, especially for postmenopausal women. Such effects may include reduced skin aging, stronger bones and a lower risk of Heart Disease.
There are Four Main Families of Phytoestrogens:
Isoflavones: It is the most studied type of phytoestrogen. Foods that contain isoflavones include soy and other legumes.
- Lignano: A different class of phytoestrogens. Foods that contain lignans include flaxseed, whole wheat, vegetables, strawberries and blueberries.
- Cumestane: Although there is a variety of cumestane, only a few mimic the effects of estrogen. Foods containing cumestane include alfalfa sprouts, clover sprouts and bean sprouts.
- Stilbenes: Resveratrol is the main dietary source of stilbenes. Foods that contain resveratrol include nuts and red wine.
In addition, phytoestrogens belong to a larger group of plant compounds called polyphenols. Polyphenols have antioxidant effects and neutralize harmful free radicals.
Summary: Phytoestrogens are a group of natural compounds found in many plant foods. They are structurally similar to estrogen, which allows them to mimic or block the effects produced by that hormone.
What Foods Contain Phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are found in a variety of fruits, vegetables and other foods.
Here are Some Foods That Contain Phytoestrogens:
- Fruits: Apples, carrots, pomegranates, strawberries, blueberries, grapes.
- Vegetables: yam, lentils, alfalfa sprouts, mung bean sprouts (Chinese roots).
- Soy and soy products: Soy, tofu, tempeh, miso soup and pasta.
- Nuts and seeds: Flax seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, nuts.
- Herbs: Red clover, licorice root, hops.
- Drinks: Coffee, bourbon, beer, red wine.
- Grains: oats, barley, wheat germ.
- Oils: Olive oil, jasmine oil.
Interestingly, the number of phytoestrogens in plant foods can depend on several factors, including where the plants were grown, when they were harvested and the climatic conditions.
Summary: Phytoestrogens are found in a variety of plants and vegetables. The phytoestrogen content of food can depend on a variety of factors regarding plant development.
How do Phytoestrogens Affect the Body?
Estrogen works by binding to cell receptors. When this happens, estrogen and the cell receptor travel to the cell nucleus, or command center, to change the expression of several genes. However, cellular receptors for estrogen are not very selective. In some cases, substances with a similar structure can bind to them and activate them. Therefore, since phytoestrogens have a chemical structure similar to estrogen, they can also activate their receptors. For this reason, phytoestrogens are known as endocrine disruptors or endocrine disruptors. These are chemicals that interfere with the normal function of hormones in the body. However, phytoestrogens can only weakly bind to estrogen receptors, producing a much weaker response than normal estrogen.
Summary: Phytoestrogens are structurally similar to estrogen. This allows them to activate estrogen cell receptors in the body. However, the effects of phytoestrogen are much weaker than the effects of estrogen.
Benefits of Phytoestrogens for Health:
Diets rich in phytoestrogens have been linked to some impressive health benefits. Some effects of phytoestrogens that can improve health are mentioned below.
May Reduce Risk Factors for Heart Disease:
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. People with higher blood levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, LBD (low density lipoprotein) or “bad” cholesterol or high blood pressure have a higher risk of heart disease than others. Many studies have shown that eating foods rich in phytoestrogens can reduce these risk factors for heart disease. For example, an analysis of 38 studies found that consuming 31-47 grams of soy protein daily reduced blood cholesterol by 9% on average, triglycerides by 10%, and “bad” LBD or cholesterol in 13%.
“In addition, the people in the study with the highest cholesterol levels (greater than 335 mg / dL) had reduced their cholesterol levels by 19.6%”.
Interestingly, the United States Food and Drug Administration ( FDA ) approves statements of healthy effects with respect to soy protein and heart disease prevention.
It can Promote Bone Health:
Building healthy bones is very important, especially as people get older. A diet rich in phytoestrogens can prevent osteoporosis, a condition that is associated with bone weakness and porosity. Animal studies have shown that phytoestrogens can decrease the formation of osteoclasts, a type of cell that breaks down bones. In addition, they can increase the formation of osteoblasts, a type of cell that helps build bones. On the other hand, studies in humans have found that people with a diet rich in phytoestrogens have a lower risk of hip fractures. However, studies on phytoestrogen supplements show conflicting results. An analysis that included 10 studies found that taking an isoflavone supplement for at least one year did not significantly increase bone density of the hip or spine. However, a more recent analysis that included 14 studies found that taking an isoflavone supplement increased bone density by 54%, compared to a placebo. These studies lasted from one month to two years. The link between phytoestrogens and bone health seems promising. However, future studies in this area would help clarify this connection.
May Reduce the Effects of Skin Aging After Menopause:
Menopause is the stage in a woman’s life when she stops menstruating. It translates into a decrease in estrogen levels, which can lead to skin wrinkles, thinning and dryness. Studies have found that the application of phytoestrogens to the skin could reduce the effects of skin aging after menopause. In a study in 30 postmenopausal women, scientists found that applying a phytoestrogen extract to the skin helped increase dermal thickness by almost 10%. In addition, collagen and elastic fibers increased in 86% and 76% of women, respectively.
May Reduce Chronic Inflammation:
Inflammation is a process that helps the body fight infections and heal wounds. In some situations, inflammation can persist for a long time at low levels. This is called chronic inflammation, and it is linked to many harmful diseases. Fortunately, phytoestrogens such as isoflavones can have anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Animal studies have shown that phytoestrogens such as isoflavones decrease several markers of inflammation, including IL-6, IL-1Œ≤, nitric oxide and prostaglandin E2. Similarly, studies in humans have found that eating a diet rich in isoflavones can reduce inflammation markers such as IL-8 and C-reactive protein.
May Reduce the Risk of Certain Cancers:
Cancer is a disease characterized by uncontrollable cell growth. Phytoestrogen-rich diets have been linked to lower risks of various types of cancer, including prostate, colon, intestinal, endometrial and ovarian cancer. For example, an analysis of 17 studies found that soy isoflavone consumption was linked to 23% lower risk of colorectal cancer. However, the evidence between phytoestrogen intake and breast cancer is ambiguous. On the one hand, studies show that people who consume more isoflavones have a lower risk of breast cancer. But on the other hand, animal studies show that phytoestrogens such as soy isoflavones may increase the risk of breast cancer. Future studies will help determine how phytoestrogens affect breast cancer risk.
Summary: Phytoestrogen-rich diets have been linked to a variety of health benefits, especially in women.
Health Risks of Phytoestrogens:
Most studies suggest that phytoestrogens can benefit health. However, there is some concern that a high intake of phytoestrogens which can alter the hormonal balance in the body. Here are some risks associated with a high consumption of phytoestrogens.
May Reduce Fertility in Male Animals:
Given the ability of some phytoestrogens to mimic the effects of estrogen, some question whether they are harmful to men. While men have low estrogen levels, significantly elevated levels of this hormone are not normal.
Increasing Estrogen Levels in Relation to Testosterone Can Reduce Male Fertility:
For example, studies in animals such as cattle, sheep and cheetahs have shown that regular consumption of phytoestrogens is related to lower fertility related to males. However, there is no solid evidence to show that a high consumption of phytoestrogens among men can reduce their fertility. For example, in an analysis of 15 studies, scientists found that neither soy isoflavones in foods nor supplements reduced testosterone levels in men.
May Affect Thyroid Function for Some People:
The thyroid gland helps regulate metabolism, growth and development. Unfortunately, some phytoestrogens such as isoflavones can behave like goitrogens, which are compounds that can interfere with the function of the thyroid gland. Some studies in animals and humans have found that the consumption of phytoestrogens can affect the function of the thyroid gland. However, most studies on healthy adults have not found a strong connection between phytoestrogens and thyroid function. For example, an analysis of 14 studies found that the consumption of soy foods, which are a great source of isoflavones, had no strong effects on healthy adults regarding thyroid function. However, they found that soy foods could affect thyroid function in people with hypothyroidism or iodine deficiency. In summary, the use of phytoestrogens will probably not affect your thyroid function unless you have pre-existing thyroid problems or an iodine deficiency.
Summary: Phytoestrogen-rich diets probably do not affect healthy adults. However, there may be some deterioration in health for people with pre-existing thyroid problems or an iodine deficiency.
How to Add Phytoestrogens to the Daily Diet?
If you want to adopt the nutrients of phytoestrogens, eating natural foods is the way to go. These foods provide a healthy dose of phytoestrogens and a variety of other nutrients important for optimal health. Some ways you can add phytoestrogens to your diet can be the following:
- Add 1-2 tablespoons of flax seeds to the smoothies
- Eat a soy-based meal two or three times a week
- Eat some servings of fruit, such as strawberries, blueberries and grapes, daily
The admissible benefits of phytoestrogen supplements are still unclear. Although some studies have found that phytoestrogen supplements are harmless, others suggest avoiding them until long-term risks are known.
Summary: Many natural foods are rich in phytoestrogens, including flaxseeds and certain fruits. Further research is needed regarding phytoestrogen supplements, so it is advisable not to overdo it.
Eating a diet rich in phytoestrogens is linked to a variety of health benefits, especially in postmenopausal women. In addition, there is no strong evidence to show that it can reduce fertility in healthy men. It is even likely that it does not affect thyroid function in healthy adults. If you want to take advantage of the benefits of phytoestrogens, try adopting a variety of phytoestrogen-rich foods in your diet. Foods such as soy, flax seeds and sesame seeds are excellent sources of phytoestrogens.