Phyto- is from the Greek phyton meaning plant. A phytoestrogen is a naturally-occurring plant nutrient that exerts an estrogen-like action on the body. Scientists have discovered hundreds of phytoestrogens including soybeans, whole grains, seeds (especially flax), nuts (especially walnuts) and many herbs.
Medical research has demonstrated numerous benefits associated with phytoestrogens. In a study published in the journal Menopause, for example, half the women who participated ate a diet rich in phytoestrogens such as soybeans and flax seeds, while half ate a standard diet. In the group that ate the phytoestrogen-rich diet, the menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness, decreased significantly.
In a study conducted at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in
Winston-Salem , researchers found a significant reduction in menopausal hot flashes when women supplemented their diets with fermented soy. When presenting their findings at the American Heart Association's annual scientific sessions, a spokesperson for the research group noted that Japanese women, who consume relatively high amounts of fermented soy, report only one-eighth as many menopausal symptoms as American women.
The major phytonutrients that have been studied for their estrogen-like activity are two classes of nutrients known as isoflavonoids (most notably genistein and daidzien, from soybeans) and lignans (from nuts and flax seeds.) These nutrients are converted by the flora, the beneficial bacteria of the digestive tract, into compounds that have estrogen-like actions. To derive the most benefit from these phytonutrients the flora of the intestinal tract must be in a healthy balance. Unfortunately, the intestinal flora is killed off by many drugs that women commonly use, especially antibiotics.
Phytoestrogens Found in Foods
Nine common phytoestrogens in a Western diet, foods with the highest relative phytoestrogen content were nuts and oilseeds, followed by soy products, cereals and breads, legumes, meat products, and other processed foods that may contain soy, vegetables, fruits, alcoholic, and nonalcoholic beverages. Flax seed and other oilseeds contained the highest total phytoestrogen content, followed by soy bean and tofu. The highest concentrations of Isoflavones are found in soy bean and soy bean products followed by legumes, whereas lignans are the primary source of phytoestrogen found in nuts and oilseeds (e.g. flax) and also found in cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Phytoestrogen content varies in different foods, and may vary significantly within the same group of foods (e.g. soy beverages, tofu) depending on processing mechanisms and type of soy bean used. Legumes (in particular soybeans), whole grain cereals, and some seeds are high in phytoestrogen. A more comprehensive list of foods known to contain phytoestrogens includes: soy beans, tofu, tempeh, soy beverages, linseed (flax), sesame seeds, wheat, berries, oats, barley, dried beans, lentils, yams, rice, alfalfa, mung beans, apples, carrots, pomegranates, wheat germ, rice bran, soy linseed bread, ginseng, bourbon and beer fennel and anise.
Phytoestrogens Found in Herbs
Herbalists have discovered that many of the herbs traditionally used by women for the health concerns unique to women contain some of the highest amounts of these beneficial phytonutrients. The list includes black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), dong quai (Angelica sinensis), red clover (Trifolium pratense), alfalfa (Medicago sativa), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), Kudzu root (Puerariae lobata), and many others. Mexican wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) is not a phytoestrogen but contains a phytonutrient that is a precursor for progesterone, which is also important for balancing a women's glandular system.
The 8th edition of the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans", released in 2005 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), includes soybean-based foods as a means to meet the dietary recommendations of the Food Guide Pyramid. The guidelines provide recommendations based on current scientific knowledge about how diet may improve health and reduce risks for major chronic diseases. The 2000 Guidelines recognize one cup of a calcium-rich soy-based beverage as equal to one serving from the dairy group, and 1/2 cup of tofu or a 2 1/2 ounce soy burger as equal to a serving in the meat and beans group.
Phytoestrogens Reduce Risk for Cancer
In a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers reported that, in addition to their benefits for the glandular system, phytoestrogens have been shown to have antioxidant activity and can influence intracellular enzymes, protein synthesis, growth factor action, and cell proliferation in a way that makes them "strong candidates for a role as natural cancer-protective compounds." The authors point out that countries or regions that consume the highest amounts of phytoestrogens also tend to have the lowest cancer rates. In another study published in the Journal of Epidemiology foods high in phytoestrogens were found to have a protective effect against endometrial cancer. In this nine-year study involving over 800 women, those who ate a diet rich in phytoestrogens showed a 54 percent reduction in the incidence of this cancer.
Phytoestrogens Reduce Risk for Stroke
Stroke is the third most common cause of death for middle-aged and older women. A 50-year-old woman has about a one in five chance of suffering a stroke in her remaining lifetime. One of the most common causes of stroke is blockage due to atherosclerosis of the carotid arteries in the neck the arteries responsible for a major portion of the blood flow to the brain. Phytoestrogens have been shown to improve a women's lipid profile to prevent strokes, similar to Premarin without the harmful side-effects associated with such drugs.
Phytoestrogens for Menopause
Menopause refers to the time in a woman's life marked by the permanent cessation of menstrual activity. It can occur between 25 and 58 years of life. The menses may stop suddenly, but usually there is a gradual decrease each month until final cessation occurs; or in many cases the interval between periods gradually becomes longer until complete cessation occurs. Natural menopause occurs in 25% of women by age 47, in 50% by age 50, 75% by age 52 and 95% by age 55. Menopause due to surgical removal of the ovaries occurs in almost 30% of women past the age of 50.
Menopause may be accompanied by hot and cold flashes, feelings of weakness, irritability, and in some cases mental depression. These changes are brought about by a natural decline in the secretion of hormones by the woman's body. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the medical treatment for these symptoms. When done right, HRT can greatly decrease these undesirable symptoms. However, most doctors routinely prescribe powerful synthetic hormones such as Premarin that lead to many undesirable side effects. About nine million women now use Premarin for hormone (estrogen) replacement. While some women appear to do fine on the drug, others experience problems, and all experience an increased risk for certain types of cancer.
Premarin is derived from the urine of pregnant mares. There are over 50 horse estrogens in Premarin not one of which is naturally found in a woman's body. To manufacture the drug, between 75,000 and 85,000 mares are kept on some 500 farms in North Dakota and Canada. To collect their urine, these mares are confined in stalls throughout the duration of their pregnancy. Water is restricted because concentrated urine is desired. Exercise is also denied. As soon as they give birth, they are immediately impregnated again.
Premarin production is bad news for the mares that "donate" it. Many women, particularly those who have experienced its undesirable side effects, have concluded that it may not be the best choice for them either. Some of the potential side-effects of HRT with drugs such as Premarin are:
- Nausea, vomiting
- Pain, cramps or tenderness in the abdomen
- Yellowing of the skin and/or whites of the eyes
- Breast tenderness or enlargement
- Enlargement of benign (fibroid) tumors
- Irregular bleeding or spotting
- Change in amount of cervical secretion
- Vaginal yeast infections
- Retention of excess fluid. (This may make some conditions worsen, such as asthma, epilepsy, migraine, heart disease, or kidney disease)
- A spotty darkening of the skin, particularly on the face
- Reddening of the skin
- Skin rashes
- Worsening of porphyria
- Headache, migraines
- Dizziness, faintness
- Changes in vision (including intolerance to contact lenses)
- Mental depression
- Involuntary muscle spasms
- Hair loss or abnormal hairiness
- Changes in weight. (Most women experience weight gain instead of weight loss)
- Changes in sex drive. (Most women experience decreased libido)
- Possible changes in blood sugar
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood
- Severe stomach pain or swelling
- High blood pressure
- Loss of libido
- Numbness, tingling, itching of feet and hands
- Heaviness of the chest
Phytoestrogens Offer Alternatives to Drugs Like Premarin! Many women have discovered a better way, using a natural nutritional approach for the changes that accompany menopause. Several of the herbs that have proven to be the most useful are discussed below:
Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is probably the most widely-used herb for female concernsâ€”from dysmenorrhea or difficult menstruation to menopauseâ€”and with good reason for the research supporting the benefits of this herb is substantial. Black Cohosh is native to
Eastern North America and has been valued by Native Americans and American colonists alike for the nutritional support of the female reproductive system, particularly to relieve menstrual cramps, aid amenorrhea and to ease labor. It was also used for fever, sore throat, bronchitis, hysteria, itch, lumbago, malaria, nervous disorders, snakebite, uterine disorders, St. Vitus' dance (chorea) and yellow fever.
The German Commission E (the German equivalent of the FDA) approved black cohosh for dysmenorrhea or painful menstruation. The herb is widely used in
Europe for the treatment of PMS and for juvenile menstrual problems and even as a support for women who have had a hysterectomy. Black cohosh is considered an emmenogogue, or a substance that promotes menstrual flow, but it is also successfully used by women with excessive menstrual flow, since it has a balancing effect on a woman's glandular system.
No adverse drug interactions have been identified with black cohosh. The herb has even been used in conjunction with conventional estrogen replacement therapy without any problems. In fact, studies indicate that black cohosh may actually reduce some of the negative side effects associated with conventional drug estrogen replacement therapy, including increased risk for cancer.
The constituents of black cohosh do not enter into breast milk. There are no contraindications for lactation nor any problems found for nursing children.
Effects on the nervous system: Black cohosh binds to serotonin receptors in the brain which may be helpful for individuals suffering from depression. One study of over 900 peri-, pre- and post-menopausal women with mood disorders found a synergistic effect between black cohosh and St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum), the herb most commonly used by individuals suffering from mild depression. (Liske et al. 1997)
Dong Quai pronounced "don kwy," is one of 's most popular herbs for women. It has traditionally been used for menopause, hot flashes, as a natural estrogen and hormone balancer, and for nervousness and spasms. The plant's root, which has a vitamin E content that actually outranks that of wheat germ, is the part used. Dong quai is also a natural source of iron and cobalt.
Wild Yam is also known to nourish the female reproductive system. Not to be confused with tuberous sweet potato yam, wild yam is widely used in the world today to supply nutrients essential for optimal glandular function. It nutritionally benefits the urinary, nervous and respiratory systems as well. Wild yam was commonly called Colic root and Rheumatism root a hundred years ago in . It is also used in Chinese herbal medicine. It has traditionally been used for hot flashes, irritability, depression, insomnia, and for other symptoms of menopause.
In this short article we have obviously only scratched the surface on the subject of phytoestrogens. Many other herbs and foods could have been mentioned. It is important to note that many natural foods, including whole grains and nuts, contains small amounts of these beneficial nutrients, and a healthy mostly plant-based diet (along with a healthy balance of intestinal flora) will go a long way in helping a woman maintain a healthy and balanced glandular system.
Nobody knows what is happening inside your body better than you do. We encourage you to listen to your body, to learn about the natural alternatives, and to find the approach that works best for you.
Natural Alternatives for Menopause
Bioidentical Progesterone Cream with Phytoestrogens
Contains both progesterone and phytoestrogens which work together to provide women more effective control of their menopausal symptoms.
Menopause Formula (PhytoBalance)
PhytoBalance contains eight of the most tested and proven herbs that reduce hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, irritability, and depression associated with perimenopause and menopause.