Healing Kitchen

Why Women (and Men) Need Phytoestrogens
What does world-renowned breast surgeon and women's health advocate Dr. Susan Love eat for breakfast? Soy milk and flaxseed granola. These foods are rich in phytoestrogens. And though studies are still not conclusive, research strongly suggests these natural plant compounds may have beneficial effects for both sexes. As weaker versions of the estrogen produced by the body (men make small amounts of this "female" sex hormone, too) phytoestrogens play a dual role. When there's too much estrogen, they block its harmful effects. When there's not enough, they become estrogen substitutes and make up for the difference. Phytoestrogens may act as cell-protecting antioxidants and have additional benefits unrelated to estrogen as well. So what does all this mean? Here's a rundown of how phytoestrogens may be able to help you.

Heart Disease
Though experts debate whether phytoestrogens lower "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, investigators at Wake Forest University recently found that the phytoestrogens in a soy drink reduced LDL levels in men and women by 10%. New research is also showing that isoflavones, the phytoestrogens abundant in soy, may reduce heart disease risk regardless of its effect on cholesterol levels by promoting artery flexibility and preventing plaque buildup.

Symptoms of Menopause and Perimenopause
Researchers in Italy have shown that soy reduced hot flashes by 40%. A diet rich in soy may also help such symptoms as vaginal dryness. Investigators are currently exploring the role of phytoestrogens as an alternative to Premarin for hormone replacement therapy.

Because the onset of this bone-weakening disease is closely linked to the decline of estrogen levels in postmenopausal women, researchers are hopeful that phytoestrogens can help prevent fractures in older women. Animal studies are promising and ipriflavone, a synthetic isoflavone derived from a soy phytoestrogen, has been found to prevent bone loss in patients with osteoporosis.

Breast and Endometrial Cancer
Phytoestrogens increase the length of the menstrual cycle, which reduces a woman's lifetime exposure to estrogen and possibly lowers the risk of breast and endometrial cancers. Phytoestrogens may also directly inhibit the growth of cancerous breast cells.

Prostate Cancer
Isoflavones can slow the growth of prostate cancer cells in test tubes, and population studies show that the rate of prostate cancer is low in Japan and other countries where soy is a dietary staple. Studies are under way at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York to determine whether isoflavones help prevent the recurrence of prostate cancer in men who have had a cancerous gland removed.

The Best Sources of Phytoestrogens
Hands down, the best source is soy. Soy contains a variety of isoflavones, two of which--genistein and daidzein--are the most potent phytoestrogens yet discovered. Flaxseed, which has a high concentration of phytoestrogens called lignans, comes in a strong second. As for getting your phytoestrogens in a pill, studies are lacking. Food sources may be your best bet, although hormone-rich herbs (e.g., black cohosh and dong quai) may calm hot flashes.

Further Reading: Dr. Susan Love's Hormone Book (Random House, 1997)

Author: the WholeHealthMD Advisor
Date Published: 01/04/2000
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