Phytoestrogens occur naturally in a variety of plants. They mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen in humans and can have a range of health benefits, especially for women and reproductive health. Men, too, may find health benefits from phytoestrogens. When you consume phytoestrogens, these compounds begin to work in the same manner as naturally produced estrogen, attaching to the body’s estrogen receptors. There are several types of phytoestrogens.
Provide Relief from Hot Flashes
When women enter perimenopause, usually in their late 40s, their bodies begin producing less estrogen. As these levels decrease and perimenopause transitions into menopause, women often experience hot flashes that come on quickly and can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing. Adding phytoestrogen to a healthy diet can bring relief from both the frequency and intensity of the hot flashes, carefully balancing and lowering estrogen more gradually, thus mitigating the effects of this natural transition.
Help Prevent Osteoporosis
One effect of lower estrogen levels in the body is an increased risk of osteoporosis. As natural estrogen levels drop during menopause, women may develop brittle bones. Natural estrogen is known to maintain bone density. Less dense bones put women at risk for broken bones. Supplementing with phytoestrogens or adding soy to the diet may help retain the bone density levels women had before perimenopause.
Ease Menstrual Symptoms
Phytoestrogens don’t just help women going through menopause. They may also help ease some of the symptoms associated with menstruation, such as cramps and mood swings. Hormone levels fluctuate through her monthly cycle, possibly causing symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome. Estrogen can drop at certain points in the menstrual cycle, causing uncomfortable symptoms. If estrogen can be replaced (such as with phytoestrogens or through a pill), these symptoms may be alleviated.
For those who experience acne breakouts, regulating hormone levels may alleviate more severe outbreaks. 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. Acne flare-ups are linked to endocrine system conditions, and adding natural dietary phytoestrogens may help.
Help With Weight Loss
Genistein, a specific type of phytoestrogen, has been demonstrated in studies to help regulate the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin. Genistein may aid weight loss goals by resetting hunger cues that come from the excessive production of hunger hormones. Adding genistein to your diet helps keep hunger hormones in check, reduces the appetite, and curbs cravings for certain foods, especially simple carbohydrates, and sugar. Reducing cravings makes it easier to manage calorie intake.
Decrease Risk of Breast Cancer
An overabundance of estrogen is thought to contribute to breast cancer, but managing levels of estrogen in the body during menopause and perimenopause could help reduce the risk of breast cancer in older women. Breast cancer is related to hormone production, and a healthy balance of estrogen can reduce the growth of cancerous cells. A phytoestrogen called apigenin seems to be the best candidate to reduce breast cancer risk.
Enhance Heart Health
Several studies show phytoestrogens can improve heart health, especially during the perimenopausal and postmenopausal stages of life. This is due to the ability of phytoestrogens to treat arteriosclerosis, a condition in which fat and cholesterol build up in the arteries. Arteriosclerosis leads to a host of heart diseases including high blood pressure, hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. Regulating the hormone levels in the body may help reduce the buildup of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Phytoestrogens do this by regulating hormone and chemical levels within the body.
The hormones in phytoestrogens may help improve libido, particularly in men. Studies have shown men who include phytoestrogens in their diet on a regular basis can enjoy longer intercourse and increased desire (which phytoestrogens seem to assist in both men and women). While too much phytoestrogen may decrease libido, the types found in hops and beer are demonstrated to improve potency.
Incorporating Phytoestrogens Into Your Diet
Many foods contain phytoestrogens. Soy is the most well-known, but tempeh, flax seeds, barley, and hops also contain substantial amounts. Sesame seeds, yams, alfalfa, and wheat germ are other good sources and are easy to add to fresh green smoothies or salads each day. Apples, carrots, pomegranates, and coffee are also good sources of phytoestrogens. The preparation of foods doesn’t seem to affect their phytoestrogens content or absorption, so enjoy these foods however you desire.
Side Effects of Phytoestrogens
An overabundance of phytoestrogens may lead to a condition in women called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, characterized by cysts on the ovaries and a hormone imbalance. Women who have PCOS may notice a decrease in fertility, as well as expression of more masculine secondary sex traits such as the excessive growth of facial and body hair. Phytoestrogens are endocrine disruptors, so if you have certain conditions or are predisposed to PCOS, you may wish to consult with your physician before increasing estrogen. Men who have a high phytoestrogen intake may experience gynecomastia or secondary female sex characteristics.