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Phytoestrogens are a topic of hot debate in the medical literature. To eat, or not to eat? To cure cancer, or to beget it? As chemicals that act like–but are not identical to–estrogen in the human body, phytoestrogens complicate biological functions. Sometimes it appears as though they have a helpful role, but many other times, as in the case with female fertility and typically with PCOS, phytoestrogens can cause a lot of harm.
Phytoestrogens are found in plant foods. They can also move up the food chain into animal sources, which is a consideration for women with endocrine issues who eat factory farmed animals. They are reasonably well tolerated by people with “healthy” hormonal systems and livers. The body responds easily to these semi-natural disturbances and can flush the phytoestrogens out of the system. OR the body responds easily by maintaining estrogen production even while phytoestrogens are consumed. This is not always the case for women. Some are extraordinarily sensitive to phytoestrogens.
For more on the science of phytoestrogens, and specifically how they relate to estrogen deficiency and dominance in the female body, check out my post Phytoestrogens in the Body, and How They Interfere with Natural Hormone Balance.
What I say in that article, briefly, is that phytoestrogens take up places on estrogen receptors in the body. This has big time implications. Many medical professionals hypothesize that this is helpful for estrogen deficient women. This would be by filling up unused estrogen stores, and therefore hypothetically increasing estrogen levels. But other health researchers (including myself) believe that supplementing with phytoestrogens plays a reverse role: instead of increasing estrogen activity, the increased phytoestrogen load (especially given the fact that phytoestrogens are far less efficacious in performing bodily functions) tells the body to stop producing it’s own estrogen, which ultimately results in a decline in estrogen-related power in the body.
Phytoestrogens can also be harmful for women with estrogen dominance, if their bodies do not respond to the increased estrogen load and instead end up over-burdening their systems.
All that being said, I still believe phytoestrogen intake can be helpful for some women if their bodies respond in a hormonally healthy way. This may particularly be the case for menopausal women, whose bodies have more or less stopped produced estrogen in the ovaries anyway. Phytoestrogens may alleviate the pains of menopause while not causing any pituitary-related damage. However, this is an issue, again, of individuality. Some women may find it works, while others find it horrific.
Edit 2016: Recently, after learning about new research and working with even more women, I’m finding that plant-based phytoestrogens may promote ER beta activity, which can lower estrogenic potency in the body as a whole, thereby decreasing the risk for certain cancers (this is not true of synthetic estrogen, like that in hormonal birth control or estrogen replacement therapy). Read more about these latest studies right here.
My personal experience is that I am enormously sensitive to phytoestrogens. I have narrowed down over many years the list of foods that give me acne, and aside from dairy, they are all phytoestrogens. This past summer I achieved clear, soft skin for the first time in three years (save for the scars). I experience small acne bumps when stressed, which is something I am okay with and working on slowly. The only times, however, in which I have experienced cystic breakouts are when phytoestrogens I didn’t know I was eating were sneaking into my body.
These were flax, soy protein isolate (did you know it’s in virtually all brands of chewing gum?! and tootsie rolls? and also that I consumed tootsie rolls?!), and thyme.
We all talk about the dangers of soy and phytoestrogen intake, but the list of phytoestrogenic foods is long and complicated. Many different studies list different foods as having different phytoestrogen content. My inability to navigate them has been the bane of my skin for years. But now I have compiled, however, a list of all of the foods, herbs, and substances that seem to be the most problematic and crop up in continuous studies.
Phytoestrogens can be summed up as: virtually all beans, peas, seeds, and nuts, some herbs, and a handful of fruits and vegetables.
They are as follows, with the most potent foods listed with an asterisk:
***Flaxseed and flaxseed oil (3 x as potent as soy in some studies!)
***Soy, soy oil, soy protein isolate, tofu, textured vegetable protein, and all of it’s derivates
*Sesame, sesame seeds, and sesame oil
*Red Clover leaf and extract
Apricot (especially dried)
Whole grains: Rye, *Oat, Barley, Millet, Wheat, Corn, Quinoa
And to a somewhat lesser extent the fruits and vegetables…
And the substances…
And, yes! Marijuana and hops (a primary ingredient in beer) are both phytoestrogens. It is worth noting that crude marijuana extract smoke and not just the physical plant matter competes for the estrogen receptor in receptor studies. This means that inhaling marijuana, whether through one’s own cigarette or in the company of others who are smoking, counts as potential estrogenic activity. All that being said, these chemical results were not replicable in vivo on rats, so it’s as yet undecided in trials if it has an effect on humans. Personally, I don’t risk it these days.
Sorry. I’m sad, too.
And as I final note, I strongly encourage you to check the label on anything processed you are considering consuming. Like I noted above, Tootsie Rolls are made out of soy. I had three on a road trip with my family and woke up the next morning with a painful cyst. I didn’t think to check– I though the risk small– but it turns out I was wrong. It took me a week to figure out what I had done wrong, and when I finally checked the ingredients in Tootsie Rolls I face palmed myself in a big way. Lots of anxiety over nothing at all.
Other big sources of soy protein and phytoestrogens in a processed diet are protein bars, cereals–particularly “protein plus” cereals, oat-based cereals, granolas, flax-containing granolas, granolas or cereals made with any kind of seed oil, triscuits, wheat thins, every kind of chewing gum, the more chewy types of candy, and probably most baked goods.
All of which is to say, again, that phytoestrogens are complicated. I don’t advocate that you go crazy controlling your intake of all of these substances. Absolutely I do not. Please keep eating broccoli. But for those of us who are particularly sensitive to estrogen flucutations, such as I am, it can be enormously helpful for understanding why we are getting breakouts, experience fluctuations in our sex drive, or failing to produce as much vaginal discharge as we normally do on occasion. Huge doses of peas or garlic over a couple of days can make a real impact, as can the accidental consumption of soy. So if you’re into the nitty gritty of troubleshooting, this list should be helpful.
If I’ve missed any phytoestrogens that should be on the list, please let me know!
More about progesterone competitors coming soon.
And finally: what is your experience with phytoestrogens? Anyone as sensitive as I? Or the total opposite, and robust?
Are they helpful? Harmful? In menopause, or at reproductive-age?