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Clearing up the Confusion on Phytoestrogens

Clearing up the Confusion on Phytoestrogens

Understanding the hormone-like action of herbs can be very confusing. Our customers, clients, and readers frequently reach out to us to express their concern about using herbs that have the potential to impact hormone levels, specifically estrogenic herbs and their impact on estrogen levels. In order to promote healthy estrogen levels within our bodies, we have to consider how herbal phytoestrogens protect us from harmful xenohormones (toxins) and estrogen dominance and, in turn, support overall hormonal balance.

Clearing up the Confusion on Phytoestrogens

What Are Phytoestrogens?

Phytoestrogens (or plant estrogens) are naturally present in many plants and foods in the legume family. While they are not the same as human hormones, some phytoestrogens are similar to and behave like hormones the body makes naturally.

Types of Phytoestrogens & Their Actions

Phytoestrogens tend to balance estrogen, with estrogenic or anti-estrogenic effects to match what the body needs.

A direct plant estrogen binds to hormone receptors. Their chemical structure is similar to human hormones. Most are quite gentle. For example, some research suggests phytoestrogens are only 1/400th to 1/1000th of the potency of your naturally circulating estrogen. Because they are low in potency, when they bind to receptor sites, the net effect for a lot of women is lower estrogen levels. For women with very low estrogen, phytoestrogens can modestly shore up levels by binding to estrogen receptor sites.

Phytoestrogens may even protect the body against xenoestrogens (man-made hormone mimics), also known as xenohormones. Today, excess estrogen (or estrogen dominance) is a growing problem for women. This is in large part because of the abundance of xenoestrogens coming into our bodies from pesticides, hormone-injected animal foods, plastics, commercial body care products, polluted water, and hormone-containing drugs.

Phytoestrogens can bind to hormone receptor sites before the xenoestrogen, blocking its harmful activity. In one test, Royal Jelly inhibited the BPA-induced growth of breast cancer cells (bisphenol A, a xenoestrogen from plastic).

However, not all phytoestrogens are direct plant hormones that bind to receptor sites in the body. Many of the herbs that we call phytoestrogens are actually hormone mimics, balancers, or endocrine tonics. These plants mimic hormones or encourage the endocrine system to produce normal levels of its own hormones naturally.

Top Phytoestrogen, Hormone Mimic & Endocrine Tonic Plants

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
*direct strong phytoestrogen
Contains: coumestans (probably the strongest known phytoestrogen), isoflavones, lignans, and lactones

Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis)
*direct phytoestrogen
Contains: beta-sitosterol

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
*direct phytoestrogen
Contains: beta-sitosterol

Hops (Humulus Lupulus)
*direct phytoestrogen
Contains: the potent phytoestrogen 8-prenylnaringenin, which may cause menstrual problems in very high amounts. Hops are safe in formulas or in moderation in the diet.

Ginseng – American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius or P. quinquefolius) and Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng or P. ginseng)
*direct phytoestrogen activity
Contains: beta-sitosterol and has mild testosterone-mimicking effects

Flax seed (Linum usitatissimum)
*direct phytoestrogen
Contains: lignans with mild estrogenic activity

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa)
*hormone balancer and mimic
Contains: the saponin diosgenin, a precursor material for progesterone

Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus)
*endocrine tonic, hormone mimic
Regulates pituitary activity, involved in the hormonal feedback loop. Increases progesterone production and natural production of luteinizing hormone.

Rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa)
*direct phytoestrogen, endocrine tonic
Contains: beta-sitosterol

Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
*direct phytoestrogen.
Contains: isoflavones – Some herbalists believe Black Cohosh affects the hypothalamus, the body’s temperature regulating system.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
*endocrine tonic and fertility superfood
Contains: alkaloid glucosinolates, which affect fertility for both men and women

Royal Jelly
*direct phytoestrogen, hormone mimic, fertility superfood
Contains: folic acid and arginine, which support fertility in both sexes

Tribulus (Tribulus terrestris)
*endocrine tonic, hormone mimic
Contains: saponins, which can benefit male and female reproductive health

Fo-ti (Fo Ti Tieng, He Shou Wu, Polygonum multiflorum)
*direct phytoestrogen
Contains: stilbene glucosides, anthraquinone glucosides, is high in the minerals iron and zinc, and lecithin. In vitro research shows the estrogen activity of Fo-ti is 1/300th the strength of 17 beta estradiol – equal to that of soy and Red Clover.

*direct phytoestrogen
Contains: isoflavones, genistein – High doses of soy isolates or processed soy foods may be problematic. (See “What about soy?” below for more information about soy and fertility)

Fertility Benefits of Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens play a critical role in supporting fertility. For instance, a woman with a thin uterine lining may benefit from using Red Clover or Dong Quai short term, which may help to shore up low estrogen and build the blood. Maca and Royal Jelly are also rich in fertility nutrients, known to support healthy uterine muscle and lining.

For women with absent or irregular periods, phytoestrogen-containing Black Cohosh may stimulate the uterus and help normalize menstrual flow. Women with premature ovarian failure or unexplained infertility may benefit from phytoestrogens because they have the potential to bring balance to the reproductive system. This is particularly true for the endocrine tonic, Vitex. Vitex has been shown to help lengthen the luteal phase and encourage normal progesterone production, without being a source of progesterone itself.

What About Soy?

Fermented soy foods like miso and tempeh are normally well tolerated as part of a healthy, balanced Fertility Diet. Fermented soy is highly enzyme active and digested quickly. Most of the phytoestrogen potential in fermented soy is limited because the body metabolizes and eliminates it so fast.

On the positive side, research finds that consuming soy as part of a balanced diet may reduce symptoms of menopause, protects the heart, and possibly lowers endometrial and breast cancer risk.

However, there is a darker side to soy. A heavy soy diet with excessive processed soy (think soy hot dogs, soy drinks, soy formula) can affect the thyroid, decrease mineral absorption, and may block fertility. Products containing isolated soy isoflavones may be especially problematic. These types of products contain phytoestrogens in much higher concentrations than traditional whole-food sources.

One in vitro study reveals that genistein (a soy isoflavone) increases the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells. Other studies dispute these findings, but it may be possible that very high doses of soy isoflavones or other phytoestrogens could aggravate certain types of breast cancer.

Further, research shows animals fed a soy-based diet can experience fertility problems. A study published in the Journal of Urology reveals that exposure to the soy isoflavone genistein affects fertility in male rats, lowering their testosterone level and disrupting sexual behavior. Other data link using soy-based infant formulas to premature puberty. Additionally, as I mentioned, an excess of soy can inhibit thyroid activity, a fertility blocker in men and women.

The Wisdom of the Whole Plant

Although we still have a lot to learn about how phytoestrogens interact with the reproductive system, the majority of whole herbs containing phytoestrogens are as safe to take as foods. Whole plants work through our digestive system, eliminating much of the potential for side effects or toxicity.

When plant components are altered or boosted chemically, you may start to see some side effects because this approach is more drug-like in nature. Avoid large doses of isolated phytoestrogen products, especially soy isoflavones. A growing body of evidence suggests these substances may affect fertility or impact cancer risk.

The best phytoestrogen formulas come from experienced, traditional herbalists who are skilled in developing gentle, balanced combinations. For fertility purposes, the whole plant really provides the most benefit with the least potential for side effects.

Dr. Christine Traxler M.D., OB/GYN
Dr. Christine Traxler M.D., OB/GYN

Dr. Traxler is a University-trained obstetrician/gynecologist, working with patients in Minnesota for over 20 years. She is a professional medical writer; having authored multiple books on pregnancy and childbirth; textbooks and coursework for medical students and other healthcare providers; and has written over 1000 articles on medical, health, and wellness topics.  Dr. Traxler attended the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences and University of Minnesota Medical School,  earning a degree in biochemistry with summa cum laude honors in 1981,  and receiving her Medical Doctorate degree (MD) in 1986.

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  1. Avatar

    Phytoestrogen discussions are indeed very confusing. So if they bind to estrogen receptors and lower the endogenous estrogen, then are they good for women who are actively trying to conceive? In theory, they should be avoided but I see lot of recommendation for red clover esp for older women who are trying to conceive. The they tell you to avoid soy completely. Are phytoestrogens good or bad for fertility? If red clover is good, then soy should be good as well for fertility, both containing isoflavones. Can you please help clarify. I am 42 year old baby hopeful but always confused whether or not to embrace phytoestrogens.

    • Dear Julie,

      A blanket statement about whether they are good for any woman can not be made. Each woman is different in her needs. Women with depleted estrogen or lower natural estrogen production as a result of aging may want to research plant estrogens further. Red Clover has many benefit beyond it’s isolated constituents. Consider learning more from our guide Red Clover: Fertility Herb and Tonic.

      We don’t suggest isolated isoflavones without guidance from a practitioner trained in their use. Herbalists prefer using whole plants for their collective benefits.

      Red Clover and spy are completely different. There is great debate regarding soy and this is largely due to many replying on and feeling highly processed soy foods being healthy, which they are not, and because a lot of soy in the US is GMO. Small amounts of non-GMO organic edamame or fermented soy is fine here and there, but we typically suggest many of our clients avoid it.

  2. Avatar

    Curious to know if you have you heard of or studied the doTERRA Phytoestrogens and what your thoughts would be, especially on the Soy content as that seems to be the hot topic!
    Thank you for your time.

    • Hello Cher!

      I have heard of this product, but have not researched it and can not speak to it’s quality or efficacy.

      Here is our stance for what it’s worth…
      The soy debate may be one of the hottest topics concerning fertility today. You’ve got that right! Soy contains isoflavones, and has the most concentrated levels of isoflavones of any plant that is consumed by humans. Honestly, we feel that soy used in any form that is concentrated may cause estrogen dominance.

      The problem with using soy isoflavones is that they bind weakly to estrogen receptor sites. So, while some of the soy isoflavones are binding, others are just creating excess estrogen. There is also insufficient data supporting the use of soy isoflavones for healthy hormonal balance. The research goes back and forth, some say it will work for some people and other studies show that soy isoflavones have potential risk of damaging the Thyroid as well as decreasing fertility and contributing to estrogen dominance.

      Using soy isoflavones, especially when self-prescribed, is not very effective or the best option. We feel that supporting and nourishing the systems that produce and control hormones with whole foods and time- and clinically-tested herbs is best. Good nutrition, herbs, supplements, and natural therapies nourish the endocrine system, rather than manipulate the hormones.

      We woudn’t suggest a product containing soy isoflavones for newly menstruating or your women without trained guidance form a naturopathic doctor. I did note that the product asked about is suggested only for pre-, peri- and post-menopausal women for whom natural estrogen products wanes.

      I hope that helps in some way.

  3. Avatar

    how about He Shou Wu?

    • Dear Dane,

      Ho Shou Wu or Fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum) has been found to contain phytoestrogens. I will ask this guide’s author to add this herb to the list.