Phytoestrogens are weak hormones found in many plants. They
are currently being promoted, sometimes in highly refined forms, for relief
of the symptoms of menopause. Are they safe? Can they promote breast cancer?
We know that increased exposure to hormones -- such as those used in
the cattle industry, those given to women during menopause, those taken
by women engaged in hi-tech pregnancy efforts, and even those naturally
produced by our own bodies -- increases our risk of being diagnosed
with cancer, especially breast cancer. And many believe that hormone-like
chemicals -- xenoestrogens -- increasingly found in our food and water,
contribute to cancer as well. Doesn't that imply that phytoestrogens
will increase cancer risk too?
Virtually everything we eat -- grains, beans, nuts, seeds, seed oils,
berries, fruits, vegetables, and roots -- contains phytoestrogens. Scientists
measuring the amount of phytoestrogen break-down by-products in the
urine of healthy women found that those with the least were four times
more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than with the most. Phytoestrogens
actually appear to protect tissues from the cancer-causing effects of
xenoestrogens and other hormonal pollutants..
This seems simple -- eat more phytoestrogens, be healthier -- and it
is, so long as we restrict ourselves to eating plants. But when the
difference between food and medicine is disregarded, when phytoestrogens
are isolated and concentrated, sold to us in pills and candy bars, then
the equation changes: phytoestrogens become dangerous hormones, quite
capable of promoting cancer.
To get the greatest benefit from phytoestrogenic foods and herbs remember:
1. Isolated phytoestrogens are not as safe as those "in matrix."
2. To make use of plant hormones, you need active, healthy gut flora.
3. Herbs and foods rich in phytoestrogens need to be used in different
4. Phytoestrogens may have different effects on women who do not have
1. Plants contain many types of phytoestrogens; additionally, they
contain minerals and other constituents which help our bodies modify
the phytoestrogens and so we can use them safely. Red clover, for instance,
is mineral-rich and contains all four of the major types of phytoestrogens:
lignans, coumestans, isoflavones, and resorcylic acid lactones. It is
the world's best-known anti-cancer herb. In general, foods and herbs
rich in phytoestrogens, with the possible exception of licorice, show
anti-cancer abilities. Isoflavone, however, when isolated (usually from
soy) has the opposite effect: In the lab it encourages the growth of
breast cancer cells. (endnote 32 in New Menopausal Years).
2. Plant hormones, including most phytoestrogens, can't be used by
humans. But we can convert them into ones we can use -- with the help
of our gut bacteria. When women take antibiotics, their excretion of
phytoestrogens plummets. Get your gut flora going by eating more yogurt,
miso, unpasteurized sauerkraut, homemade beers and wines, picked-by-your-own-hands-and-
unwashed fruits and salads, sourdough bread, and whey-fermented vegetables.
(See Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon for whey-fermented vegetable
3. Plants which are exceptionally rich in phytoestrogens are regarded
as powerful herbal medicines. Plants which are good sources of phytoestrogens
are regarded as foods. While food can certainly be our medicine -- a
practice I advocate -- it is also true that medicines are more dangerous
than foods. Foods rich in phytoestrogens are different than medicinal
herbs rich in phytoestrogens. They have different places in my life.
I eat phytoestrogenic foods daily in quantity.
I use phytoestrogenic food-like herbs regularly but not daily and in
moderate quantity. I take phytoestrogenic herbs rarely, usually in small
amounts and for a limited time.
Phytoestrogenic foods are the basis for a healthy diet and a long life.
The first food listed is the highest in phytoestrogens. The best diet
contains not just one but many choices from each list:
Whole grains (rye, oats, barley, millet, rice, wheat, corn)
Edible seeds (buckwheat, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, amaranth, quinoa)
Beans (yellow split peas, black turtle beans, baby limas, Anasazi beans,
red kidney beans, red lentils, soy beans)
Leafy greens and seaweed (parsley, nettle, kelp, cabbage, broccoli,
kale, collards, lamb's quarter)
Fruits (olives, cherries, grapes, apples, pears, peaches, plums, strawberries,
blackberries, raspberries, salmon berries, apricots, crab apples, quinces,
Olive oil and seed oils
Garlic, onions and their relatives leeks, chives, scallions, ramps,
The exceptions to the rule that plants don't contain human hormones:
French beans, rice, apple seeds, licorice, and pomegranate seeds contain
the weak estrogen estrone.
Phytoestrogenic food-like herbs are generally considered longevity
tonics. For optimum effect, use only one from the list below and to
stick with it for at least three months.
Citrus peel, dandelion leaves and/or roots, fenugreek seeds, flax seeds,
green tea, hops, red clover, red wine.
Phytoestrogenic herbs are usually too powerful for long-term use. From
the list below (which is in alphabetical order), it is safest to use
only one herb at a time, and use it only when needed, although that
may mean daily use for several months. More information about these
herbs, including specific dosages and cautions, is in New Menopausal
Years the Wise Woman Way.
Agave root, black cohosh root, black currant, black haw, chasteberries,
cramp bark, dong quai root, devil's club root, false unicorn root, ginseng
root, groundsel herb, licorice, liferoot herb, motherwort herb, peony
root, raspberry leaves, rose family plants (most parts), sage leaves,
sarsaparilla root, saw palmetto berried, wild yam root, yarrow blossoms.
4. Most of the warnings about phytoestrogenic herbs center on their
proven ability to thicken the uterine wall in animals who have had their
ovaries removed. This could encourage cancer, just as taking ERT encourages
cancer of the uterus by stimulating cell growth.. Women without ovaries
are probably safe eating phytoestrogenic foods, but may want to use
phytoestrogenic herbs -- especially ginseng, dong quai, licorice, red
clover, and wild yam -- in small amounts and only for short periods.
Phytoestrogens can be our friends. In a world that seems increasingly
hostile and threatening, green allies offer us ways to stay safe and
healthy, so long as we use them with wisdom and honor. This article
is based on information in New Menopausal Years the Wise Woman
Way, available from www.wisewomanbookshop.com
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