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A phytoestrogen is a plant-based compound that can act like the hormone, estrogen made by the body. It is considered to offer some health benefits such as reducing the severity of symptoms brought on by menopause. Soy foods, flax seeds, and whole grains are among the dietary sources of these plant hormones. Some supplements and herbal formulations containing phytoestrogen extracts are being marketed for their health effects.
Phytoestrogen compounds structurally resemble natural estrogen produced by the body. Plant estrogens are considered to be milder than women’s intrinsic estrogen. Due to their chemical structure, phytoestrogens have a propensity to attach to a particular estrogen receptor, a protein molecule of a cell to which certain kinds of molecules may bind. This is thought to be one of the underlying mechanisms by which phytoestrogen compounds might elicit an effect in the body. Scientists have detected the presence of phytoestrogens in blood and urine samples, which indicate that these plant hormones can be assimilated and processed by the body.
Plant estrogens are present in a broad variety of foods; for instance, a class of phytoestrogenic compounds called isoflavones are typically found in soy foods such as edamame, tofu, and soy milk. Flax seeds, dried beans, lentils, and whole grains often contain a form of phytoestrogens called lignans. Some of the vegetables and fruits that are considered to be a good source of phytoestrogens include sweet potatoes, carrots, asparagus, apples, cherries, and dates. These plant hormones can also be found in garlic and parsley. Thus, one could incorporate foods that are natural sources of phytoestrogens in the diet for their health benefits.
Some population based studies indicate a lower incidence of menopausal discomforts such as hot flashes in Asian women who heavily consume soy foods. Asian diets that typically include phytoestrogen rich foods have been correlated with reduced risk of prostate cancer. Studies indicate that the phytoestrogen, isoflavone may help control cholesterol levels, and could potentially protect against osteoporosis. Phytoestrogen rich foods when consumed in excess may have some unfavorable effects, such as reducing a man’s sperm count, for instance.
Some of the alternative remedies and dietary supplements commonly available in pharmacies and health food stores contain phytoestrogenic extracts. These products may be in the form of isoflavone pills or made from herbs such as red clover, chaste tree, and black cohosh. Women sometimes opt for products with phytoestrogens as a natural way to relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings. These products, however, are not adequately regulated, and their efficacy and safety over the long term has not been sufficiently researched. Phytoestrogens in high doses may be contraindicated in people who have been diagnosed with specific conditions such as estrogen sensitive breast cancer, so it is advisable to consult a doctor before taking plant estrogen in the form of herbal extracts or supplements.