Phytoestrogens are trace substances in our food which mimic and supplement the action of the body's own hormone, estrogen (sometimes spelt as 'oestrogen'). They are a comparatively recent discovery, and researchers are still exploring the nutritional role of these substances in such diverse metabolic functions as the regulation of cholesterol, and the maintaining of proper bone density post-menopause. Also, the phytoestrogens have been indicated to play a role in some types of cancers, although it is not clear if this is due to the phytoestrogens or overall eating habits.
Phytoestrogens mainly fall into the class of flavonoids: the coumestans, prenylated flavonoids and isoflavones are three of the most potent in this class. Lignan has also been identified as a phytoestrogen, although it is not a flavonoid. The estrogenic properties of these biochemicals have been shown to be due to their structural similarities to the hormone estradiol.
A COT draft report from The British Food Standards Agency cautions that there is a need for standardised analysis and measurement tools in this field. It also suggests that research in recent years is more reliable than that of previous years.
Some evidence suggests that phytoestrogens can help "balance" hormone levels throughout the body since oestrogen exists within them in trace amounts. Hormone balancing can improve such things as mood. Imbalanced hormone levels (for example those seen at puberty) can cause such things as acne.
As HRT for MtF Transsexuals
Generally speaking phytoestrogens work by weakly binding with the estrogen receptors. Some MtF Transsexuals have in some cases reported a very mild feminizing effect. However, the doses required to achieve any effects are so large and toxic that there is a real risk to health. Most sources do not recommend that trans women use products such as black cohosh, dong quai, milk thistle, or any other phytoestrogenic herb as a replacement for hormone therapy, even as a low-dose measure, because of their inefficacy. Because of the way that phytoestrogens compete for estrogen receptors, using them in addition to or as hormone therapy may also be counterproductive.
- Adlercreutz H, Phyto-oestrogens and cancer, Lancet Oncology 3 (6): 364-373, 2002
- The draft report of the COT working group on Phytoestrogens - Download.
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