Phytoestrogens or Estrogens found in plants ( leading among them Soy,as also flax , legumes and nuts) have for long enjoyed popularity as Women's Hormone Balancing food.To understand phyto estrogens let us first go into what is estrogen and what it does in a woman's body .
Estrogen is produced in three main places in a woman’s body:
the ovaries the adrenal glands the fat cells
The main purpose of estrogen is to make the uterine lining, the endometrium, ready to implant a fertilized egg in the event fertilization occurs. To aid in this function, estrogen will promote
– water retention – fat storage – maturation of the female adolescent
All the above is OK if pregnancy is likely. Excess estrogen causes overpreparation :making the body prepare for embryo implantation all the time. This state of over-preparation (excess estrogen ) is the cause of :
sluggish blood circulation
disrupted copper/zinc ratios in brain cells/ mood swings
high stroke risk
Every system in the body has a feedback loop to keep balance. Estrogen has a sister hormone called progesterone, whose functions are equally important.
Progesterone is the other primary female hormone. It is produced in the ovaries. It is the precursor for both estrogen and testosterone, as well as all other natural steroid hormones.
Progesterone’s functions are
– maintains the endometrium in pregnancy – new bone formation – regulates blood pressure – fat conversion – sugar metabolism – maintaining myelin (nerve insulation) – regulates estrogen production
An egg is released once a month from the ovaries, wrapped in an envelope called a follicle. After the follicle lets go of the egg, the egg journeys down the Fallopian tubes on its way to the uterus, where it awaits possible fertilization. The burst follicle still has an important job to do: it begins to produce progesterone, for the next two weeks. Progesterone’s job is to maintain the uterine lining until one of two things happens:
– pregnancy – no pregnancy.
If pregnancy occurs, progesterone production is taken over by the developing lining itself – the placenta. The burst follicle simply can’t make enough progesterone for the demand, since the uterus will expand from the size of a lemon to the size of a basketball during the next nine months.
If no pregnancy occurs, the follicle stops producing progesterone, which triggers the collapse of the blood-rich lining, which is then expelled as the woman’s monthly flow.
So the interplay between these two hormones estrogen and progesterone controls the entire infrastructure of reproduction, on a daily basis, after the onset of menarche (first flow) in adolescence. Estrogen creates the lining each month; progesterone maintains it.
The Big takeaway is that Estrogen and Progestrone are MAJOR signals based on which the Pituitary up-regulates or down regulates production.
Plant estrogens are recommended for :
Countering Estrogen Dominance
This is too much estrogen - as in PMS,fibroids ,endometreosis-here the phytos are supposed to flood the estrogen receptors with their weak estrogen and thereby signal ovaries to down regulate the Estrogen production. However in high estrogen women these receptors ought to be full anyway : so how would adding more estrogens help ?
Countering low Estrogen problems (as in Menopausal women).
Here the problems are two :
Plant estrogens give weak signals: They have the same binding affinity to estrogen receptors in our tissues as real Estrogen but half the transcriptional(signalling) strength : so they CAN NOT really tell the ovaries for example to increase the production in case of in-sufficiency the way estardiol can. Plant estrogens create wrong signals: When the Estrogen receptors in Hypothalamus and Pituitary are flooded with phytoestrogens ,our Hormone Director ( pituitary unable to pick up the weak ambivalent signal of plant estrogens and able to see the full receptors ) gives the pack-up command to the ovaries ( by down-regulating the Follicle stimulating hormone).So even if your estrogen production is less your production is shut.
Thus the endogenous production of Estrogen remains compromised in a low estrogen female.As of today we : men and women alike are awash in a sea of Estrogen.An average female today has Estrogen levels much higher than a 100 years ago as we are surrounded by residues of pesticides ,plastics,petroleums,exhaust fumes, cosmetic ingredients , hormonal medications and so on.
Thus, a low Estrogen female in today's High Estrogen Environment may be a textbook clinical problem and not a real life issue.
Where the female is menopausal and has no in-house production of Estradiol, the main issue is to have some natural progestrone rather than introducing phyto-estrogens in form of dietary supplements ,as we already live in a sea of estrogen .Dr John Lee a pioneer in hormone balance research has written extensively about how the menopausal symptoms that occur with such severity in the modern women are not a result of low estrogen but of "un-opposed estrogen " caused by absence of progesterone in menopause.Because while estrogen production drops to 40% after menopause , progesterone production drops to 0 %.
As for cardio-protective and bone protective effect of estrogen : remember our normal fat deposits have enough estrogenic activity to protect bones and heart.Again taken in context of a healthy diet. In fact too much estrogen as in obese menopausal women is equally bad for the heart and the bones !
Plant estrogens principally : Isoflavones (as in Soy) , Lignans (as in Flax) and Coumestans (as in legumes) have been a part of traditional diets for a long time.However the supposed benefits of plant estrogens need to be seen in context of a whole foods based diet. The Soy eating Japanese and S.East Asian cultures for example also consume iodine rich, protein rich,gluten free diets. Adding soy milk or eating soya enriched atta might do harm in a carb heavy, low iodine,high sugar diet .So while natural things are good, phytoestrogen based supplement consumption is based on less solid evidence and a lot of conjecture .So recommendations on them should not be taken out of the cultural contexts .Especially if you have pre-existing reproductive issues .
My point in talking about all this is not to stop you from eating your flax seed bread or tofu scramble but to inform that eating unregulated amounts of plant estrogens to obtain health benefits especially if you have some pre-existing Estrogen issues ( and in these days who does not have them? Hello PMS !) might be a dodgy idea.