by Susun Weed
THERE ARE MANY TYPES OF ESTROGENS
- Women make estrogens.
- Plants make estrogens and estrogen-like compounds.
- Chemicals, especially organochlorines, act like estrogens (xenoestrogens).
Pharmaceutical companies make estrogens from substances such as horse urine, wild yam roots, and petrochemicals. Tamoxifen, used to treat and prevent breast cancer, is a type of pharmaceutical estrogen.
Women make at least thirty types of estrogen, including estradiol, estrone, and estrace. Estradiol is the strongest; it is turned on at puberty and turned off at menopause. Estradiol is positively linked with breast cancer; other human estrogens are not. Anything that reduces the amount of estradiol a woman produces (such as pregnancy, lactation, early menopause, and late puberty) also decreases her risk of a breast cancer diagnosis.
Phytoestrogens counter the detrimental effects of estradiol by competing for the same receptor sites.
Estradiol is a strong estrogen and is metabolized by the long path. The other estrogens our bodies make are weak estrogens and are metabolized by the short path. Alcohol turns off the short path. Phytoestrogens are weak hormones and hormonal precursors. Phytoestrogens in foods are metabolized by the short path. Phytoestrogens appear to protect tissues from the cancer-causing effects of estradiol, xenoestrogens and pharmaceutical hormones. Phytoestrogens in foods prevent cancer and promote health; phytoestrogen supplements and processed soy fake-foods may do the opposite. Breast cancer occurs four times more often in women whose urinary output of phytoestrogen by-products is low compared to women whose urinary output is high.
Phytoestrogens are common in food. They are concentrated in seeds (grains, beans, nuts, berries) and roots. 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.
To get the greatest benefit from phytoestrogenic foods and herbs remember:
- Isolated phytoestrogens are not as safe as those "in matrix."
- To make use of plant hormones, you need active, healthy gut flora.
- Herbs and foods rich in phytoestrogens need to be used in different ways.
- Phytoestrogens may have different effects on women who do not have their ovaries.
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 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 recipes.)
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 (not daily), in moderate quantity.
- I take phytoestrogenic herbs rarely, in small amounts, 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, rosehips, blueberries)
- Olive oil and seed oils. Garlic, onions and their relatives leeks, chives, scallions, ramps, shallot
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.
NEWS NOTES ON PHYTOESTROGENIC PLANTS
Recent studies indicate black cohosh does not suppress luteinizing hormone, has no estrogenic effect, and contains no compounds related to estrogen. Red clover flower heads contain many hormone-like flavonoids, including isoflavone, daidzein, genistein, formononetin, biochanin, sitosterol, and coumestrol, a particularly strong phytoestrogen (six times more active than the one in soy). Red clover contains all four major estrogenic isoflavones; soy has only two of them. A cup of red clover infusion (not tea) contains ten times more phytoestrogens than a cup of soy beverage, is richer in calcium, has less calories, and contains no added sugars.
- Researchers in Australia report a million lambs a year are aborted after sheep eat clover on pasture. Yet red clover is renowned as a fertility enhancer. What's up? Stephen Buhner, author of The Secret Language of Plants, says clover plants make blood-thinning compounds (which cause abortion) when overgrazed, but don't otherwise. Plants, it turns out, can fight back.
- When unfermented soy takes the place of animal protein (meat and milk), its anti-nutritional factors can create brittle bones, thyroid problems, memory loss, vision impairment, irregular heartbeat, depression, and vulnerability to infections. Unfermented soy is high in hemoglutin, which causes clumping of red blood cells and may increase risk of stroke. It is also impressively rich in aluminum (up to 100 times more than is found in the same amount of real milk). Eating tofu more than once a week doubled the risk of Alzheimer's in a small group of Japanese men studied for thirty years.
- Human gut bacteria can cleave a sugar molecule from wild yam's steroidal saponin, producing diosgenin. Labs make progesterone from diosgenin, but our bodies can't. Diosgenin itself has a weak estrogenic effect. According to Australian herbalist Ruth Trickey: "A more probable explanation [for the observed effects of wild yam] ... is that [diosgenin] interacts with hypothalamic and pituitary hormones and ... initiates ovulation."