Updated: Nov 8
There's a lot of buzz around phytoestrogens. From their potential to alleviate symptoms of perimenopause to protecting against specific health issues, these plant compounds have become a subject of interest for many.
As a nutritionist, my goal is to help individuals achieve optimal health through informed food choices. In this blog, we'll explore what phytoestrogens are, how they function in the body, and why they may be particularly beneficial during the tumultuous perimenopause phase.
What are Phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring compounds found in certain plants. As the name suggests, their structure and function closely resemble the hormone oestrogen produced in the human body.
When we talk about hormones, it's crucial to understand that they generally function by binding with specific receptors in our cells.
Think of these receptors as locks, requiring the right key to activate them. There are two types of oestrogen receptors. Oestrogen is a precise fit for both of these.
However, with phytoestrogens, the fit is similar enough for them to work a bit, but it is not an exact fit. As such, they are not as strong in their work as the 'real deal,' aka oestrogen, but they still have significant effects.
How do Phytoestrogens Work?
Phytoestrogens can have two primary actions:
1. Mimic Oestrogen: When oestrogen levels are low, as often happens during perimenopause, phytoestrogens can act as a gentle substitute, alleviating some symptoms related to oestrogen deficiency.
2. Modulate Oestrogen: Conversely, in contexts where oestrogen levels might be high or where the prolonged activation of oestrogen receptors may be harmful, phytoestrogens can compete with the body's own more potent oestrogens. By occupying the receptors, they can reduce the overall oestrogenic effect.
There are different types of phytoestrogens found in various foods. Each offers distinct benefits, so consuming a mix, rather than relying solely on one, is ideal.
Some phytoestrogens must interact with gut bacteria to work, and our efficiency in this interaction can vary. This maybe one of the reasons that different women get different effects.
Moreover, phytoestrogens also influence the production of SHBG (sex hormone-binding globulin) in the liver. This does what it says on the tin - it can bind and hold onto excess hormones and prevent too much circulating around.
Phytoestrogens and Perimenopause
Perimenopause, as we know, can be characterised by fluctuating hormone levels, particularly oestrogen. This fluctuation can lead to a myriad of symptoms, such as hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and sleep disturbances.
Phytoestrogens, due to their ability to gently bind to oestrogen receptors, can help balance the body's response during this phase. For example, they may:
Reduce Hot Flashes: Some studies suggest that phytoestrogens, particularly those from soy, can reduce the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
Bone Health: Oestrogen plays a role in bone health. As oestrogen levels drop during perimenopause, women are at an increased risk of osteoporosis. Some research indicates that phytoestrogens can support bone density.
Heart Health: There's emerging evidence that phytoestrogens might have protective effects against heart disease, which women become more susceptible to after menopause.
Sources of Phytoestrogens
Where can you find these potent plant compounds? Here are some prime sources:
1. Soy and Soy Products:
Tofu, tempeh, miso, and edamame are all rich in isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen.
2. Flaxseeds: Lignans, another type of phytoestrogen, are abundant in flaxseeds.
3. Whole Grains: Whole grains like oats, barley, and wheat bran also contain lignans.
4. Vegetables: Some vegetables, such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, and kale, contain phytoestrogens.
5. Fruits: Berries, apples, and pomegranates are some fruits that contain these compounds.
6. Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, and beans can also be good sources.
There is no definitive or clear answer as to whether or not phytoestrogens are beneficial. It is complex and will depend on factors such as age, health status, and the presence or absence of particular gut flora.
Nature often provides remedies to many of the challenges we face. While phytoestrogens are not the all-healing "super-foods" some make them out to be, they're undoubtedly often beneficial. These compounds can gently help rebalance your hormones, which is especially beneficial for women navigating perimenopause, endometriosis, fibroids, or PMT.
If you have a hormone-sensitive condition, always consult with a healthcare professional before integrating them into your diet.
Remember, food is not just about macronutrients; sometimes, the magic lies in the subtler compounds like phytoestrogens.
I'm here to support you throughout your journey. Feel free to reach out if you need guidance, help staying consistent, or are concerned about other issues you might be facing.
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