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Are Phytoestrogens Bad for Us?

What do you know about phytoestrogens? Most likely, not much. Phytoestrogens are an almost mysterious part of nutrition, and you certainly won’t hear about them at your doctors or even nutritionist’s office.  Why, you ask? Well, mainly because the jury is still out, at least in the medical circles on whether they are good or bad for you. The confusion deepens even further because countless studies show that they can fight breast cancer and at the same time promote breast cancer. How can that be? Let’s dissect these confusing estrogens to see for ourselves.

What are phytoestrogens?

Phytoestrogens are a group of naturally occurring compounds found in numerous plant foods. Phytoestrogens are also known as dietary estrogens because they’re not created by the human endocrine system. They can only be ingested or consumed. Phytoestrogens’ similarity to estrogen means they can interact with estrogen receptors in cells. These receptors mediate estrogen’s functions within the body.

You may have heard of xenoestrogens, which are a larger class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that lead to a build-up of estrogen, or estrogen dominance. BPA, plastics, parabens, phthalates, insecticides, and herbicides are some examples of xenoestrogens. These only have a negative effect on health, whereas phytoestrogens can have a varying effect depending on the person.

Where are phytoestrogens?

Dietary phytoestrogens are in quite a few foods. Remember soy? It’s known as the most phytoestrogen-rich plant found in a typical western diet. And it’s not necessarily a good thing. Part of what makes phytoestrogens tricky is their ability to both mimic estrogen and act as an estrogen antagonist. They affect the body by attaching to estrogen receptors. Because they aren’t specifically necessary for a human diet, phytoestrogens can’t be considered actual nutrients. 

Other foods with phytoestrogens include legumes, pinto beans, dried fruits, tofu, grains, wine, and even chocolate. 

Are phytoestrogens good or bad for me?

As is often the case with health and nutrition, there is some debate as to the health benefits and risks of phytoestrogens.

For young women, extra estrogen in the body can lead to infertility and in some cases, cancer. Researchers are flagging concerns about pre-puberty consumption noting they can have a negative effect on the brain development. In pregnant women, they can pass through the umbilical cord to the baby. 

For men, it can reduce their natural testosterone and thus impair fertility as well.

Phytoestrogens are, by their very nature, endocrine disruptors, and can lead to hormonal imbalance, and even inhibit thyroid enzymes and disrupt its function. 

What do I do?

There’s no easy answer and a lot of factors to consider. Your age, gender, current hormonal balance, health status and lifestyle are all very important. Educate yourself and decide whether it’s safe for you and your health needs.

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