Phytoestrogens are plant based compounds that convert in the gut to substances that have oestrogenic action. What that means during the perimenopause/menopause is that they can help balance out our oestrogen levels as they attach to oestrogen receptors on our cells, mimicking oestrogen. Although much weaker than oestrogen they offer enough oestrogenic qualities to ensure a more stable hormonal picture, when our own natural oestrogen production is in flux or reducing.
They can also be used therapeutically when oestrogen is dominant which can often happen to women in their 40s as progesterone levels start to fall. Phytoestrogens can in effect jump the cellular que and so have a modulating effect as they give out weaker oestrogenic qualities and the stronger ‘real’ oestrogen is then pushed down the path to be recycled and hopefully excreted. Reducing oestrogen dominance in this way can help to alleviate symptoms such as breast tenderness and heavy periods.
Most plant foods contain some phytoestrogens, but some plants offer more significant quantities. Eating a diet rich in a wide variety of plant based foods means you are guaranteed to reap the benefits in terms of hormonal health.
Aim to consume around 50mg per day of phytoestrogens. Asian women are known to consume anything between 20-80mg per day and report fewer menopausal symptoms. In Europe most women consume less than 10mg per day.
The best ways to get your daily phytoestrogen fix
- Consume Flaxseeds (Linseeds) on a daily basis. 1 tablespoon of linseed/flaxseed would give you around 35-40mg phytoestrogens, so aiming for 2 tablespoons a day is ideal. Flaxseeds are easy to add to your meals, grind them and sprinkle on porridge, add to smoothies or sprinkle on salads. They are also great to add to baked goods and can be a useful egg replacer in vegan baking; simply add one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds to 60ml water and leave to gel up (they have very mucilaginous qualities which means they help bind as an egg would). Grind in small amounts and store in the fridge in a glass jar to minimise oxidation. Flaxseeds are fantastic for digestive health and can be taken theraputicaly to ease constipation. Always ensure adequate hydration, when eating flaxseeds, so either soak them or make sure you have had plenty of water before eating.
- Another great, easy daily addition is sprouts, particularly Alfalfa. Add to salads and sandwiches. Sprouts are easy to grow at home, I show you how in this video:
Types of Phytoestrogen
- Isoflavones: Genistein found in soya, chickpeas and lentils
- Daidzein found in soya, chickpeas and lentils
- Biochanin A found in chickpeas and lentils
- Formononetin found in chickpeas and lentils
- Lignans: found in abundance in flaxseeds/linseeds
- Coumestans: found in alfalfa and mung bean sprouts
A note about soya: It has been observed that in countries with a high soya intake such as Japan that women have a much better experience of menopause. However many soya products available to us are very processed (such as soya milk) and possibly genetically modified. Consumed in excess they can in fact create unfavourable conditions in the body, affecting oestrogen balance and thyroid function. Fermented soya based foods such as miso and tempeh (the more traditional foods of Japan) can be enjoyed in moderation.
Phytoestrogens should be approached with caution if there is any history of oestrogen related cancers and it would be wise to consult with a physician before adding to your diet.