Dear reader(s), I feel motivated to continue writing for a bit about food. Which is medicine, and vice versa. On today’s menu: phytoestrogens.
Estrogens are all over the health news, in two forms: estrogens (the endogenous hormones made by your own body, which I shall call “endoestrogens” for clarity) and xenoestrogens (literally “foreign” estrogens–chemicals that act like estrogen once inside your body). Phytoestrogens are technically xenoestrogens for us humans, in that they aren’t made by our own bodies but by plants, later to be ingested by us. Other xenoestrogens may be synthetic or may be made by the bodies of other humans and animals.
Hormones and the endocrine system are very complicated things, and I’m not a doctor–I don’t even play one on TV. But I do know this, in part learned through bitter experience–if you mess with one part of the system it’s likely to affect all the other parts because all the hormones and glands that make them or signal some other gland to make them are interconnected. It’s a little bit like pulling a loose thread on a sweater–next thing you know, you’re standing in a pile of yarn.
Super-simple crash course in traditional Western medical energetics
In my last post I mentioned that there is a long tradition in Western healing of viewing the body in terms of toxification and detoxification. Of course, there is also a tradition, going at least as far back as the Greeks, which regards the body in terms of its constituent elements, specifically air, water, fire, and earth. Each element was represented by a bodily fluid, or humor: air = blood, water = phlegm, yellow bile a.k.a. choler = fire, black bile a.k.a. melancholia = earth. When these elements/humors were in balance the body was in a state of health. My point here is that if you look back to the earliest Western texts we have about health and healing, harmony among the various constituents of the body was considered health. As far as that goes, I don’t think anyone would disagree today, but of course ideas about what the constituents of the body are vary widely among cultures and through time. I surmise the tox/detox dichotomy which is so popular today in Western alternative medicine is a distilled-down version of the observation that external substances can mess with the body’s harmony. In Chinese medicine, there is the concept of “wind invasion” which in the same way can screw up your body’s homeostasis.
Again, I don’t think anyone would dispute that things from outside the body can enter and throw it out of whack. This could be germs, chemicals, hormones, or even physical objects. The body is not an impermeable mass but is full of holes, and at the molecular level you would see a constant exchange with the environment around us. I do think, however, that the notion of detoxification has become greatly oversimplified and is applied in a very vague way. Some people are convinced their bodies are full of unnamed toxins and that they need to purge or detox on a regular basis; without attention to nourishment, detoxing itself could throw the body out of whack. The lymphatics, liver, and kidneys do a pretty amazing job of cleaning out even the huge amount of pollution we confront everyday–at least in a robust body. An already compromised body is another matter.
Xenoestrogens vs. endoestrogens
Xenoestrogens could be considered a form of “toxin,” although I don’t like that term because at least for the phytoestrogens, there’s nothing inherently bad about them. They may even be very helpful for estrogen-deficient people. But if the level of xenoestrogens is extremely high, or if the body is already compromised by excess estrogen–for example in “estrogen-dominant” women–it becomes a poison. The reason xenoestrogens are in the news a lot lately is that it turns out we ingest a LOT of them: a study by Consumers Union found that a single serving of several popular canned foods (e.g., soup) contained between 20 and 115 times the safe daily intake level of Bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor found in plastics. The main sources of xenoestrogens as I understand it are:
- Birth control pills
- Other people’s birth control, and a bunch of other stuff, in your water (your Brita doesn’t remove the hormones)
- Factory-farmed meat
- Certain plants (phytoestrogens)
I am not going to attempt to explain all the things estrogen does in the body because I’m not qualified and because this a blog, not a medical textbook. Suffice to say for our purposes that even endoestrogens can become a problem when they are out of balance with other hormones. Specifically in the case of “estrogen dominance,” which is a relative or absolute excess of estrogen vs. progesterone. A couple of major contributors to this imbalance (though by no means the only ones) are:
- Fat (which has a weird sneaky hormone-secreting agenda of its own)
There is controversy over whether estrogen-dominant women should avoid phytoestrogens or partake liberally; some think that phytoestrogens will bind to estrogen receptors and effectively block endoestrogen from being received, so the excess endoestrogen will be flushed by the liver. Others say (and I’m in this camp) that if you have excess estrogen, you don’t need any more. Period. Give your body a break and don’t make more work for your liver, it’s plenty busy. But this will vary for each individual. And as pointed out on the Paleo for Women blog (a good source of info I discovered while researching the paleo diet–more here), some people are more sensitive than others to xenoestrogens.
My focus from here on is phytoestrogens, so let’s move on to…
I don’t want to bury the lead here but I’m going to jump ahead to my main point because it will deserve repeating:
Seeds are the main source of phytoestrogens.
Ok? Easy peasy. Some other plants have them too, but seeds are the biggest offenders. BUT REMEMBER–seeds actually make up a big part of our diet! Grains, sweet corn, legumes, and nuts are all seeds. And remember that legumes include not only peas, beans, and lentils but alfalfa, clover, and peanuts as well. Though I’m no botanist, it makes sense to me that seeds would be high in estrogenic hormones, because they are the female part of the plant, equivalent to the ovum in a mammal.
Actually-not-irrelevant sidebar: Did you know that technically a female is a member of a sexually-reproducing species (this includes most land plants) who produces a relatively small number of high-nutrient sex cells? And a male is the member (heh heh heh) who produces a relatively large number of low-nutrient sex cells. “Sex” cells in that when they unite, they produce the foundation for a new individual. In mammals, female sex cells are ova, male sex cells are sperm; in plants, female sex cells are seeds, male sex cells are pollen. Female sex cells are full of nutrition that the developing embryo will need in order to grow. This nutrition comes from the mother’s own body, which makes such cells relatively “expensive” to produce. That is, the female needs enough nutrition for her own body plus the sex cell (a.k.a. zygote), and since the zygote is expensive, she doesn’t make many of them (relatively speaking). On the other hand, male zygotes (sperm, pollen, etc.) don’t require much of the male’s nutritional resources and so are called “inexpensive.” Because they are inexpensive, many can be produced. Of course, gender is a whole ‘nother matter entirely and I have already digressed enough for today.
So if a seed is, effectively, the egg that will nourish a growing plant, it makes sense that it might contain hormones designed to do that. I’m not quite sure how estrogen works in that regard, all I know is individuals who make eggs or seeds have more of it, so I am hypothesizing that it’s probably related. If my hypothesis is correct though, I’d expect chicken eggs to have some estrogen, though I can’t find much info on that.
Other plants contain phytoestrogens, but not in the large quantities that seeds do. In fact, I’ve been compiling a list of phytoestrogenic foods and honestly, it doesn’t leave much left to eat. So it will be up to each individual to determine how much phytoestrogen their body can process. Maybe you’ll be fine just cutting out soy products and flax; maybe you’ll have to avoid all seeds; maybe even something more drastic. I know that if you try to eliminate all these foods, your diet will probably get really really boring really really fast.
Here’s my list of phytoestrogenic foods so far:
- All seeds (= wheat, rye, barley, sweet corn/maize, oats, rice, sorghum, quinoa, beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, tree nuts, flax, sesame, sunflower seeds, canola/rapeseed, soy)–this includes all oils, proteins, milks, butters, flours, etc. made from these plants. Not sure about high fructose corn syrup–it is made from a seed, but corn is one of the less phytoestrogenic seeds. Still I would assume it has some phytoestrogens.
- Non-seedy parts of legumes (alfalfa, clover, bean sprouts)
- Royal jelly
- Non-pastured meat (definitely contains synthetic xenoestrogens, probably contains phytoestrogens)
- Non-organic dairy (definitely contains synthetic xenoestrogens, probably contains phytoestrogens)
- Yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes
- Cannabis (yep, even the smoke, even secondhand)
- Olive oil
- Apricots (especially dried)
- Plums (especially prunes)
- Collard greens
- Evening primrose
- Dong quai
- Licorice root
- Milk thistle
The list of foods that appears to be free of phytoestrogens is pretty short (based on my research so far):
- Organic, pasture-finished meat
- Organic, free-range chicken that has not been fed soy
- Seafood (fresh- and saltwater)
- Sea vegetables
If it’s not on one of these lists, then I haven’t heard that it has phytoestrogens, but I can’t be 100% sure. With regard to meat, even if it is organic you have to consider that feed-lot beef is finished on corn–something cattle do not naturally eat and indeed cannot fully digest–so even if that corn-finished beef hasn’t been given growth hormones it could still be more estrogenic than pasture-finished beef. And I recently discovered that corn-finished beef can still be labeled “grass-fed,” which is a bit disingenuous considering that ALL cattle eat SOME grass during their lifetime, but it’s those last weeks in the feedlot that are so bad for them and us, and are precisely what consumers are trying to avoid when buying “grass-fed.”
There are two very important points I want to emphasize here:
- Please do not become malnourished or make yourself miserable by trying to avoid the entire list of plants containing phytoestrogens! Use common sense. Many things on the list are really good for you in other ways and fill your palate with joy and rainbows. I’ll tell you this for free–the day I can’t eat a tomato is the day I end it all. But I digress…If you do not have a problem of estrogen excess or dominance–and you might only know if you do something like a saliva hormone panel, not a single blood test–you are perfectly fine to eat phytoestrogens and they will not mess up your endocrine system because they are much weaker than your endoestrogens.
- If you don’t know where to start, you can probably make a huge impact on your health just by cutting out soy and refined sugars, investing in a really expensive but really effective water filter, getting moderate exercise, and meditating*. I’m not saying that will cure everything that ails you but I think it would put you on the path to regaining hormonal balance. (Watch out for sneaky soy, which is in almost every kind of processed food nowadays.)
Well, there you have it my friends. There is so much more to know about this topic, but I hope I’ve at least helped you decide whether this warrants further research. I don’t know about you, but I find the topics of health and nutrition can sometimes really stress me out. It’s very frustrating when you realize that you don’t even know all the different chemicals you’re ingesting, let alone have control over it. Sometimes you just have to cross your fingers, grit your teeth, and hope for the best with the limited information you’ve got. It doesn’t help when uninformed but usually judgmental people say that, e.g., losing weight is just a matter of eating fewer calories than you burn, or that you won’t have adrenal burnout if you just exercise more. If the human body were only that simple! If we could only trust in regulators and food producers to have our health at heart! But as I was recently reminded, this is a journey, not a destination. The important thing is to not give up. It’s your health; if you don’t stand up for it, no one else will.
*Stress causes your body to hijack its own progesterone for making cortisol–when chronic, it’s a vicious cyle that leads to both adrenal burnout and estrogen dominance.