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Oestrogens and Phytoestrogens

by Valerie Marriott(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 34 - November 1998

To my meat-eating friends, I've become somewhat of a neurotic proselytiser – warning them of all the invisible carcinogens lurking in their prized filet mignon, and luring them toward ground flax seeds and tofu to protect them from a lifetime exposure to those awful hormones and pesticides in meat. No one has ever countered my argument by questioning the relative safety of a vegetarian diet – after all, everyone knows that vegetables are healthy. At least, we assume they are.


Plants have evolved to produce natural insecticides, but cultivation has resulted in a lowering of the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants – increasing the need for synthetic pesticides that are often toxic and carcinogenic in humans. Cultivated potatoes contain about one third the toxic glycoalkaloid content as their progenitor, Solanum Acaule – a potato that grows in the wild. Reduction in toxicity of edible plants through agriculture is documented in cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, lima beans, mangoes, and other legumes and vegetables.

Recently, a major grower introduced a strain of insect-resistant celery that led to several reports to the U.S. Center for Disease Control that the celery was linked to skin rashes and burns when consumers were exposed to sunlight.1–3 This celery was later found to contain 6,200 ppb of carcinogenic psoralens instead of the 800 ppb in normal celery, and is still available on the market. After millions of dollars in research was spent on a new pest-resistant strain of potato, it was withdrawn from the market due to toxic levels of solanine and chaconine, which inhibit cholinesterase and block nerve transmission, not unlike malathion – the main organophosphate pesticide residue in our diet. Many synthetic pesticides are known to target the very same receptors as their natural counterparts, provoking many of the same toxic and carcinogenic effects.

Whether the toxicity of our vegetables comes from nature or synthetic chemicals, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. The quarter of the population that eats the least amount of fruits and vegetables has double the rate of most cancers than the quarter of the population that eats the most fruits and vegetables. Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California at Berkeley concludes that synthetic pesticides may actually decrease the incidence of cancer by making massive cultivation more practical and prices of fruits and vegetables more affordable, "99.99 percent of the pesticides in the diet are naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators.4–5 Half of the natural pesticides tested – thirty-five of sixty-four – are rodent carcinogens. Reducing exposure to the .01 percent of pesticides that are synthetic, either individual chemicals or mixtures, will not appreciably reduce cancer rates. On the contrary, fruits and vegetables are important for reducing cancer; making them more expensive by reducing the use of synthetic pesticides is likely to increase cancer."

Many pesticides found in our food supply contribute to our cumulative exposure to toxins classified as environmental oestrogens – compounds that are of particular concern when weighing factors involved in the development of sex cell cancers, melanoma, osteoporosis and other menopausal symptoms, infertility, abnormalities in secondary sexual characteristics, and other oestrogen-mediated health problems. Environmental oestrogens – substances that act like oestrogen hormones in living organisms – include phytoestrogens that occur naturally in certain plants as well as synthetic chemicals used for specific commercial purposes or as a by-product of manufacturing. These, along with oestrogens produced by the body, need to be taken into consideration collectively when assessing certain health risks. Risks for breast and uterine cancer, for instance, are directly proportional to the length of time a woman has been exposed to higher levels of oestrogen – indicated by the age of onset of menstruation. Research demonstrates a marked decrease in the incidence of breast and prostate cancer in Asians who consume larger amounts of phytoestrogens, as well as a lower incidence of menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis.6 Asians who relocate and begin consuming a Western diet significantly increase these health risks. Increased risk for cancers and oestrogen-related problems are associated with other factors that contribute to the total load of toxic oestrogens, such as:

  • Maternal Exposure
  • Liver Function
  • Diet
  • Water Quality
  • Body Fat
  • Prescription Oestrogens
  • Living and Working Conditions
  • Genetic Predisposition.

Onset and Cessation of Menstruation

Studies clearly demonstrate the relationship between the term of exposure to high activity oestrogens produced in menstruating women and a higher risk factor for sex cell cancers,7–10 as well as the long term protective effect of hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, when the production of oestriol and progesterone is at its peak.9–11 Women produce oestradiol, oestrone, and oestriol; of these three oestrogens, oestradiol is the most potent and potentially carcinogenic and oestriol is the weakest and likely to be protective against oestrogen-mediated cancers. Women with a history of amenorrhea and pre-menstrual syndrome may be at higher risk due to associated lack of progesterone and relative excess oestrogen.

Considerations: Exposure to prescription oestrogens, like those found in the birth control pill compounds risks associated with the term of menstruation. Overweight women are known to produce higher amounts of oestrogen, even beyond the menopause, due to the role of aromatase in producing oestrogen in fat cells. Certain species of liquorice root contain oestriol, which may be concentrated with proper processing techniques and used preventatively in menstruating women who may be at risk or in menopausal women to control hot flushes and related symptoms.

Maternal Exposure

Investigating maternal use of diethylstilbestrol (DES), exposure to banned substances such as DDT, and other pertinent environmental factors is an important part of individual evaluation. Research demonstrates that long term effects from many toxic oestrogens are observed in offspring that have been exposed to these substances during foetal development and breast feeding. Although phytoestrogens consumed in reasonable amounts during pregnancy and fertile years don't seem to have any detrimental effects in offspring, there is evidence that consuming unusually large amounts may produce some side effects.12–15

Considerations: Although genetic alterations and structural abnormalities associated with maternal toxic oestrogen exposure cannot be corrected, consumption of protective phytoestrogens is indicated in men and women. The antioxidant and competitive inhibition properties of phytoestrogens may be of key importance in preventing cancers. Supporting hepatic detoxification of these compounds is helpful, as well as total endocrine evaluation due to the chain reaction that oestrogens present to pituitary, thyroid, and other glands.

Liver Function

Hepatic detoxification of toxic oestrogen metabolites and toxic environmental oestrogens is influenced by three primary factors: total exposure, genetic limitations, and nutritional status. Many of the genetic markers that are identified as indicators for breast and prostate cancer risk are directly related to the amount of hormone detoxifying enzymes that are produced by the liver. These limitations may be compensated for nutritionally through the use of nutrients that support these enzyme systems, like the amino acid L-methionine and vitamin B complex. Sulphur-rich foods like broccoli and bile stimulants such as lemon and bitter greens assist in detoxification, while drinking plenty of water and eating fibre (see diet section for details) is imperative to prevent already metabolised hormones from recirculating.

Considerations: With the popularisation of natural hormone replacement, many people have the tendency to disregard the importance of ridding the body of toxic hormones. Using safer, natural hormones is great, but without supporting the liver and other detox mechanisms, it's like adding clean water to a bathtub that still contains dirty water – we need to drain the tub.


Addressing the diet is the most immediate way to assess and alter key risk factors associated with oestrogens. Non-organic meats and dairy products are a primary source of hormones that are used to increase the volume of product per animal. Pesticides used on feed are stored in the fat of these animal products, making meat and milk a source of concentrated toxic oestrogens. Eliminating non-organic animal products and replacing them with phytoestrogen rich foods like soy and other beans, bean sprouts, whole grains, carrots, potatoes, garlic, parsley, dates, pomegranates, cherries, and apples will make a tremendous difference in the net effect of oestrogens in the diet. Lignan fibre in flax seeds is greatly beneficial both as a source of fibre, which assists in absorption and excretion of toxic oestrogens and as a source of phytoestrogens. The lignans also support a healthy balance of bacteria within the gut – an important factor in responding properly to phytoestrogens. Much of the research on the benefits of soy phytoestrogens excludes subjects that have been on antibiotic therapy within 6 months of the studies due to the integral role of healthy gut bacteria in converting inactive isoflavones into protective phytoestrogens. For this reason, supplementation with a multi-strain acidophilus may potentiate phytoestrogen therapy. Consuming sulphur-rich foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, onions, and garlic provides support for hepatic detoxification.

Considerations: As exposure to dietary oestrogens (toxic and non-toxic) has long-term ramifications, it is important to examine the dietary history over a lifetime in order to assign proper weight to this risk factor.

Water Quality

As our consumption of oestrogens has increased, so has the urinary excretion of these oestrogens contributed to contamination of our water supply. This, in combination with oestrogenic pesticide runoff into our water systems, creates hazards not only in drinking water, but in lakes and ponds that we swim in. Chlorine, used for controlling microbes, is converted to metabolites that produce an oestrogenic effect, and may manifest not only by drinking, but inhaling steam in the shower. Ideally, bottled water should be consumed from glass containers, as oestrogens readily leach into the water from plastic containers, particularly at higher temperatures.

Considerations: It is not only quality, but quantity that is important in maximising the excretion of oestrogens through the kidneys. Once the liver has done its job to convert oestrogens from a fat to water soluble form, we must have adequate water to flush them out through the kidneys. Experts recommend a half of an ounce of high quality water per pound of body weight per day. Beware of pre-packaged drinks that are made with water of unknown origin.

Body Fat

People with higher body fat produce more oestrogen via the aromatase enzyme that is active in fat cells to the extent that some menopausal women may actually produce more oestrogen after menopause than they did before. Body fat acts as a storage house for toxic oestrogens, which have a tendency to be stored there if not properly metabolised. This tendency has been cited for breast related problems, including breast cancer and fibrocystic disease in women and gynecomastia in men. When embarking on a weight loss programme, an overweight person needs to be particularly aware of supporting the detoxification of oestrogens that may be released from fat cells during weight loss. Raising the body temperature through exercise, hot tubs, and saunas provide an excellent means of sweating out bad oestrogens and other toxins.

Considerations: In cases of unexplained weight gain, or lack of proper response to thyroid hormone, the influence of oestrogens ought to be considered. Oestrogens inhibit proper cellular response to thyroid hormone (T3), thereby lowering metabolism.

Prescription Oestrogens

The use of birth control pills, and other prescription oestrogens is clearly related to an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancers. The longer an individual has used prescription oestrogens, the greater her risk for developing sex cell cancers. Depending on metabolic limitations, it may take years to completely metabolise many of these substances. Fortunately, there are safe and effective alternatives to ERT for menopausal women, which employ specific phytoestrogens and other natural compounds that work to control menopausal symptoms. These compounds are not only effective in controlling symptoms of menopause, such as hot flushes, anxiety, and osteoporosis, but they are often effective in treating PMS and other symptoms of oestrogen dominance.

Considerations: The use of synthetic progestins, which often accompany ERT and birth control pills, exacerbates many of the side effects associated with excess oestrogen and may further interfere with endocrine function. The use of topical natural progesterone seems to protect against many of these side effects.

Living and Working Conditions

Exposure to industrial and household pollutants is common among those who work in agriculture or in industries that use these toxic chemicals, and among those who live near farms and industrial areas where oestrogenic substances are often dumped into the environment. Specifically, toxic run-off from farmers' fields is associated with higher localised incidence of many different cancers, as well as lowered fertility and interruption of proper secondary sexual characteristic development. Alligators living in Lake Apopka, Florida represent a classic example of the effects of environmental oestrogens. Ten years following a nearby chemical spill involving dicofol, DDT and its metabolites DDD, DDE, and chloro-DDT, alligator populations were dwindling due to an unusually high mortality rate among eggs and new-borns and twice the normal oestrogen levels. Severe ovarian abnormalities were found in females, and feminisation of males was indicated by smaller than normal penises, abnormal testes, and higher oestrogen and lower testosterone levels than normal. Male fish living near sewage outlets in England were found to have developed both male and female characteristics, especially due to the presence of breakdown products of detergents and plastics.

Considerations: Environmental influences on disease and infertility are often confused with heredity. Families are typically exposed to identical toxins when residing in the same household; these toxins may lead to a variety of effects among members of the household. If a person develops health problems associated with these exposures, changing jobs and/or residence may be advised. If this is not practical, taking simple measures like eliminating consumption of tap water and supporting detox mechanisms may be helpful.

Genetic Predisposition

Although genetic tests for predisposition to breast and prostate cancers have been devised, they are not generally available. However, genetic predisposition may be inferred according to family history. Since genetic predisposition is not an absolute predictor, the influence of diet, exercise, nutritional supplementation, and caution with respect to drug-based HRT may be employed to help to counteract the weight of familial history. Genetic predisposition is often associated with a lower production of enzymes responsible for detoxifying toxic hormones, a factor that may be compensated for nutritionally.

Considerations: Aside from supplementation with protective antioxidant vitamins, it may be worthwhile to supplement with a high potency phytoestrogen product. Although many of these products are marketed to women for female-related problems, many of them offer chemo-protective effects for men as well.


Researchers suspect that there is a compounded effect when a variety of toxic environmental and endogenous oestrogens are introduced to the bloodstream. This adds a complexity to the issue of environmental oestrogens of which we have barely scratched the surface. Nuclear oestrogen receptors make us particularly vulnerable to alterations in DNA induced by toxic oestrogens, making competitive inhibition of these oestrogens a key issue in addressing health risks. As we are now able to identify similarities among natural plant toxins, synthetic chemicals, and protective plant compounds, like phytoestrogens, we may begin to tip the scales in our favour.

Our vegetables inherently come with a mixed bag of natural and synthetic carcinogens, but nature has balanced the natural ones with antioxidants and phytoestrogens that protect against cancers and other health problems. As industrialisation seems to be working against us by exposing us to many new and unavoidable toxic oestrogens, it has also improved our ability to identify and concentrate the very substances that nature provides for us to defend ourselves. Until we find more ways to reduce environmental contamination, I'll keep eating my broccoli, tofu, and brown rice – but I'll probably pop a phytoestrogen tablet with dessert!

Environmental Oestrogens are not necessarily alike in molecular structure, making it difficult to predict which chemicals will fall into this category. Since the accuracy of many tests is limited, new tests are currently being developed. Unfortunately, the oestrogen activity of many substances is not suspected until severe damage to humans and wildlife has already taken place – this is the case with DES, DDT, and other compounds that have repercussions that cross generational barriers as they are often passed on from mother to child during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Toxic Oestrogens include:
• Pesticides (herbicides and insecticides such as o,p'-DDT, endosulfan, dieldrin, methoxychlor, kepone, dicofol, toxaphene and chlordane)
• Plastic Products (bisphenol A), capable of leaching into food products from packaging materials
• Pharmaceuticals (drug oestrogens, birth control pills, DES, cimetidine)
• Household Products (breakdown products of detergents and other surfactants such as nonylphenol and octylphenol)
• Industrial Chemicals (polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)).

According to the Clinician...

The Role of Novel Phytoestrogen and Progestogen Therapy in the Menopausal Patient
Dr. B.W. Gushleff

Since menopausal women are experiencing symptoms at earlier ages and their lifespan has increased, clinicians are faced with the dilemma of how to balance the risk to benefit ratio of HRT. It is this dilemma which prompted me to seek other choices for my patients. A thoroughly studied natural approach in menopausal therapy is a novel complex of natural progestogens and phytoestrogens standardised to specific phytogenin markers. This compound showed remarkable hormone modulating effects. One particular marker has been identified to be structurally identical to oestriol. Oestriol is produced by the human body as a metabolite of oestradiol-(17b), the primary female oestrogen.
An eight month study of 381 menopausal patients between the ages of 47 and 69 was conducted at the Women's Center in St. Louis, Missouri. This complex produced clear improvement of menopausal symptoms in over 87% of the patients within three weeks. In an open study, 381 patients' symptoms improved, both physical and psychological, as follows:
Hot Flushes 92% Profuse Perspiration 88%
Nervousness and Irritability 88%
Depressive Moods 88%
Sleep Disturbances 89%
Headaches 87%
Vertigo 90%
Heart Palpitations 90%

This complex has been shown to produce symptomatic relief comparable to that of HRT without risk of serious side effects. It appears to be a safe and effective treatment for the physical and psychological symptoms of menopause. Many of the participants in this study were women who exhibited intolerance or whose symptoms were previously uncontrolled with 0.625 mg conjugated oestrogen and 5 mg progestin.
Beyond the first three weeks of this study, continued improvement was noted in all areas of assessment. In addition, patients reported increased libido, reduced anxiety and depression, improved sense of well-being, and significant increase in vaginal moisture.

According to the Pharmacologist

SERM: Can the latest in pharmaceutical technology mimic plant oestrogens effectively?
Pharmacologist James Jamieson

Pharmaceutical research is racing toward the next generation of HRT-selective oestrogen receptor-response modulators (SERMs). These substances activate oestrogen in some types of cells, but not others – allowing a desired outcome to take place, while minimising unwanted effects. Human studies substantiate the notion that this goal can be achieved by supplementing with a complement of plant-derived molecules that takes into account the cascade of biological function. Phytomolecules, including phytoestrogens and specific enzymes, provide a broad-spectrum approach to modulation of endocrine activity. Largely overlooked is the fact that the biologically active structures of effective plant-derived materials are highly distinctive. That is, not just any flavonoid or phytoestrogen will work to produce a desired outcome.


1 Beier, R.C., (1990) Reviews of Environmental Contamination, ed. Ware, G.W. (Springer-Verlag, New York), PP. 47-137.
2 Berkley, S.F., Hightower, A.W., Beier, R.C., Fleming, D.W., Brokopp, C.D., Ivie, G.W., Broome, C.V. (1986) Ann. Intern. Med. 105: 351-355.
3 Seligman, P.J., Mathias, C.G.T., O’Malley, M.A., Beier, R.C., Fehrs, L.J., Serrill, W.S., Halperin, W.E. (1987) Arch.Dermatol. 123: 1478-1482.
4 Ames, B.N., Gold, L.S. , Causes and Prevention of Cancer: Gaining Perspective. Environ Health Perspect, Lovelace Conference, Nov. 14, 1996.
5 Ames, B.N., Gold, L.S., Environmental Pollution, Pesticides, and the Prevention of Cancer: Misconceptions, Life Sciences Forum, modified from testimony (March 6, 1997) for the U.S. Senate Hearing on Environmental Risk Factors for Cancer.
6 Aldercreutz, H., Environ Health Perspect 103(Suppl 7): 103-112 (1995).
7 Cowan, L.D., et al (1981) Am J Epidemiol 114: 209-217.
8 Bervikst, L., et al (1989) N Engl J Med 321: 293-297.
9 Vecchia, C.L., et al (1986) Int J Cancer 38: 853-858.
10 Chang, K.J., et al (1995) Fertility and Sterility 63: 785-791.
11 Henderson, B.E., et al (1982) Cancer Research 42: 3232-3239.
12 Leopold, A.S., et al (1976) Science 191: 98-100.
13 Bennets, H.W., et al (1946) Australian Veterinary Journal 22: 2-12.
14 Whitten, P., et al (1993) Biology of Reproduction 49: 1117-21.
15 Makela, S., et al (1995) Environ Health Perpect 103(suppl.7): 123-127. 


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About Valerie Marriott

Valerie Marriott is the author of an array of educational materials in the natural medicine field, and host of “Natural Medicine Update”, a daily radio program and nationally syndicated television show in the U.S. She has researched, written, and lectured on several natural therapies, including dietary supplementation and natural hormone replacement for men and women. Her books include, Growth Hormone: Reversing Human Aging Naturally (LNN) and the forthcoming Good Estrogens, Bad Estrogens (LNN).
Please Note: The “novel complex” referred to in Dr. Gushleff’s contribution is known proprietarily as ProEstron™, and is manufactured in the U.S. by Nutraceutics Corporation and distributed in the U.K. by NutraPharm.

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