Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Breast Cancer Prevention Month: Phytoestrogens & The Fight Against Breast Cancer

Continuing on with breast cancer awareness month, I wanted to talk about phytoestrogens. I have already discussed how Xenoestrogens contribute to Estrogen Dominance and essentially breast cancer. By including phytoestrogens in your diet, you can help to decrease your incidence of estrogen dominance and help in the fight against breast cancer.
What are Phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are constituents of different plants that, in the body, bind to type II estrogen receptors and elicit a weak estrogenic response. Although it seems counterintuitive, by eating more phytoestrogens, it can decrease the amount of estrogen in the body. This is due to the fact that phytoestrogens bind to the estrogen receptor sites, blocking estrogen or Xenoestrogens from binding and having an effect. Even though phytoestrogens do elicit a weak estrogenic effect it is not as great as the one that estrogen or Xenoestrogens have. This helps to combat against Estrogen Dominance.
What Foods contain Phytoestrogens?
More than 300 different foods are shown to contain phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens can be broken down into three main classes:
  • Isoflavonoids: found in beans from the legume family, mainly soybeans.
  • Lignans: found in high fiber foods like cereal brans, beans and flax seeds.
  • Coumestans: found in alfalfa and clover sprouts and in various beans like split peas, pinto beans and lima beans.
Phytoestrogens and the Breast Cancer Debate
There has been an increasing amount of research being done on phytoestrogen and their relation to breast cancer. Many studies have shown that increased consumption of foods containing phytoestrogens lead to decreased risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer.
The amount of phytoestrogens that are excreted in the urine is a good representation of levels in the body. Higher levels of excreted lignans are correlated with a lower risk for breast cancer and women with breast cancer had significantly lower levels of lignans in their urine. The lignan found in flax seeds, secoisolariciresinol diglycoside (SDG), was shown to interfere with breast tumor formation. Isoflavonoids and lignans also have antioxidant properties, making them even more beneficial in the fight against cancer.
Phytoestrogens are not intended to be a treatment for breast cancer. If you are recovering from breast cancer and on the drug Tamoxifen or if you are on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and are interested in using phytoestrogens as a replacement contact your doctor before doing so.
Food is Medicine
Eating foods that contain phytoestrogens is the best way to take advantage of their healing properties. When phytoestrogens are isolated, concentrated and taken in pill form is when they become just as dangerous as hormone replacement therapy, in its ability to cause breast cancer. This is due to the fact that in food form, there are many other constituents that buffer the effects of phytoestrogens making them safe.
It is also very important to have healthy gut flora in order to take advantage of the phytoestrogens. The healthy gut flora helps to convert the inactive phytoestrogens into the active hormone. When you take antibiotics, it not only kills the bad bacteria but it kills the good bacteria as well, causing a decrease in excretion of phytoestrogens. One more reason to make sure your gut flora is flourishing with cultured foods like sauerkraut, miso soup, yogurt and cottage cheese. You can also take supplements. I prefer the liquid forms of probiotics. My body seems to respond well to it.
Phytoestrogens and Herbs
There are also many herbs that contain phytoestrogens. The food-like herbs are the safest to take and Susan Weed suggests taking 1 herb for about 3 month to get the full benefits. Such herbs include citrus peel, dandelion leaves or root, fenugreek, green tea, hops or red clover.
There are other herbs that contain phytoestrogens that are much stronger and should not be taken long term. These herbs include agave root, black cohosh, black currant, black haw, cramp bark, dang gui and wild yam.
Phytoestrogens are an important and valuable asset to the fight against breast cancer and all you have to do is to make sure you have healthy bacteria in your gut and include foods that contain phytoestrogens in your diet.
Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: the science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.
Wardlaw, G.M. (2003). Contemporary nutrition: issues and insights (5th ed). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Weed, S. S. (1996). Breast cancer? Breast health!: the wise woman way. Woodstock, N.Y.: Ash Tree Pub.