Nutrition and DietPhytoestrogens: what they are, what they are for and where to find...

Phytoestrogens: what they are, what they are for and where to find them

Phytoestrogens are natural estrogens, which we find in certain foods of natural origin. But what are their main functions and what food sources are richest in them? We discover it for you.

The human body actually has 17 hormones whose existence is simply essential for the proper functioning of our body. Depending on the hormone we are dealing with, their functions will obviously be different, so that some are responsible for acting directly on the circulatory system, and others for accelerating metabolism or retaining sodium and water.

In the case of what are known as sex hormones, estrogens stand out along with progesterone for being one of the most popular hormones, especially by many women.  Why? Mainly because they are considered as female sex hormones, but the reality is that men also have them, although it is true that in smaller amounts.

Precisely, estrogens are the hormones responsible for female sexual characteristics, which begin to appear after the start of the first menstrual period from puberty, until the arrival of menopause.

Its functions? In addition to being responsible for the development of breast growth or the appearance of menstruation, they also prevent the bones from losing calcium, activate the production of HDL cholesterol (that is, they participate in the metabolism of fats), they have an important role in the production of collagen and help to maintain urinary frequency.

The female body, specifically her ovaries and adrenal glands, produce estrogens in greater amounts during the period of puberty, when sexual maturity begins in women. Then, the level of these hormones tends to remain more or less stable until the beginning of menopause, where there is a drastic decrease.

But we can also find those known as natural estrogens, named exactly by the name of  phytoestrogens. As its own name indicates, we are dealing with estrogens of natural origin.

What are phytoestrogens?

With the arrival of menopause in women, and what is known as andropause in men, it is necessary to choose to follow a balanced and adequate diet for the different disorders that tend to appear during this time of life.

Surely at many times you have heard or read about them, but do you really know what is behind these plant estrogens?

The phytoestrogens are chemical compounds found in certain foods of plant origin, becoming a real estrogen plant (or, what is the same, plant estrogens).

Although there is a great diversity of phytoestrogens, especially isoflavones (or flavonoids) and lignans stand out.

More specifically, they are chemical compounds present in certain foods of plant origin, which exert an action in the body quite similar to human estrogens, since their chemical activity is similar to that of animal hormones.

In nature we find precisely different phytoestrogens, which we distinguish especially in small amounts of foods such as legumes, cereals, vegetables and soybeans.

Where to find phytoestrogens? In what foods?

We find phytoestrogens only in certain foods of natural origin, and especially in small quantities, so that depending on the food or food group where we find it, they will in turn receive different names. They are as follows:

  • Lignans: we find them mainly in whole grains, legumes and flax seeds.
  • Cumestanos: we find them in beans, lentils and alfalfa.
  • Indoles: they are present in vegetables belonging to the cabbage family.
  • Isoflavones: they are probably the most popular and well-known. We find them mainly in soybeans, but also in green and black tea, in grapes and also in red clover.

In the particular case of isoflavones, they are the most similar to the estrogens produced by our body. And the food richest in isoflavones is soy (both soy and its derivative products such as tofu or soy sauce), since 100 grams of soy provide 300 mg. of isoflavones.

What are its main functions? What are they for?

Numerous studies have investigated the effects of phytoestrogens on health, especially highlighting –and as an example- the Asian population, which according to statistics has a lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and in women particularly menopausal disorders.

According to many of these studies, this lower incidence has been related to their diet, which is very rich in soy. In fact, the average isoflavone consumption in the Asian population is estimated to be around 55 mg. per day, when in the western population it is only 5 mg.

However, at the moment there is not enough scientific evidence to recommend how much isoflavones per day would help in the prevention of these diseases and conditions.

In any case, many of its benefits are known. We summarize them below:

  • They help reduce the symptoms of menopause, especially reducing the intensity of hot flashes.
  • Lowers high levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol).
  • Prevents cardiovascular diseases.
  • By having antioxidant action, it helps reduce or delay cellular aging.

On the other hand, it cannot be said categorically at the moment that phytoestrogens help prevent osteoporosis, since in the case of oriental women their incidence in this disorder is mainly due to the follow-up of a much healthier diet, in comparison with the western population.

 

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