Phytoestrogens: Best Foods, Supplements, and Benefits

Fact-checked article based on science

Phytoestrogens | Estrogen | Menopause | Benefits | Side Effects | Best Foods | Supplements | Conclusion | FAQ | Studies

This article will teach you how phytoestrogens work and where to find the best phytoestrogen foods and supplements.

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What Are Phytoestrogens in Food?

Phytoestrogens are active ingredients found in plants.

Since they occur naturally in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and herbs, chances are you have already ingested phytoestrogens (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 20191).

Phyto is Greek and means plant.

Plants contain different families of natural compounds with weak estrogenic effects on mammals like humans. These phytoestrogens include (Dixon 20042Sirtori et al. 20053):

  • Flavonoids and isoflavonoids
  • Stilbenes
  • Coumestans
  • Lignans

Phytoestrogens vs. Estrogen

Although phytoestrogens originate from plants, they can affect the body like estrogen.

Estrogen is known as the primary sex hormone in women. Nevertheless, estrogen is also naturally produced in males, where they are just as instrumental to health.

Women

The steroid hormone is crucial for female reproductive organs and developing female sexual characteristics.

However, its roles in the female body extend far beyond sexuality (Delgado et al. 20224):

  • Growth of the internal and external female sexual organs
  • Thickening of the endometrium in preparation for pregnancy
  • Promotion of cognitive thinking ability (Hara et al. 20155).
  • Regulation of appetite, body fat distribution, insulin, blood glucose, and blood lipids (Mauvais-Jarvis et al. 20136).
  • Development of breast and mammary gland tissue
  • Bone Mineralization

This latter function raises concerns that phytoestrogens may lead to unwanted breast growth in men.

Cruciferous vegetables are rich in phytoestrogens

Men

One of the primary functions of estrogen in men is to ensure sexual functioning (Pentikäinen et al. 20007).

The sex hormone plays an essential role in the breakdown, buildup, and especially distribution of fat in the body in all humans (Frank et al. 20198).

Accordingly, excessive estrogen levels in men can cause the following (Davidge-Pitts et al. 20229):

  • Loss of sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction (ED)
  • Infertility
  • Breast growth (gynecomastia)

When there is too little estrogen in men, it can lead to the buildup of abdominal fat and low sexual desire. Hence, estrogen levels must be regulated within a healthy range in men and women.

In this context, people often forget that phytoestrogens from foods cannot directly increase or decrease estrogen levels.

Although phytoestrogens have a structure similar to estrogen, their estrogenic effect is much weaker.

On the other hand, animal foods such as milk or butter may contain true estrogens, but these amounts are so minimal that their effect is negligible.

Phytoestrogens and Menopause

Fluctuations in estrogen levels can cause physical and emotional discomfort during perimenopause.

Because of their hormone-regulating effects, phytoestrogens have made a name for themselves as a natural remedy for menopausal symptoms. Their health benefits show us how they can help.

Health Benefits of Phytoestrogens

Because of their structure, phytoestrogens can bind to the same receptors as estrogen and cause similar changes (Desmawati et al. 201910).

Researchers attribute a unique effect to phytoestrogens (Hwang et al. 200611Poluzzi et al. 201412):

According to researchers, the health benefits of phytoestrogen-rich foods outweigh the benefits of isoflavones (Patisaul et al. 201013):

  • Menopause: isoflavones and lignans may help against hormone-related menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes or vaginal dryness (Messina 201414Lambert et al. 201715Franco et al. 201616). Phytoestrogen-rich herbs have even been implicated as libido-enhancing alternatives to hormone replacement therapies after menopause (Heirati et al. 202117Oh et al. 200418).
  • PMS: Scientists consider phytoestrogen-rich herbs effective in treating breast pain (Carmichael 200819).
  • Skin: Apigenin is a flavonoid found particularly in herbs. Scientists suggest this phytoestrogen may help with hormone-related acne, PMS, and menopausal symptoms (Rani et al. 201320).
  • Bones: Animal studies state that phytoestrogens from foods can increase bone health and alleviate osteoporosis (El Wakf et al. 201421Mukherjee et al. 200422Mukherjee et al. 200623).
  • Blood glucose: Phytoestrogens may have blood glucose regulating effects and therefore play a role in diabetes prevention (Glisic et al. 201824).
  • Blood lipids: In one study, phytoestrogen-rich foods were able to help postmenopausal women improve blood lipid levels in addition to their sex hormone status (Wu et al. 200625).
  • Cardiovascular disease: Besides their antioxidant properties, scientists also say phytoestrogens positively affect heart health, especially in the fight against atherosclerosis (Sobenin et al. 201626).
  • Breast cancer: numerous studies state that phytoestrogen-rich foods containing lignans are an effective and safe dietary strategy to prevent breast cancer (Calado et al. 201827Fowke et al. 200028).
Berries and seeds a rich in phytoestrogens

Possible Side Effects of Phytoestrogens

Some people worry that phytoestrogens may disrupt their hormone balance. Ultimately, they are called endocrine disruptors because of their hormone-like effects.

However, a review of human studies concludes that there are few starting points for potentially harmful side effects of phytoestrogens (Patisaul et al. 201029).

Can Phytoestrogens Cause Cancer?

The effects of natural phytoestrogen-containing foods are often overestimated. Accordingly, some people’s health concerns are as well.

While there are rumors phytoestrogens could be carcinogenic, a recent scientific review says the opposite.

Contrary to popular belief, scientists concluded that phytoestrogens protect against, rather than cause endometrial, colon, and breast cancers (Rowe et al. 202030).

Do Phytoestrogens Cause Breast Growth (in Men)?

When phytoestrogens are mentioned, men are primarily concerned about fertility and breast growth.

However, according to studies, these concerns appear to be exaggerated.

While excessive levels of estrogen in men can lead to infertility and breast growth, no human studies exist that could attribute these abilities to phytoestrogens.

Even supplementing 40 mg of phytoestrogens per day over two months could not harm male sperm quality or volume (Mitchell et al. 200131).

Furthermore, it seems unrealistic that eating broccoli or strawberries could lead to breast growth in men.

Instead, men who want to lose body fat on the chest should consider a hormone-regulating diet such as the keto diet.

Which Foods Are High in Phytoestrogens?

Polyphenols that can exert estrogenic effects are present in the following categories of foods (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 201932):

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Legumes
  • Herbs

So let’s take a detailed look at which natural foods are rich in phytoestrogens.

Best Phytoestrogen Foods

Here are the ten best phytoestrogen-rich foods to help you regulate estrogen levels naturally.

1. Sesame Seeds

Sesame seeds are the richest natural source of lignans (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 201933).

In addition, researchers suggest that the active compounds in sesame seeds may improve bone health (El Wakf et al. 201434).

Like flax seed, sesame oil is not heat resistant and should not be used for frying.

Buy it on Amazon: Sesame Seeds (100% organic, affiliate link)

2. Flax Seeds

Like sesame seeds, flax seeds are packed with lignans (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 201935).

Tip: If you grind flaxseeds fresh (e.g., in a pepper mill), the bioavailability (absorption by the body) of lignans increases significantly (Kujisten et al. 200536).

Moreover, flaxseeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, they also help improve blood pressure, lipid levels, inflammation, and insulin resistance (Faintuch et al. 200737Mandaşescu et al. 200538Kawakami et al. 201539Bloedon et al. 200440).

On the other hand, polyunsaturated fatty acids are also why linseed oil can oxidize even at low temperatures. It would be best if you didn’t use it for cooking.

Buy it on Amazon: Flax Seeds (100% organic, affiliate link)

3. Broccoli

Cruciferous vegetables always help regulate estrogen levels. They help with high estrogen levels in the reproductive years and low estrogen levels after menopause (Poluzzi et al. 201441).

This remarkable effect of phytoestrogens is particularly noticeable in broccoli, as it is that vegetable that contains the most lignans (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 201942).

4. Brussels Sprouts

After broccoli, brussels sprouts are those cruciferous vegetables that contain the most lignans (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 201943).

In addition, you can also find coumestans in them (Poluzzi et al. 201444).

Moreover, they are the sulfur-rich food with the highest concentration of active compounds that can protect against cardiovascular and brain diseases (Zhang et al. 201145Sun et al. 201746).

5. Cabbage

Finishing off the cruciferous family is the versatile cabbage itself.

Sauerkraut, red cabbage, and white cabbage are rich in phytoestrogens, such as lignans and coumestans

 (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 201947Poluzzi et al. 201448Ju et al. 200049).

6. Fennel

Fennel is a major natural source of flavonoids (Ghazanfarpour et al. 201750).

A systematic meta-analysis of studies attributes fennel with the ability to alleviate the following complaints (Khadivzadeh et al. 201851):

  • Painful sexual intercourse and decreased libido
  • Vaginal itching and dryness
  • Hot flashes and sweats
  • Sleep problems

7. Garlic

Due to its versatility, garlic should not be missing from any pantry. This fact applies to health as well as culinary.

Studies on rats have shown several times that the phytoestrogens in garlic can alleviate osteoporosis (Mukherjee et al. 200452Mukherjee et al. 200653).

8. Miso

Soy is the richest source of isoflavones (Bacciottini et al. 200754).

However, in 2013, about 93 percent of soy in the United States was already genetically modified. Therefore, soy is, ahead of corn, the absolute leader in genetically modified foods (USDA 201455).

Moreover, the legume contains a variety of antinutrients, such as lectins or phytic acid, which are harmful to the gut and inhibit nutrient absorption (Gibson et al. 201056).

But fermentation is a method to reduce the health drawbacks while strengthening the benefits. One example is miso – a fermented soybean paste often used in soups and sauces.

Through miso, you can benefit from the concentrated load of phytoestrogens while minimizing the health drawbacks of soy (Morito et al. 201057).

Buy it on Amazon: Miso Paste (100% organic, affiliate link)

9. Tempeh

Also, tempeh is a fermented soy product.

However, unlike tofu, tempeh uses the whole soybean. The result is fewer contaminants and more protein, vitamins, and minerals.

So you can benefit more healthily from soy isoflavones, which can help with hormone-related hot flashes and boost cognitive thinking (Messina 201458Handajani et al. 202059).

Buy it on Amazon: Tempeh (100% organic, affiliate link)

10. Strawberries

Last but not least comes dessert, among the best phytoestrogen-rich foods.

While people overestimate the presence in most berries, strawberries stand out with 6.2 mg of lignans per 100 g (RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a et al. 201960).

Despite their sweet taste, strawberries are low in carbohydrates and are among the few keto-friendly fruits.

Best Phytoestrogen Supplements with Herbs

Regular readers of my blog know that I always prefer natural foods over optional supplements.

However, especially with PMS and menopausal symptoms, there are situations where women reach out for help with relief.

Since synthetic supplements have a bad reputation due to possible side effects, it makes sense to stick as close to natural foods as possible.

That’s why here’s a list of the best phytoestrogen supplements without hormones that you can buy online (affiliate links):

Organic Fenugreek Capsules:

According to this study on 80 women, pure organic fenugreek extract is just the thing to give both hormone balance and sexual desire a push (Rao et al. 201561).

Ginkgo Biloba Capsules:

According to researchers, this ginkgo biloba extract may provide a natural alternative to hormone replacement therapies for postmenopausal women (Oh et al. 200462).

Chasteberry Extract:

Studies suggest that the apigenin in chasteberry extract may help with breast pain and increase libido in menopausal women (Carmichael 200863Heirati et al. 202164).

Angelica Capsules:

Because of its estrogen-like effects, Chinese angelica or Dong Quai has been used for centuries to relieve hot flashes and other symptoms of PMS and menopause (Lau et al. 200565Kelley et al. 201066).

Natural Menopause Supplement:

Besides Dong Quai and chasteberry this menopausal supplement also contains red clover extract, whose phytoestrogens are known to help with menopause-related hot flashes (Lambert et al. 201767Jenabi et al. 201868).

Conclusion

There is a way to maximize the health benefits of phytoestrogens while minimizing your potential side effects: eat natural, unprocessed foods.

Eating coleslaw hasn’t thrown anyone’s hormone balance out of whack so far. However, if you are considering supplements, choose them wisely, as explained above.

The best way to regulate your hormones naturally is to live your lifestyle accordingly!

If you’d like to start setting your hormones up for fast weight loss and wellness without popping pills today, print out my free 30-Day Intermittent Fasting Challenge.

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Phytoestrogens FAQ

What do phytoestrogens do in the body?

What do phytoestrogens do in the body?

Do phytoestrogens raise estrogen levels?

Although phytoestrogens are similar in structure, they cannot raise estrogen levels.

Who should avoid phytoestrogens?

Pregnant women should avoid phytoestrogens.

Which foods are high in phytoestrogens?

Cruciferous vegetables, herbs, nuts and seeds are foods high in phytoestrogens.

Studien ▾

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41Poluzzi E, Piccinni C, Raschi E, Rampa A, Recanatini M, De Ponti F. Phytoestrogens in postmenopause: the state of the art from a chemical, pharmacological and regulatory perspective. Curr Med Chem. 2014;21(4):417-36. doi: 10.2174/09298673113206660297. Review. PubMed PMID: 24164197; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3963458.

42RodrĂ­guez-GarcĂ­a C, SĂĄnchez-Quesada C, Toledo E, Delgado-RodrĂ­guez M, Gaforio JJ. Naturally Lignan-Rich Foods: A Dietary Tool for Health Promotion?. Molecules. 2019 Mar 6;24(5). doi: 10.3390/molecules24050917. Review. PubMed PMID: 30845651; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6429205.

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