Question from: 10/26/96

Answer: A plant-derived estrogen, known as "phytoestrogen", is produced by some plants and also by the action of bacteria in the human intestine on certain substances from plants, especially soy and flaxseed products. There are at least 15 phytoestrogens that have been studied, but nobody is really sure exactly what they do. Some DO act like a weak form of estrogen in the body but some can also act to reduce the activity of estrogen. Some of these substances may inhibit cancer growth which is an interesting lead for cancer researchers. People who are largely or completely vegetarian, such as those who eat the traditional diet of Japan and China, have a lower incidence of breast and prostate cancer (in addition to a reduced incidence of heart disease), but one can not assume it's the phytoestrogens alone that are responsible for this. It could be due in part to a diet that is also low in fat, high in fiber and vitamins, or some other yet-to-be-discovered factor, or a combination of them all. Women who want to try soy products to ease menopausal symptoms will certainly not be harmed by them, though there really is little evidence that they help. For the moment, phytoestrogens are a bit mysterious and part of the emerging, and encouraging, picture of how plant foods can prolong life and fight disease. We do know that traditional hormone replacement therapy lowers the risk of heart disease after menopause and helps prevent Osteoporosis. I do not personally feel that we know enough about phytoestrogens to recommend using them in place of standard hormone replacement therapy.

Charles H. Booras, MD

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