When it comes to diet, food is so much more than macronutrients like protein, carbohydrate and fat. And even more than the sum of its vitamin and mineral content. I wonder how we forgot that. Even as far back as BD400 or so, that Greek guy Hipocrates - now considered the father of modern medicine - said "let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food" and that trend continue right through the Middle Ages when, if doctors weren't medicating with leeches, they might have an apothecary whip you up a potion, and these were largely made from medicinal herbs. Right there, you have the origins of the modern pharmacy.
But I digress because this blog is about functional foods. These are foods that do stuff in the body, in this case, foods that regulate your hormones and these magic ingredients are phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant-based chemicals, which are structurally similar to oestrogen and exert a weak oestrogenic effect. The great news is that you can use them to gently help rebalance your hormones.
Phytoestrogens are particularly helpful because they are adaptogens. This means they can either replicate or counteract the effects of oestrogen. That's code for they either help out by giving where oestrogen might be lacking - like perimenopause and beyond - or they take, where there might be too much oestrogen as in conditions linked to oestrogen dominance such as endometriosis, fibroids or PMT. This might also be comforting news for any men reading this blog.
How phytoestrogens help in peri-menopause
Permenopause is a stage in a woman’s life usually starting in her late 40s. During this time, your body stops making as many female hormones like (but not limited to) oestrogen. This transitions into a time when your periods have stopped for at least 12 months – menopause. There are many uncomfortable symptoms that usually occur during this phase of your life, ranging from hot flushes and mood swings to decreased libido. Research shows that phytoestrogens can have a positive impact on many of these symptoms.
One of the many things we now know about women's experience of menopause is that women in the Far East would typically experience fewer symptoms of the transition to menopause than women in the West? The reason? These women, thanks to culture and geography, traditionally eat more of one of the particularly powerful phytoestrogens. I'll tell you exactly which one I'm talking about in a second.
Can phytoestrogens support bone health?
You bet they can. Oestrogen plays an important role in maintaining bone mineral density. Osteoporosis is a disease in which bone density and quality is reduced, resulting in greater porosity of bones and a higher risk of fracture. As soon as you hit your mid 30s, your bone health is on the slide because by this time in life, the cycle of bone built built and bone breaking down is no longer equal. You guessed it, the cycle starts to favour the ever-do-gradual breakdown of bone. This is why women in perimenopause need to be especially interested in their bone health even if you're not in one of higher risk groups (perhaps your mother had a diagnosis of osteoporosis).
Research is ongoing in this area but the work shows that a diet that bringing these phytoestrogens into your life may help prevent osteoporosis.
Can plant foods fix menstrual irregularities?
Also yes. Many menstrual problems are linked to too much oestrogen in your system – like endometriosis and fibroids. Phytoestrogen-rich foods decrease the effects of oestrogen levels naturally by blocking the oestrogen receptors on the cells in fibroids and other oestrogen-sensitive tissues.
How phytoestrogens help adult acne
Spots, boils and pimples driving you mad? Adult acne can result from an imbalance in hormones, often where male hormones like testosterone are present in a higher than normal ratio compared with oestrogen. The idea is that these plant sources of oestrogen counteract the effect of the male hormones and may help prevent acne as a result.
Here's some more great news about phytoestrogens...
While synthetic oestrogens (think HRT) have been linked to unfavourable outcomes like increased risk of some hormone-driven cancers, there are no known health risks from eating more plant foods like phytoestrogens.
Before you head out to the supermarket to fill up on these healthful foods, there is something very important you need to know about these amazing foods.
Phytoestrogens and your gut
The absorption of phytoestrogens depends on a healthy gut, as there must be enough healthy bacteria to convert phytoestrogens into their active form. A probiotic supplement will be helpful here.
Different types of phytoestrogens - Pin this infographic to your Pinterest board to save it