I’ll never forget a time in college when I stood in line between two seniors at one of the small dining halls that sold snacks. One of the guys pulled a bag of Glenny’s Soy Crisps off the shelf that led up to the cash register. “Dude, don’t get those,” his friend said. “They’ll lower your testosterone, and you’ll probably grow boobs.”
This was 2008 (hence the soy crisps – the best snack of the early aughts) and what I didn’t know then – and I’d venture to guess the guy didn’t know either – was that he was talking about phytoestrogens. Was his friend going to sprout breasts after eating soy? Absolutely not. But was there a tiny morsel of hormone truth in what he was saying? Yes.
In the decade-plus that’s passed since that interaction in the dining hall, there’s been a lot of debate about the real effect of phytoestrogens on our health. While they’ve largely existed in a grey area, as we learn more, we’re discovering that the benefits of phytoestrogens often outweigh their potential for disruption.
The Phytoestrogen Balancing Act
“Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring compounds found within plants that can mimic the activity of our body's estrogen,” says Dr. Lana Butner, board-certified naturopathic doctor. There are four types of phytoestrogens: isoflavones, stilbene, coumestan, and lignan. These estrogen-like compounds are found naturally in foods including soy, but also in some fruits (like plums, berries, and apples), vegetables (like cabbage, leafy greens, and garlic), flaxseeds, and beans, as well as wine, tea, and beer.
Because phytoestrogens mimic estrogen in the body, the concern is that they could cause a hormone imbalance. But phytoestrogens are actually much weaker than the estrogen your body naturally produces, with estimates ranging from them being anywhere from 1/1,000 to 1/10,000 weaker than their natural counterpart.
In fact, rather than always contributing to increased estrogen, phytoestrogens have the ability to both increase or lower estrogen levels, depending on what the body needs. In people with really low levels of estrogen, like women going through menopause, phytoestrogens may be strong enough to help boost levels by acting as an additional, albeit less powerful, source of estrogen in the body.
But the opposite is also true: phytoestrogens can play a role in reducing estrogen levels by binding to estrogen receptors and making it so that stronger forms of estrogen (like xenoestrogen – more on those later) can’t butt in. “Phytoestrogens can actually help you avoid estrogen dominance, which is responsible for common period problems including heavier and more painful periods, PMS, and breast tenderness notably around ovulation as well as premenstrually,” says Briana Villegas, certified menstrual cycle coach.
Phytoestrogens Have a Lot of Health Benefits
Much of the talk about phytoestrogens is framed around whether they are bad for you, but they also offer a lot of health benefits, including giving a boost to your reproductive health (specifically for women's hormones), cardiovascular health, bone health, skin health and complexion, brain fog associated with menopause, the immune system, as well as supporting weight loss.
Plus, they are often delivered in a “fiber-filled package” which helps the body flush out excess estrogen via the digestive tract,” says Villegas, who adds that phytoestrogens can be particularly helpful for perimenopausal and menopausal women who may be experiencing low estrogen because they stimulate estrogen production. “Diets high in phytoestrogens have also been associated with a decrease in common symptoms, such as hot flashes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive function decline,” she says.
While some research shows phytoestrogens may reduce testosterone levels in men, those studies aren’t definitive. Interestingly, women and men in Asian countries have the lowest incidence of both prostate and breast cancer in the world, which is thought to be a result of soy isoflavones in their diets.
The Real Problem Child: Xenoestrogens
While phytoestrogens get a bad rap, it’s really xenoestrogens, also called “foreign estrogens,” that should be avoided whenever possible. These chemicals, which can occur both in synthetic and natural forms, have a known ability to wreak hormone havoc.
“Xenoestrogens are endocrine-disrupting chemical compounds that mimic estrogens,” says Dr. Lana. They can be found in herbicides, pesticides, genetically modified food for livestock (which can leach into meat or dairy), personal products including certain deodorants, perfumes, cosmetics, candles, feminine hygiene products, and household items like laundry detergents, dryer sheets, plastic water bottles, Tupperware, saran wrap, and receipt paper.
Unlike phytoestrogens, xenoestrogens are actually stronger than the estrogen naturally made by the body, so they build up quickly, potentially throwing the body’s natural hormone production out of balance.
“The problem is that [xenoestrogens] look enough like the estrogen we produce for us to readily absorb them, but they don’t respond as easily to the body’s natural detox mechanisms,” Villegas says. “That means that they can be found in higher concentrations in our body, stay long past their welcome, and wreak havoc on our hormone levels.” The excess estrogen can cause painful periods, PMS symptoms, and breast tenderness around ovulation.
Bottom Line: Cut out Xenoestrogens & Enjoy Your Phytoestrogens
While it’s a relief knowing that you don’t have to avoid all soy products, the list of appearances by xenoestrogens in your daily life can feel overwhelming. While it may not be feasible to completely avoid exposure, there are some easy lifestyle tweaks that can go a long way. One place to begin is with this three-step process
1. Start from the inside out
It can be overwhelming to feel like you need to replace all your products to avoid xenoestrogens, and truthfully you don’t need to. Villegas recommends, starting from the inside out, and first asking what is going directly into your body that can be swapped for something cleaner. This includes things like buying non-GMO food or opting for natural, plastic-free tampons made from organic cotton.
2. Then, look at your skincare
After you address the products going in your body, take a look at what you’re putting on it – products like makeup and sunscreen that are absorbed by your skin. Try switching to a mineral sunscreen and opt for fragrance-free, hormonally-safe products, like Veracity skincare, whenever possible.
3. Finally, rethink what you use in your home
After you’ve dealt with the things that touch your body, consider making some changes to other things in your home that can contain xenoestrogens. This includes your cleaning products (opt for a hormonally safe brand), candles (simmering some spices and herbs on the stove can give your house a great smell without the toxic byproducts), and declining a paper receipt whenever possible.
After you’ve done a lifestyle review, there are a few other quick tips that can help you ditch xenoestrogens and get the most out of your phytoestrogens:
Eat fresh whenever possible
You’ve heard this before, but when you’re eating soy, try to eat fresh forms like tempeh or soybeans, rather than processed foods. “Eat non-GMO soy products always,” says Dr. Lana. Switching to hormone-free meat and organic produce can also be helpful. If you don’t want to go entirely organic, not a problem. Keep this list of the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables handy and focus on going organic for those foods when possible.
Avoid heating plastic
It’s hard to avoid plastic entirely, but one simple shift that can make a huge health difference is to stop exposing it to heat as that causes the release of more estrogen-like chemicals. Transfer your food from Tupperware to a plate before microwaving it, and avoid drinking from a water bottle that’s been left in a hot car. Villegas also recommends ditching the plastic lid when drinking to-go hot drinks.
Skip Non-Stick Cookware
Instead of using non-stick cookware, which has a hormone-disrupting chemical in the Teflon coating, cook using cast iron or ceramic pans.
Take a supplement
Finally, if you begin experiencing some symptoms of estrogen imbalance -- painful periods, worsened PMS, low libido, and unexplained weight gain – think about adding a supplement like Veracity’s Vital Estrogen + Progesterone Balance that can help your body detox excess estrogen.
Despite their reputation, phytoestrogens aren’t something to be scared of or to avoid entirely. But paying attention to symptoms of hormone imbalance and taking steps to get hormone-disrupting chemicals out of your life – we’re looking at you, xenoestrogens! – is a great way to boost and preserve your health now and in the future.