What are Phytoestrogens and why do you need them?
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. Some of the wonderful compounds the nutrition world is talking about right now are phytoestrogens. These 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 support the rebalancing of hormones.
Phytoestrogens are particularly helpful for women because they are "adaptogens". This means they can either replicate or counteract the effects of oestrogen. They’re useful for all women but especially if you are going through the perimenopause, have endometriosis, fibroids or PMT (any symptoms at all during or in the run up to your period).
How do they help?
This is a stage in a woman’s life usually starting in her late 40's. During this time, your body stops making as many female hormones like oestrogen. This transitions into a time when your periods have stopped for at least 12 months which is when you have reach 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.
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. Research is ongoing in this area but the work shows that a diet that brings these phytoestrogens into your life may help prevent osteoporosis.
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.
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.
Phytoestrogen rich foods
The 3 main types are isoflavones, lignans and coumestans.
- Soybeans (and related products like tofu, tempeh, miso)
- Endamame beans
- Beans (aduki beans, black beans, pinto beans)
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Brussels sprouts
- Split pea
- Pinto beans
- Soybean sprouts.
Phytoestrogens and the 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 as well as increasing fermented foods like kefir, natural or Greek yogurt, kombucha and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut or kimchi.
5 ways to include phytoestrogens in your everyday diet
- Homemade hummus – this includes several sources of phytoestrogens such as chickpeas, garlic, sesame seeds (tahini). Check out my family favourite recipe for homemade hummus below. I usually add it to a salad plate or enjoy with slices of apple or raw carrot (for even more phytoestrogens)
- Bean chilli or a chickpea curry are a tasty source of phytos. Bean quesadillas make a delicious lunch or light supper you can pull together really quickly – click here for my super tasty recipe
- Top your Greek yogurt with flaxseed and stewed apple
- Make a vegetable and lentil or broccoli and cauliflower soup with rye bread for lunch
- Add blanched broccoli or lightly toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds to your salad for a lovely texture!
As you can see a plant based diet is very rich in natural phytoestrogens. How are you including them in your everyday foods?
200g canned chickpeas (I like the Tesco or Bunalun organic type)
2 tbsp lemon juice (or more to taste)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp tahini (sesame seed paste)
4 tbsp cold water
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp paprika
- Drain the chickpeas and rinse in cold water
- Reserve a few whole chickpeas for serving
- Put the chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, salt, tahini and water in a food processor and blend to a purée
- Add more lemon juice, garlic, cumin or salt to taste. Use an additional splash of olive oil and a little water to loosen the consistency if you like
- Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and scatter with the reserved chickpeas
- Sprinkle with paprika and serve with crudités or flaxseed crackers.