Phytoestrogens are a type of molecule that are found in plant material. They are very similar to the human oestrogen molecule which is needed by both men and women throughout their lives.
Oestrogen is known as the fertility hormone, the one that encourages growth. It makes the follicles around the ovum swell in the first half of a menstrual cycle and It makes the lining of the uterus grow. It is needed for breast growth during puberty. Oestrogen is also needed by both sexes to keep the mass of our bones healthy . It is essential for our cognitive health and the functioning of our hearts.
Phytoestrogens are complex molecules. They are known to have both oestrogenic and anti-oestrogenic effects. This means that they have an ability to both help a person raise their oestrogen levels if they are too low (oestrogenic), and to help lower them if they are too high (anti-oestrogenic).
How do they work?
All over the body there are oestrogen receptors. A receptor is a bit like the landing pad for a helicopter. They are proteins found on the surface of a cell. The circulating oestrogen lands on the receptors and is then able to be taken into the cell to do its work.
Phytoestrogens help your body to adapt to its current hormone levels. For example: if your oestrogen levels in your body are too high, phytoestrogens can help by attaching to the oestrogen receptor and exerting a modulating effect on the cell so that it is protected from over stimulation. If your levels of oestrogen are too low, the same phytoestrogen can attach to the receptor and have a more tonifying effect on the cell. So whether you are trying to raise or lower your oestrogen levels, you may be advised to try to include more phytoestrogen rich foods in your diet.
Phytoestrogens have a very weak affect in comparison to body oestrogens. For most of us, they will do us more good than harm but if you have been diagnosed with hormone related cancers then you should always seek the advice of a GP regarding them.