Phytoestrogens: peri & menopause

17 February 2020

Perimenopause and menopause happen when the body’s natural production oestrogen (in the form of oestradiol) is reduced, due to the diminishment of ovarian follicles. As a result, progesterone production falls which in turn prevents the endometrium (the tissue that serves as the "wallpaper" of the uterus) from proliferating resulting in no shedding and bleeding. 

The decline in these hormones, as many women discover results in symptoms, common ones being (hold on to your hats ladies - it’s not the best read):

  • Hair loss

  • Cognitive changes

  • Hot flushes

  • Irregular bleeding (perimenopause)

  • Mood changes 

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Urinary incontinence 

  • Body aches

  • Atrophic vaginitis (thinning of the vaginal wall)

BUT…… is at hand,  yet again, mother nature has a wonderful toolkit up her sleeve! 

The “treatment” of menopause from an allopathic perspective is based on HRT. From a naturopathic perspective we focus on symptomatic support in the form of dietary, nutrient and herbal therapeutics and a significant component of this are the inclusions of Phyto-oestrogens. 

What are Phytoestrogens (dietary oestrogens)

The word phytoestrogens comes from the Greek word “phyto,” or plant, and “oestrogen,” the female hormone that causes fertility. They are plant-derived compounds found in a wide variety of foods and herbs with 3 main types of phytoestrogens:

  • Isoflavones: Legumes (beans such as soya beans, kidney beans, lima beans, chickpeas, lentils) and soy products (such as milk, tofu, tempeh, miso)

  • Lignans: Fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, especially linseeds

  • Coumestans: Sprouting seeds like alfalfa and soybean sprouts

These “dietary oestrogens” have a similar structure to oestrogen and affect the body by attaching to  oestrogen receptors, of which there are two types- alpha and beta receptors - ERs α and β. The action of the phytoestrogen, once on the receptor is to act as either an agonists  (to enhance an effect) or an antagonists (blocking). Tamoxifen is a drug that has an antagonist effect on oestrogen α receptors - the stronger of the two receptors. 

Phytoestrogen compounds have a weaker oestrogenic effect in the body and are shown to work mainly and predominantly on the weaker β receptor so are often beneficial in combatting symptoms and conditions caused by oestrogen deficiency. This is especially helpful for premenopausal and postmenopausal women. For younger women extra oestrogen in the body can lead to hormone imbalanced conditions as a result of oestrogen driven conditions such as Fibroids, PMS, acne and infertility. as such it’s always best to work or talk to a nutritionist.  

Sources of phytoestrogens

Soy products: tofu, tempeh, miso, and edamame

Red clover

Flaxseeds (lignans)


Rye and Millet


Legumes (beans, peas)


Sweet potatoes

Sesame seeds

Are there any studies?

Researchers have been documenting the potential benefits of phytoestrogens due to studies pointing to a reduced risk of breast cancer in Asian populations compared to Western populations. The consumption of soy products was identified as one potential reason, as traditional Asian diets contain isoflavone intakes ranging from 15 – 50 mg per day compared to around 2 mg per day in traditional Western diets.

What kind of Soy?

Soy products, as we now know, contain high amounts of phytoestrogens but in the west typically comes in a highly processed form. This study didn’t measure Japanese women drinking bucket loads of soya milk (stored in BPA clad cartons!) or eating soy “chicken nugget” alternatives. They were eating fermented soy. So, If you choose to consume soy, choosing organic and fermented soy products (e.g. miso, tamari, tempeh) is the best way to go. 

And of course the microbiome... 

The microbiome may also play a significant role in the breakdown and activation of phytoestrogens because they break them down to the metabolites humans can use. Equol is one key metabolite of isoflavones (soya beans, red clover, chickpeas) produced by gut bacteria, but it is estimated that only about 30% of people are equol producers, likely due to a difference in microbiome makeup. Asian populations and vegetarians have been shown to have a higher frequency of equol producers compared to the general population. Interesting hey! 


As always - in health! 

Tanya x