Hormone-like substances abound in natural foods. This is hardly surprising since hormones are after all made from food components; however the extent to which foods that are rich in certain phytonutrients influence hormone balance and health is only recently been recognised.
Phytoestrogens – friend or foe?
Oestrogen-like plant compounds are often called phytoestrogens (phyto=plant). At first glance, given the health problems associated with oestrogen dominance, one might think that eating foods rich in phytoestrogens might be bad news. If anything, however, the reverse seems to be true if taken in small quantities.
Caution: not for pregnant women or those suffering from endometriosis.
Good sources of phytoestrogens include:small amounts of soya, tofu, chickpeas, rye bread, beansprouts, lentils nuts and seeds, green tea, green vegetables, cabbage and peas plus a good variety of fruits and vegetables.
6 Phytonutrient and herbal remedies
Many herbal remedies are now available as supplements on the basis of their beneficial effects on balancing hormones. These include:
1 Agnus castus The plant (also known as chasteberry) has a long history as a herb for women’s problems. Traditionally used to relieve premenstrual and menopausal problems. It has an action on the pituitary gland mimicking the action of the corpus luteum which produces progesterone.
By stimulating the release of LH (luteinising hormone) and inhibiting the release of FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), progesterone levels would tend to be increased in relation to oestrogen.
Its therapeutic powers were also proven in a series of double-blind gtrials, attributed to its indirect effects on decreasing oestrogn levels and prolactin. Raised prolactin is known to lower oestrogen levels. In most trials 4mg a day of a standardised extract (containing 6% agnusides – one of the active ingredients) was used.
2 Black cohosh and wild yam These all have progesterone favourable effects on the body. Yams are especially rich in diosgenin, from which progesterone can be made in the laboratory.
We cannot however turn these phytonutrients into progesterone itself, so while these plants may help to balance the hormones, they do not replace the need for progesterone in a person who is progesterone deficient. Fennel also has a progesterone-favourable effect on hormone balance.
The most promising of the herbs used to treat the symptoms of menopause is black cohosh, which can help to reduce hot flushes, sweating, insomnia and anxiety.
Three double blind trials have been published. One showed no effect, the other was beneficial and the third showed reduced sweating but no reduction in the number of hot flushes. It also helps relieve depression by raising serotonin levels. Even so, I’d recommend that you take black cohosh three months on, one month off. Take 50mg twice a day.
Caution: avoid black cohosh if you are taking liver-toxic drugs or have a damaged liver or if you suffer from endometriosis or polycystic ovaries unless otherwise advised by your nutritional therapist.
3 Dong quai is an excellent herb for flushes and in one placebo-controlled study, 55 post-menopausal women who were given dong quai and chamomile instead of HRT had an 80 percent reduction in hot flushes. These results became apparent after 1 month. An earlier study didn’t find this effect however. If you want to try it I recommend 600mg a day for relief from hot flushes.
Caution: Dong quai may thin the blood and is therefore contraindicated if on warfarin.
4 DIM (diindolylmethane) is found in broccoli and assists the healthy metabolism of oestrogen, mopping up excess oestrogens and helping to metabolise it into a form that has little activity. It also helps DNA repair and this is associated with lower risk for certain cancers and positive effects on a wide variety of hormonal health problems.
All the cruciferous vegetables – including kale, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts – are good sources and help to protect against oestrogen dominance. Also available as a supplement I recommend 100-3–mg a day for anyone with suspected oestrogen dominance.
5 Ginseng and liquorice Considered to contain quite powerful adaptogens – substances that help restore hormonal balance; for example liquorice appears to potentiate oestrogen when levels are too low and inhibit it when levels are too high.
Both liquorice and ginseng influence adrenal hormones, responsible for stress. Ginseng is a classic herbal remedy for increasing ability to deal with stress. Both have widespread uses for a number of hormone-related conditions probably because adrenal hormones and sex hormones are very closely related, with the adrenal glands producing small amounts of sex hormones.
6 St John’s Wort A herb renowned for its antidepressant effects, has been demonstrated to relieve other menopausal symptoms, including headaches, palpitations, lack of concentration and decreased libido.
The combination of black cohosh and St John’s Wort (300mg a day) can be particularly effective for women who are experiencing menopause-related depression, irritability and fatigue.
Caution: no known serious adverse effects but be advised it is best to consult your doctor if you are on an antidepressant.
The inclusion of the correct phytonutrient foods and herbs may help your body to adapt, thus restoring and maintaining its hormonal balance. Many supplements that are designed to support female health contain combinations of these herbs and are likely to be beneficial; however, I advise that if you are considering taking large amounts of the herbs individually you do so under the guidance of a qualified herbal practitioner.
This is extracted with permission from Patrick Holford’s book ‘Balance Your Hormones’ which is obtained from his website at www.patrickholford.com
Phytoestrogens have a role to play, particularly for women unable to have any form of oestrogen from breast cancer history or risk. A combined cream such as 20-1 can provide a balanced way to have natural oestrogens balanced by progesterone for women who have no history where oestrogen is not advisable.