Oestrogen- a woman’s best friend?

Oestrogen is without doubt a woman’s best hormonal ally, being far more than simply a hormone of reproduction. Outside the reproductive system, there are many other tissues which positively respond to the presence of oestrogen. These include bone and eye tissue, the brain, the gut and the immune and vascular systems. This is why oestrogen is often referred to as the youth hormone. Aside from keeping a woman fertile and maintaining her secondary sex characteristics (such as plump nubile breasts, rounded hips, a moist lubricated vagina, a soft voice and a lustrous head of hair), oestrogen also decreases the rate of bone loss protecting against age-associated osteoporosis,  maintains eye, gut, immune system and brain function, (it retards the progression of Alzheimers disease) and keeps cholesterol levels low thereby preventing heart disease. More subtly oestrogen also facilitates the action of oxytocin- the so-called bonding hormone. This hormone sensitises skin to touch and re-inforces intimate relationships by enhancing the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which produces intense feelings of pleasure, and serotonin, another ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter.

There’s good and bad news concerning this desirable hormone. The bad news is that oestrogen production inevitably declines with age, tapering off rather dramatically around 50 years of age, precipitating the menopause. This ‘natural’ condition is characterised by one or more of the following symptoms and illustrates the wide-ranging role of oestrogen in the body: hot flashes, thinning of the vaginal lining leading to dryness and painful sexual intercourse, insomnia, depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, mood swings, weight gain, copious sweating, headache, hair loss and muscular pains. In addition bone loss accelerates and cholesterol levels rise, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease respectively.

The good news antidote to this rather depressing situation is that many plant foods (especially soya foods, alfalfa sprouts and linseed/flaxseed) and herbs (such as Dong Quai, Black Cohosh, Motherwort, Red Clover, Agnus Castus and Sage) contain oestrogen-like compounds which are structurally similar to natural oestrogens and are capable of stimulating oestrogenic activity in the body, although to a lesser degree. They would therefore be expected to help in all conditions associated with a deficiency of oestrogen. Eastern countries which have a high dietary intake of these ‘phyto’ oestrogens, specifically in the form of soya-derived foods, accordingly show a much reduced incidence of menopausal symptoms, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

There’s even better news to come. Phytoestrogens, because they compete with natural body oestrogens for oestrogen receptors but have a lower oestrogen activity, can also help regulate conditions in which excess oestrogen production is a problem, such as some menstrual problems and breast cancer. Phytoestrogens also exhibit direct anti-cancer activity and have been shown to inhibit the proliferation of breast and prostate cancer cells. The incidence of breast and prostate cancer is also much reduced in societies with a high dietary intake of phytoestrogens. As phytoestrogens are also antioxidants they protect the body from free radical damage, including the initiation of cancer through DNA damage as well as the oxidation of cholesterol and the formation of plaque.

Concern has also surfaced in recent years over the impact of chemicals in the environment, specifically those derived from plastic food wrappings and pesticides, which appear to exert a  strong and long-lasting oestrogenic effect. These chemical oestrogens have been proposed as the cause of the dramatic decline in the quality and quantity of men’s sperm. Young men today are 50% less fertile than their fathers were at their age. This alarming development, sometimes referred to as the feminisation of nature, has been paralleled in the animal world with reports of several species showing arrested or insufficient male development to ensure reproduction.  A diet rich in phytoestrogens appears to protect against the action of these chemical oestrogens as phytoestrogens prefentially bind to oestrogen receptors and so prevent chemical oestrogens from exerting any effect. High fibre, low saturated fat diets are also associated with a lower incidence of hormone-dependent cancers such as breast cancer. This is partly due to the fact that phytoestrogens are more actively absorbed from the gut if the diet is high in fibre and low in saturated fat.

Herbal supplements rich in these protective phytoestrogens are rapidly becoming the treatment of choice for women of all ages around the world. Their balancing effect on oestrogen activity in the body enhances the health of all the tissues influenced by oestrogen. They are also totally without side-effects, unlike many of the substitute treatments such as Hormone Replacement Therapy. It is also recommended that women regularly include soya-based products in their diets, and add 2-3 tablespoons of freshly ground linseed to their breakfast cereal (ground linseed should be kept in a dark airtight container in the fridge to keep it fresh). These foods are also very rich sources of protective phytoestrogens.

McNabs, a new South African supplement manufacturer, has formulated a mixture of the most well-researched phytoestrogen-rich and anti-ageing herbs. It also contains Black Cohosh,  Agnus Castus, and Dong Quai.  This product is appropriately named the Hormone Helper and is recommended for regulating the menstrual cycle (including problems such as PMS, dysmenorrhoea, amennorhoea and menorrhagia), the menopause and to protect against breast cancer (note this supplement should be avoided during pregnancy).