Herbal phytoestrogens and menopause
Many women can achieve a smooth passage through the menopause with the assistance of herbs and without the many side effects of HRT. Phytoestrogens are compounds found in plants that have mild estrogenic effects.
The use of herbs in the treatment of the symptoms of menopause
An imbalance or lack of hormones can influence the mind and body in many ways. However, this passage through mid-life does not need to be uncomfortable. Our hormones are part of an interactive process and the key word is 'balance'.
What are phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are compounds found in plants that have mild estrogenic effects. However, these compounds - isoflavones, phytosterols, saponins and lignans - at high enough levels are capable of exerting a significant estrogenic action.
Unlike conventional Hormone Replacement Therapy, phytoestrogen containing herbs are unlikely to have adverse side effects. Synthetic estrogens may increase the risk of cancer, strokes, heart attacks and gall bladder disease. These "side effects" are not attributable to phytoestrogen containing herbs.
Experimental studies in animals have demonstrated phytoestrogens are extremely effective in inhibiting mammary tumours, not only because they occupy estrogen receptors, but also because of other unrelated anticancer mechanisms (1).
How do phytoestrogenic herbs work?
There are two ways herbs can balance hormones:
(1) Through their action on ovarian function
(2) Through the presence of phytoestrogens
Herbs containing these components have a balancing effect on estrogen levels - whether they are too high or too low.
Herbs can offer effective treatment in managing the hormonal fluctuations that occur during menopausal states. There are herbs containing phytosterols, which have steroid-like substances that exhibit hormone-like activity. These phytosterol herbs work differently to synthetic hormones in the body. They can have a specific effect in one area of the body and then work synergistically to help the body restore normal function and balance.
Plant sterols have the ability to mimic hormone-like substances that have hormone-like activities and can then compete with endogenous hormones for receptor binding sites. These plant sterols have scientifically demonstrated hormone-modulating effects.
Many women can achieve a smooth passage through the menopause with the assistance of herbs and without the many side effects often attributed to HRT.
Lower levels of phytoestrogens are present in some foods, including seaweed, beans, peas and lentils, whole grains including barley, corn, oats, carrots, apples and the cabbage family. These foods may be used alongside with phytoestrogenic herbs and soy products to manage menopause wholistically.
It is interesting to note that menopausal symptoms are not common in Asian women, whose diets are high in foods and herbs containing phytoestrogens.
The scientifically researched herbs for menopausal conditions include the following:
Glycyrrhizin, a glycoside in licorice, exhibits a regulatory action over estrogen metabolism ie when estrogen levels are too high, it inhibits the action of estrogen and when estrogen is too low, the glycyrrhizin in licorice, potentiates it. It is therefore useful for many female problems, including PMS and menopausal symptoms. Licorice contains steroid- like compounds that can change to estradiol and estrone, which are estrogen precursors and therefore produce mild estrogenic properties.
Red Clover contains the plant estrogens coumestol, formonometin and isoflavones. It has been used as the basis of many European menopausal remedies.
Triterpenes and flavone derivatives are found in this herb. Black Cohosh works on the regulatory centres such as the hypothalamus and vasomotor centres, which benefits menopause. It assists in inhibiting the secretion of luteinizing hormone from the pituitary gland. However, unlike estrogen therapy, Black Cohosh does not affect the release of prolactin and FSH. Black Cohosh works as a result of complex actions, not by simply mimicking estrogen.
In an open study, 629 female patients were given Black Cohosh as an alternative treatment for menopausal complaints. The result produced physical and psychological improvement of menopausal symptoms in over 80% of patients within 6-8 weeks (2).
The phytoestrogenic substances in Sage are known to mimic estrogen, which may benefit menopausal women. This herb is able to suppress perspiration, whilst acting as a peripheral vasodilator. The action of this herb starts 2 hours after the first dose is taken and may persist for several days (3).
Studies have shown that the root of Dong Quai has a biphasic action, competing with estrogen for binding sites, thereby modulating estrogen (4). If estrogen levels are low, this herb is able to exert estrogenic activity, however if the levels are high, the overall estrogenic activity can be reduced by competing for receptor binding sites.
The estrogen like action on the vaginal tissue may prevent atrophy of the vagina. A vaginal smear for a 62-year-old woman, who has undergone a hysterectomy and bilateral ovarectomy 14 yrs earlier, showed a strong estrogenic effect, which was found to be due to ingestion of ginseng for the previous year. The vaginal and cervical epithelia were normal and there were no atrophic changes. While the ginseng tablets contained no estrogen, a crude methanolic extract competed very strongly with 17-oestradiol and R5020 for estrogen and progesterone binding sites in the human myometrial cytosol (5).
Wild Yam is a source of botogenin and diosgenin, which represent a rich source of principles used as cortisone precursors.
Dr Russell E Maker has been successful in synthesizing the hormone progesterone and male hormone testosterone from the saponin in this plant (please note that this was done in a laboratory and does not indicate that these hormones can be produced in the body by these herbs).
Wild Yam has been used as the starting material to synthesize many of the steroidal drugs now presently on the market, most notably cortisone and female hormones.
All these herbs can be found in the herbal liquid combination FemiTone from Greenridge Botanicals Australia.
1. Rose DP Dietary Fibre, Phytoestrogens and Breast
Cancer NUTRITION 8:47-51 1992
2. Stolze H Gynaecologist 3:14-6 1982
3. Schauenberg P & Paris F, Guide to Medicinal Plants Butler & Tanner Ltd. Frome & London 1977
4. Pizzorno J & Murray M, A Textbook of Natural Medicine Vol 1 USA John Bastyr College Publications 1986
5. Punnonen R & Lukola A, Estrogen-like effect of Ginseng Br Med J 281:1110 1980