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October 2021

Nat Toxins. 1998 ; 6(2): 51-9.

Phytoestrogens and human health effects: weighing up the current evidence.

Humfrey CD.

Astra Safety Assessment, Astra Charnwood, Loughborough, Leicester, UK. [email protected]

Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant compounds which have oestrogenic and/or anti-oestrogenic activity. They are present in many human foodstuffs including beans, sprouts, cabbage, spinach, soyabean, grains and hops. The main classes are the isoflavones, coumestans and lignans. This review assesses the evidence that these substances may have adverse and/or beneficial impacts on the risk of several hormone-dependent diseases in humans. Evidence from studies of various animal species has demonstrated that ingestion of high levels of phytoestrogens can produce adverse effects on reproductive endpoints including fertility. Studies in laboratory animals have also shown that exposure to high doses of phytoestrogens during development can adversely affect brain differentiation and reproductive development in rodents, but may also have possible beneficial effects. In humans, there is a lack of information concerning the possible effects of high doses of phytoestrogens in infants and this should be addressed as a matter of priority so that any risks (or benefits) can be established. In adults, no current data exist to suggest that consumption of phytoestrogens at the levels normally encountered in the diet is likely to be harmful. Epidemiological studies suggest that foodstuffs containing phytoestrogens may have a beneficial role in protecting against a number of chronic diseases and conditions. For cancer of the prostate, colon, rectum, stomach and lung, the evidence is most consistent for a protective effect resulting from a high intake of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables; it is not possible to identify particular food types or components that may be responsible. Dietary intervention studies indicate that in women soya and linseed may have beneficial effects on the risk of breast cancer and may help to alleviate postmenopausal symptoms. For osteoporosis, tentative evidence suggests phytoestrogens may have similar effects in maintaining bone density to those of the related pharmaceutical compound ipriflavone. Soya also appears to have beneficial effects on blood lipids which may help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis. Generally, however, little evidence exists to link these effects directly to phytoestrogens; many other components of soya and linseed are biologically active in various experimental systems and may be responsible for the observed effects in humans. It is concluded that dietary phytoestrogens may have a role in the prevention of several types of chronic disease including certain cancers. However, at present the evidence is not sufficient to recommend particular dietary practices or changes. Encouraging findings from laboratory and clinical studies indicate the need for further research to clarify the biological activities of phytoestrogens in humans.

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