Estrogen foods (phytoestrogens) and the diet for endometriosis – why there is confusion

The question has been asked on many occasions by women who are confused about the subject of estrogen foods in their diet. They are concerned that eating foods that contain estrogen compounds will make their endometriosis worse. On doing their own research women are finding that even foods listed as a recommendation for the endometriosis diet contain estrogenic properties. Therefore it is understandable that women would be confused. 

It is fact that there are various foods that contain natural estrogens – but these are different estrogens from those found in the body (called phytoestrogens). Phytoestrogens are much less potent than the bodies own estrogens and are also excreted from the body much easier. It is thought that they actually block the body's estrogen receptor sites, thereby reducing the effect of a woman's own hormones 

Therefore it is beneficial to have some phytoestrogenic foods in your diet because the estrogenic compounds they contain will also block additional estrogens entering your system (those that can be found in the environment, toiletries etc., and help reduce estrogen dominance). BUT you do need to keep the consumption of these phytoestrogens in balance and not over do it. 

The soy supporters promote soybeans because they are high in two estrogen-like plant compounds, genistein and daidzein. Both of these phytoestrogens prevent your body from taking up the more harmful forms of estrogen circulating in your blood. 

But there are various reasons it is not advisable to include soy beans in the diet for endometriosis:

  • Soy usually comes from a crop that is intensively produced and contains high levels of chemicals
  • Soy has very high levels of phytoestrogens and as such the levels would be too high for women who have endometriosis or who suffer from estrogen dominance

There are many other beans and pulses that contain phytoestrogens that are much safer and taste better than the soy bean. 

Foods and phytoestrogens

You will find long lists on the internet of foods that contain phytoestrogens and some of these same foods are included on other lists of foods that are supposed to block estrogens. It is not surprising that there is confusion. 

The active compounds in our foods are very complex. The key to the diet for endometriosis and phytoestrogens is to keep things in balance. If you were to look closely at the list of estrogenic foods it would become clear that you are not going to consume these foods day in day out. Your diet should be balanced and foods should be rotated. To give you some idea the foods that are most commonly listed as containing estrogenic compound (phytoestrogens) are: 

  • Alfalfa – high phytoestrogens
  • Animal flesh *
  • Anise seed
  • Apples
  • Baker's yeast
  • Barley
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Cherries
  • Chickpeas (garbanzo beans) - relatively high phytoestrogens
  • Cowpeas (black- eyed peas)
  • Cucumbers
  • Dairy Foods *
  • Dates
  • Eggs *
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Flaxseeds
  • Garlic
  • Hops
  • Oats
  • Olive oil
  • Olives
  • Papaya
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Plums
  • Pomegranates
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Red beans
  • Rhubarb
  • Rice
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soybean sprouts
  • Soybeans *
  • Split peas
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Tomatoes
  • Wheat *
  • Yams

*Foods that should be avoided on the endometriosis diet 

If you were to avoid the above foods in combination with the key foods to avoid on the endometriosis diet, then there would be not much left for women with endometriosis to eat. Food rotation and balance is the way to eat sensibly. 

Herbs and phytoestrogens

There are various herbs that contain phytoestrogens and the levels of phytoestrogens in herbs are higher than in foods. These include: 

  • Clover
  • Red Clover tea
  • Licorice
  • Motherwort
  • Anise
  • Hops
  • Fennel
  • Black cohosh
  • Milk thistle
  • Don Quai
  • Ginseng
  • Royal jelly
  • Peony
  • Nettle
  • Sage

As you can see, these are not the most common herbs for every day culinary uses. 

Extract from the book from Endo-resolved - ‘Recipes & Diet advice for Endometriosis’:

'Phytoestrogens - are plant based compounds that act like estrogen in the body and are found in many foods we eat. 

Many different plants produce compounds that may mimic or interact with estrogen hormones. At least 20 compounds have been identified in at least 300 plants from more than 16 different plant families. Referred to as phytoestrogens, these compounds are weaker than natural estrogens and are found in herbs and seasonings (garlic, parsley), grains (soybeans, wheat, and rice), vegetables (beans, carrots, and potatoes), fruits (dates, pomegranates, cherries, apples) and drink (coffee). 

Most of us are exposed to many of these natural compounds through food (fruits, vegetables, meat). The two most studied groups of phytoestrogens are the lignans (compounds found in whole grains, fibres, flax seeds, and many fruit and vegetables) and the isoflavones (found in soybeans and other legumes). Because scientists have found phytoestrogens in human urine and blood samples, we know that these compounds can be absorbed into our bodies. 

Phytoestrogens differ a great deal from synthetic environmental estrogens in that they are easily broken down, are not stored in tissue and spend very little time in the body. 

There are differing opinions about phytoestrogens’ role in health. When consumed as part of an ordinary diet, phytoestrogens are probably safe and may even be beneficial. In fact, some studies on cancer incidences in different countries suggest that phytoestrogens may help to protect against certain cancers (breast, uterus, and prostate) in humans. 

On the other hand, eating very high levels of some phytoestrogens may pose some health risks. Reproductive problems have been documented in laboratory animals; farm animals and wildlife that ate very high (up to 100% of their diet) amounts of phytoestrogen-rich plants. 

Even though humans almost never eat an exclusive diet of phytoestrogen-rich foods (even vegetarians), those who consume a diet that does contain a lot of soy are exposing themselves to health risks. There is a great deal of soy products added to every-day convenience foods. Some of these sources are quite surprising including cakes, cereals, biscuits, sauces. So we are eating a lot more soy than we think we are. 

Phytoestrogens behave like hormones, and like hormones, too much or too little can alter hormone-dependent tissue function. For this reason, women with Endometriosis need to adjust their diet so as not to include too many phytoestrogen rich foods but a regulated amount is beneficial in helping to balance the system as a whole.' 

› Phytoestrogens


phytoestrogens, diet
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