Phyto-oestrogen (phytoestrogen) is a term applied to non-steroidal plant materials displaying oestrogenic properties. Pre-eminent amongst these are isoflavonoids. These planar molecules mimic the shape and polarity of the steroid hormone estradiol (see page 279), and are able to bind to an oestrogen receptor, though their activity is less than that of estradiol. In some tissues, they stimulate an oestrogenic response, whilst in others they can antagonize the effect of oestrogens. Such materials taken as part of the diet therefore influence overall oestrogenic activity in the body by adding their effects to normal levels of steroidal oestrogens (see page 282). Foods rich in isoflavonoids are valuable in countering some of the side-effects of the menopause in women, such as hot flushes, tiredness, and mood swings. In addition, there is mounting evidence that phyto-oestrogens also provide a range of other beneficial effects, helping to prevent heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases, protecting against osteoporosis, lessening the risk of breast and uterine cancer, and in addition displaying significant antioxidant activity which may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Whilst some of these benefits may be obtained by the use of steroidal
oestrogens, particularly via hormone replacement therapy (HRT; see page 279), phyto-oestrogens offer a dietary alternative.
The main food source of isoflavonoids is the soya bean (Glycine max; Legumi-nosae/Fabaceae) (see also page 256), which contains significant levels of the isoflavones daidzein, and genistein (Figure 4.47), in free form and as their 7-O-glucosides. Total isoflavone levels fall in the range 0.1-0.4%, according to variety. Soya products such as soya milk, soya flour, tofu, and soya-based textured vegetable protein may all be used in the diet for their isoflavonoid content. Breads in which wheat flour is replaced by soya flour are also popular. Extracts from red clover (Trifolium pratense; Leguminosae/Fabaceae) are also used as a dietary supplement. Red clover isoflavones are predominantly formononetin (Figure 4.48) and daidzein, together with their 7-O-glucosides.
The lignans enterodiol and enterolactone (see page 135) are also regarded as phyto-oestrogens. These compounds are produced by the action of intestinal microflora on lignans such as secoisolariciresinol or matairesinol ingested in the diet. A particularly important precursor is secoisolariciresinol diglucoside from flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum; Linaceae), and flaxseed may be incorporated into foodstuffs along with soya products. Enterolactone and enterodiol were first detected in human urine, and their origins were traced back to dietary fibre-rich foods. Levels in the urine were much higher in vegetarians, and have been related to a lower incidence of breast cancer in vegetarians.
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