Are Phytoestrogens a Secret Weapon Against Female Acne?

Are Phytoestrogens a Secret Weapon Against Female Acne?

Using phytoestrogen-containing products to alleviate acne may not be as safe as you think

A common assumption amongst many is to believe that just because something is nature made means that it is completely safe.  This my friends cannot be further from the truth.  There are many natural substances that may have a specific - but when taken in higher doses, mixed with other ingredients, or abused, they may not bring any benefits and may even be unhealthy or dangerous for you.

What are phytoestrogens?

Phytoestrogens are chemicals that can mimic the action of a woman's sex hormone, estrogen. It is important to note that there are 3 sex hormones produced in the human body by both women and men: estrogen, testosterone (androgens) and progesterone. Obviously they are produced in different amounts, with higher levels of androgens circulating in men.

Phytoestrogens belong to a class of chemical compounds termed xenoestrogens, which can also be found in over 300 plant foods and herbs. This entire class of molecules shows estrogen-like effects in the body.  

Estrogen is a powerful hormone with a wide variety of physiologic effects including:

  • childbearing
  • bone health
  • heart health

Various analogs of estrogen are used in oral contraceptives (OCs) to prevent pregnancy and during menopause. OCs are also prescribed by doctors as an "off-label" acne treatment (not approved by the FDA for this indication). The potential benefits of estrogen needs to be balanced by the fact that higher exposure to estrogens over a prolonged period of time is linked to increased breast cancer risk and other potential health concerns.  

As a result of this rather complex situation, we are facing two important questions:

  1. Are phytoestrogens actually helpful in treating acne?
  2. Since phytoestrogens are currently being promoted in highly refined forms for relief of the symptoms of menopause, acne and other hormonal imbalances, are they safe? Can they actually promote breast cancer or any other health-related problems connected to the excess of regular estrogen?

Here are some facts that may help in making a personal decision on using phytoestrogen-containing foods as well as other products containing concentrated or extracted phytoestrogens:

  • We know that increased exposure to estrogen-related hormones, including those used in the cattle industry, those administered to women during menopause, and those taken by women using estrogens as a fertility agent, can increase the risk of being diagnosed with cancer, especially breast cancer. Many experts believe that hormone-like chemicals, xenoestrogens, increasingly found in our food and water, contribute to cancer as well. This may suggest that excessive exposure to phytoestrogens will also increase cancer risk as well. 
  • Virtually everything we eat (grains, beans, nuts, seeds, seed oils, berries, fruits, vegetables, and roots) contains some traces of phytoestrogens. Scientists measure the amount of phytoestrogens by analyzing the breakdown of by-products in the urine. Using this technique, scientists examined phytoestrogen levels in healthy women and reported that those with the lowest levels of phytoestrogens were four times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those with the highest levels. Phytoestrogens actually appear to protect tissues from the cancer-causing effects of potent xenoestrogens and other hormonal pollutants.

So what do I do with all of this information?

First, you may rightfully assume that you may safely eat more phytoestrogen-containing foods and restrict your intake of phytoestrogens to dietary intake. Caution needs to be taken however to avoid consumption of phytoestrogens that are isolated and concentrated, sold in pills or as part of other products. Use of excessive amounts of phytoestrogens changes the equation from protection to potential side effects such as promoting cancer or other health problems.

To get the greatest benefit from phytoestrogenic foods and herbs and avoid potential serious side effects, remember the following:

  1. Phytoestrogenic foods:  Phytoestrogenic foods are good for us and may improve our overall health, and the health of our skin.

The following foods are rich in phytoestrogens:

  • Whole grains (rye, oats, barley, millet, rice, wheat, corn), edible seeds (buckwheat, sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, amaranth, quinoa), beans (yellow split peas, black turtle beans, baby limas, Anasazi beans, red kidney beans, red lentils, soy beans), leafy greens and seaweed (parsley, nettle, kelp, cabbage, broccoli, kale, collards, lamb's quarter).
  • Fruits (olives, cherries, grapes, apples, pears, peaches, plums, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, salmon berries, apricots, crab apples, quinces, rosehips, blueberries), olive oil and seed oils, garlic, onions and their relatives leeks, chives, scallions, ramps and shallots.

To obtain the benefits from plant-derived phytoestrogens in your food, you need active, healthy flora in your GI system (stomach/gut).

Maintain your gut flora by eating more yogurt, miso, unpasteurized sauerkraut, homemade beers and wines, fresh unwashed fruits and salads, sourdough bread and whey-fermented or pickled vegetables.  If you are a beer lover, try unpasteurized beer (in moderation of course!).

2. Phytoestrogenic food-like herbs:  Phytoestrogenic food-like herbs are more potent but still have a number of benefits and are often considered longevity tonics. If you want to use them, use only one from the list below and stick with it for at least three months for optimum effects.

Phytoestrogenic food-like herbs include citrus peel, dandelion leaves and/or roots, fenugreek seeds, flax seeds, green tea, hops, red clover and red wine.

3.  Phytoestrogenic herbs:  Phytoestrogenic herbs may be too powerful for long-term use. The list below provides the names of the most powerful phytoestrogenic herbs. If you are using any of these or plan to use them, please stay alert and only use 1 herb at a time, limiting the time of use to no more than 3 months at a time. 

Phytoestrogenic herbs include agave root, black cohosh root, black currant, black haw, chasteberries, cramp bark, dong quai root, devil's club root, false unicorn root, ginseng root, groundsel herb, licorice, liferoot herb, motherwort herb, peony root, raspberry leaves, rose family plants (most parts), sage leaves, sarsaparilla root, saw palmetto berries, wild yam root and yarrow blossoms.  

4.  Isolated, concentrated phytoestrogens and enriched forms of phytoestrogens in pills or capsules may carry the same dangers as regular estrogens and are not helpful in treating acne.

It is important to note that phytoestrogenic food-like herbs and concentrated phytoestrogens may have different effects on women who do not have ovaries.

Concentrated phytoestrogens may affect men similarly to estrogens and may carry, in addition to cancer, the danger of erectile dysfunction, low sperm count and low libido.

To Sum it Up!

Just because something is natural does not mean that it will have a positive influence on your skin health or your health in general.  Phytoestrogens can be our friends or, if inappropriately used, may be a foe. They do not, however, provide a safe alternative for acne treatment, especially when taken in concentrated, extracted forms.

With a Promise of Clear Skin,
Dr. A  

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