Forum Nutr. 2005;(57):100-11.
Branca F, Lorenzetti S.
National Institute for Research on Food and Nutrition, Rome, Italy.
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant-derived phytochemicals, whose common biological roles are to protect plants from stress or to act as part of a plant’s defense mechanism. Although composed of a wide group of nonsteroidal compounds of diverse structure, phytoestrogens have been shown to bind estrogen receptors and to behave as weak agonist/antagonist in both animals and humans. Phytoestrogens include mainly isoflavones (IF), coumestans, and lignans. These compounds are known to be present in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains commonly consumed by humans. IF are found in legumes–mainly soybeans—whereas flaxseed is a major source of lignans, and coumestans are significantly present in clover, alfalfa and soybean sprouts. 8-Prenyl flavonoids are common in vegetables. Bioavailability of IF requires an initial hydrolysis of the sugar moiety by intestinal beta-glucosidases to allow the following uptake by enterocytes and the flow through the peripheral circulation. Following absorption, IF are then reconjugated mainly to glucuronic acid and to a lesser degree to sulphuric acid. Gut metabolism seems key to the determination of the potency of action. Several epidemiological studies correlated high dose consumptions of soy IF with multiple beneficial effects on breast and prostate cancers, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis and stroke, and neurodegeneration. For the relief of menopausal symptoms a consumption of 60 mg aglycones/day has been suggested; for cancer prevention a consumption between 50 and 110 mg aglycones/day is considered beneficial to reduce risks of breast, colon and prostate cancer; to decrease cardiovascular risk a minimum intake of 40-60 mg aglycones/day, together with about 25 g of soy protein has been suggested. For improvement in bone mineral density, 60-100 mg aglycones/day for a period of at least 6-12 months could be beneficial.