Phytoestrogens – Harmful Or Beneficial For Hormone Driven Breast Cancer?

Image Source: rgbstock.com / ba1969
Image Source: rgbstock.com / ba1969

Phytoestrogens – Harmful Or Beneficial For Hormone Driven Breast Cancer?

The subject of phytoestrogens and their role in hormone driven breast cancer comes up at least once per week (and usually WAY more than that) amongst breast cancer patients and survivors, so I decided to present to you what I have discovered on the subject over the past few years.

What Exactly Is A Phytoestrogen?

The word phytoestrogen means “plant estrogen”.  Phytoestrogens are a group of chemicals found in plants that can act like the human hormone estrogen.

Phytoestrogens are found in many foods, chiefly soy and legumes, flaxseed, high fiber foods, beans, alfalfa, red clover and some herbs.

I found a brilliant description of the way phytoestrogens work in this article on the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine website.  See the second paragraph.

The Controversy

Many doctors and websites will warn you against anything containing phytoestrogens, the argument being that phytoestrogens may increase the amount of estrogens in your body and if you have hormone-driven cancer, would be something better avoided.

With reference to red clover in particular, I came across a few websites that warned against phytoestrogens for those with breast cancer.  The American Cancer Society states on their website “Women who have had estrogen receptor-positive cancers or who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this herb.”   The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine stated on their website: “It is unclear whether red clover is safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or who have breast cancer or other hormone-sensitive cancers.”  The webMD website stated: “Red clover might act like estrogen. If you have any condition that might be made worse by exposure to estrogen, don’t use red clover.”

These same warnings appear with relation to other phytoestrogens as well – soy, in particular.  Phytoestrogens have to be one of the most misunderstood plant compounds on the planet.

The View Of Natural Therapists

Natural therapists have been using phytoestrogens for their patients with hormone-driven cancers for several decades.  Successfully.  We have relied on the anecdotal evidence of the patients that were successfully treated with them.  So we just had to know what we knew – that phytoestrogens have been shown to be beneficial and protective – and wait for the research to back us up.

The understanding of most natural therapists is that phytoestrogens exert a much weaker influence in the body than the body’s own estrogen.  How phytoestrogens appear to work is to occupy estrogen receptor sites on cells, preventing stronger estrogens from the body (and also environmental estrogens termed “xenoestrogens”) from exerting their stronger influence.  Through this mechanism phytoestrogens appear to prevent cancer growth and have a balancing effect on the hormonal system. This is why so many of the herbs used to treat menopause are rich in phytoestrogens.

The RESEARCH

The research is finally starting to come to light, although it can still be quite conflicting. Many of the studies I read admitted that further study needed to be done.  Here are the ones I found most helpful.

Flaxseed and its lignans in particular have been much studied for their beneficial effects for those with breast cancer.  One particular study titled Flax and Breast Cancer: A Systematic Review 1 published in September 2013 indicated that flaxseed had beneficial effects on hot flashes and breast density, as well as possible anti-angiogenic activity, offered decreased risk of primary breast cancer, better mental health, and lower mortality among breast cancer patients.  Flaxseed exerted antiproliferative effects in the breast tissue of people at risk of breast cancer, decreased the risk of breast cancer and reduced mortality risk among those living with breast cancer.

A newer study, dated June 2014, Flaxseed and its lignan and oil components: can they play a role in reducing the risk of and improving the treatment of breast cancer? 2 indicates that flaxseed reduces tumor growth in breast cancer patients, and that lignans reduced the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women. The authors stated “Mechanisms include decreased cell proliferation and angiogenesis and increased apoptosis through modulation of estrogen metabolism and estrogen receptor and growth factor receptor signalling pathways. More clinical trials are needed but current overall evidence indicates that FS and its components are effective in the risk reduction and treatment of breast cancer and safe for consumption by breast cancer patients.”

Soy is also considered a phytoestrogen and some feel that it should be avoided by those with hormone driven cancers.  I found this particular November 2013 study compelling: Soy, red clover, and isoflavones and breast cancer: a systematic review 3 .  The study authors specifically state “Soy consumption may be associated with reduced risk of breast cancer incidence, recurrence, and mortality. Soy does not have estrogenic effects in humans. Soy intake consistent with a traditional Japanese diet appears safe for breast cancer survivors.  While there is no clear evidence of harm, better evidence confirming safety is required before use of high dose (≥ 100 mg) isoflavones can be recommended for breast cancer patients.”

Another interesting study titled Soy and its isoflavones: the truth behind the science in breast cancer 4 published in October 2013 stated “Although the specific quantities and constituents responsible for the observed anti-cancer effects have not been elucidated, it appears that soy isoflavones do not function as an estrogen, but rather exhibit anti-estrogenic properties.  However, their metabolism differs between humans and animals and therefore the outcomes of animal studies may not be applicable to humans. The majority of breast cancer cases are hormone-receptor-positive; therefore, soy isoflavones should be considered a potential anti-cancer therapeutic agent and warrant further investigation. ”

Professor Trevor Powles, an authority on breast cancer, and former head of the Breast Unit at The Royal Marsden Hospital in Surrey, UK, refers to phytoestrogens as “anti-estrogens”, because of how they block the action of human estrogen in the cancer process.  Prof Powles believes that phytoestrogens have the ability both to block the receptor sites to which human estrogens attach, and also in some cases to even denature aggressive human estrogens.

Another reliable source of information is The Block Center for Integrative Oncology and their recommendations on soy appear in this article :  Soy And Breast Cancer (see point 3 especially).  Please also note the advice that soy supplements (especially those containing soy protein isolate) are not recommended and that GMO soy is to be avoided.

I hope you found this helpful.  I believe that the latest research shows phytoestrogens to be not only safe but very beneficial for those with hormone driven breast cancer.  I will keep you posted as new research comes to light.

References:
1.  Flax and Breast Cancer: A Systematic Review – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24013641
2.  Flaxseed and its lignan and oil components: can they play a role in reducing the risk of and improving the treatment of breast cancer? – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24869971
3.  Soy, red clover, and isoflavones and breast cancer: a systematic review – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24312387
4.  Soy and its isoflavones: the truth behind the science in breast cancer  – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23919747

http://min.sagepub.com/content/14/1/6.extract#

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6 thoughts on “Phytoestrogens – Harmful Or Beneficial For Hormone Driven Breast Cancer?

    1. Nina,
      You are most welcome. It CAN be confusing, can’t it? I think the evidence is pretty convincing though that regardless of phytoestrogen content, the foods mentioned above in the research studies do show plenty of potential for healing.
      Warmest regards,
      Marnie

  1. Hi Marnie, Has there been any update on this subject. I am 15 months cancer free of triple positive breast cancer. I have been staying away from soy???^%$??!!!! Thank you in advance, Karen

    1. Karen,
      This is still relevant and up-to-date information. If it ever changes, be assured I will update this page. Go ahead and have soy if you want it, just avoid anything that contains “soy protein isolate” because when it is highly processed this way, it has been shown to promote breast cancer. Whole soy and fermented soy are perfectly safe.
      Warmest regards,
      Marnie

  2. Hi Marnie,
    I am one who believes that there are no coincidences in life. People are put in your path for a reason. This is our higher power provides us with guidance. We are all some how connected by a common thread, and it is through the sharing with others of our life experiences and the knowledge we gain throughout our journeys that provide us with the support and help we need to conquer our battles and ultimately grow as human beings.
    I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of this year. Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. HER2 negative and estrogen and progesterone positive. This was a second cancer for me (I am also an 11 year survivor of anal rectal cancer). This time I opted for a bilateral mastectomy, as I knew that I would never go through the burn and poison method of cancer treatment (chemo and radiation) again! After my mastectomy surgery and reconstructive surgery, I began doing research on alternative methods to cancer treatment. I’ve always been interested in natural approaches to health and wellness. I gained a wealth of knowledge on natural protocols to address cancer. I am just now starting to apply them to my life. It is difficult, as it requires a huge lifestyle change. I will basically be juicing like crazy (following Chris Wark’s Square One protocol), and I will be taking many, many herbs and supplements that have been shown through research to seek out and destroy circulating stem cells( the more difficult cells to eradicate), stop cell proliferation, inhibit the estrogen receptor sites of breast cancer cells, inhibit angiogenesis , and cause apoptosis. It took me two months to do this research and accumulate the data. Throughout this time, I have come across many individuals like yourself, who have websites that share knowledge about alternative approaches to cancer.

    I am thrilled that your site is specific to breast cancer, and again believe that it was no coincidence that I came across the site. I’m not even sure how I got here. I woke up this morning and open up a page that I was reading last night on information from Dr. Jacob Schor. I think he provided a link to your site, and this is how I found you. I wish I had found you sooner, as I see that your category list is on everything that I’ve done research on!!! Its all here, and so much more. Amazing! This is the most thorough information on natural approaches to breast cancer that I have found. Thank you for doing such an amazing job of providing us with this knowledge! It is deeply appreciated. I feel like today, I was given a gift. Found it exhausting trying to compile the data of all that I researched. I now have a place to go where everything I’ve researched is organized. I am so happy I found you, and I am excited to start receiving your newsletters. I will leave comments now and then and share my journey with you!

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