Phytoestrogens are foods that interact with the estrogen receptors in our body. Isoflavones and lignans are two types found in specific seeds, plants and legumes. Although they won’t raise estrogen levels they do support hormone balance and are preventative against a number of conditions. Red clover, yam, flax seed and soy all have this action in the body.
Genetic variation is determined heavily by food and lifestyle choices. Estrogen is influenced by one in particular: COMT (catechol-O-methyltransferase). You may have normal COMT gene but lifestyle factors can change how it expresses. Let’s talk about how.
Phytoestrogens protect you from high estrogen levels that occur due to genetics and environmental factors. Endocrine disruptors are toxins around us that mimic estrogen. They are found in personal care products, plastics and household cleaners. They build up in the body. Basically if you can’t eat your make-up, shampoo and bathroom cleaner you are being exposed.
Build up of excess estrogens also occurs when our digestive system is not functioning properly. Excess hormones are excreted through our stool when the microbiome is healthy. When it’s not, an enzyme will unpack estrogens that are ready to be excreted. They then get recycled through the liver once more. When they leave the liver a second time, it’s often down a metabolite pathway that is less protective.
Phytoestrogens stop this cycle before it even gets started by allowing less estrogens into the body. This can prevent symptoms like heavy and painful periods. There is evidence that they have a positive effect on PCOS because legumes increase insulin sensitivity. Phytoestrogens may also protect hormone sensitive cancers. Estrogen is highest in women during our reproductive years but menopausal women can use isoflavones to reduce hot flashes.
A few limitations
- Don’t go taking soy isoflavones if you have thyroid issues. At least not in concentrated forms as it can suppress function. Foods will not hurt as long as your other thyroid nutrients are adequate. Soy can also cause a reaction in some women with endometriosis.
- Many people react poorly to eating lectins. Flax seeds are an excellent phytonutrient and are beneficial for the gut but if you don’t tolerate lectins they could set off an immune response. This goes for other seeds and legumes. Individualize your diet. Your body knows best.
- Seed cycling for hormone health has no evidence behind it. Enjoy a variety of seeds. Don’t worry about which menstrual phase it is.
- Children and men do not require phytoestrogens in the same way as women and a high enough dose of them could be detrimental.
How Genetics Play In
We have twenty thousand genes in our body. There are more than ten million genetic variations that may or may not express. These are called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms). COMT is the one we’ll look at today. Like a handful of others, COMT has the power to influence hundreds of other genes. It plays an important role in estrogen metabolism.
Keep in mind that you can be born with as many as 1.2 million SNPs but only forty thousand of these have the potential to alter your genetic function. Even if you aren’t born with a SNP you can express the genetic variation due to lifestyle factors! You also can have a SNP but never express it.
COMT: Mood, Focus & Estrogen
Each SNP has strengths and weaknesses. People with a fast or slow COMT gene have incredible focus, lots of energy and healthy skin. They also can tend towards insomnia, feeling irritable or anxious and a variety of estrogen sensitive conditions like fibroids, migraines and PMS. There is a vulnerability to addiction, especially work addiction because of their ability to focus and be alert for long periods of time.
Lifestyle to Support Estrogen Balance
- People with a COMT expression do well when stress management is part of their focus.
- Early bedtime supports the liver to metabolize hormones.
- Avoid plastics and BPA or other chemicals that mimic estrogen.
- Roundup is especially troublesome as it affects aromatase activity. Aromatase converts other biochemicals to estrogen.
- ‘Maintain a healthy weight. This helps with regulating estrogen.
- Eat local, organic and grass-fed as much as possible. Beets, carrots, onions artichokes, cruciferous veggies and bitters are great!
- Regular meals take the pressure off the COMT expression by reducing stress hormones.
- Plan regular times to play, move and be social
I know that many of these could be considered healthy habits for anyone. However, when I start looking into symptoms and labs for individuals the patterns of gene expression are clear. There are other SNPs that relate to food sensitivity or cardiovascular disease. There is one that inhibits detoxification and another that causes carb cravings. Getting to know your body in a deeper way means you can respond better. You can enjoy your strengths and mitigate the negative factors by providing the right support.