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Seeds of Hope From Plant-Based Estrogen


Several new cookbooks featuring phyto-estrogens as the main course and a recently announced study showing that plant-based estrogen does improve bone density of post-menopausal women make one wonder if a person can eat her way to hormone balance.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have found that Estratab, an estrogen derived from soy and yams prescribed for hot flashes, also improved bone density in women. It works in half the dose and without the ill effects cited by patients taking the most commonly prescribed animal-based estrogen.

Harry K. Genant, director of the osteoporosis research center at UCSF, says plant sources may attract women who stopped hormone-replacement therapies because of side effects.

The study coincides with a spate of cookbooks aimed at post-menopausal women. They feature plants naturally high in estrogen, including yucca, blood root and leafy greens, and dishes such as Mrs. Kale Gets Steamed and Mood Swing Anti-Pasto.

"You are going to see more and more this huge wave of soy products and soy cookbooks," says Mary Ann Gilderbloom, senior publicist for Chronicle Books, publisher of "The Hot Flash Cookbook--Delicious Recipes for Health and Well Being Through Menopause," by Cathy Luchetti.

"The awareness of breast cancer and osteoporosis by this group of women, along with Hillary Clinton, who are turning 50 is feeding it," she says. Also, younger women are watching their grandparents and parents suffer from osteoporosis and saying "not me," she says.

So should menopausal women be rejiggering their diets?

The Baltimore Sun asked Trudy Bush, professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland Medical School, some questions about hormone replacement.

Bush is an expert on estrogen who is studying hormone replacement's use in preventing heart disease.

Question: Can people eat their way to balanced hormones?

Answer: I don't think so, but it would be fun trying. What's been really hot are plant estrogens. These are estrogens from soy products. I don't have personal experience, but [a fellow researcher's] trial finds them fairly effective at doing all the things [animal] estrogen does. The problem is, they occur in such low quantities in food you can't get enough by simply eating them.

Q: What's diet got to do with menopause? Should we start cooking with plants that have estrogen?

A: Some women may be able to. Those with severe symptoms, like hot flashes and night sweats, probably can't take in enough soy protein. If [symptoms] are not severe, a healthy diet is always good.

I have seen no data that shows any diet can delay bone loss or alleviate menopausal symptoms. I would qualify that: An adequate calcium intake may be very important in preserving bone mass, and some diet changes in caffeine may help menopausal symptoms.

The idea that women can cook themselves out of menopause is wonderful and great but take hormone too--it's the most effective thing we have.

Q: How many types of estrogen are there?

A: Natural and synthetic. The natural are those in nature, human or animal or plant. The major estrogen now is taken from urine of pregnant horses.

Q: Do patients have a choice?

A: Yes. Synthetics are used in birth control pills. They are a little more potent, but they are cheap. I don't think it matters much. The major side effect with estrogen is uterine bleeding.

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