Concept

Phytoestrogen

Summary
A phytoestrogen is a plant-derived xenoestrogen (see estrogen) not generated within the endocrine system, but consumed by eating plants or manufactured foods. Also called a "dietary estrogen", it is a diverse group of naturally occurring nonsteroidal plant compounds that, because of its structural similarity to estradiol (17-β-estradiol), have the ability to cause estrogenic or antiestrogenic effects. Phytoestrogens are not essential nutrients because their absence from the diet does not cause a disease, nor are they known to participate in any normal biological function. Common foods containing phytoestrogens are soy protein, beans, oats, barley, rice, coffee, apples, carrots (see Food Sources section below for bigger list). Its name comes from the Greek phyto ("plant") and estrogen, the hormone which gives fertility to female mammals. The word "estrus" (Greek οίστρος) means "sexual desire", and "gene" (Greek γόνο) is "to generate". It has been hypothesized that plants use a phytoestrogen as part of their natural defense against the overpopulation of herbivore animals by controlling female fertility. The similarities, at molecular level, of an estrogen and a phytoestrogen allow them to mildly mimic and sometimes act as an antagonist of estrogen. Phytoestrogens were first observed in 1926, but it was unknown if they could have any effect in human or animal metabolism. In the 1940s and early 1950s, it was noticed that some pastures of subterranean clover and red clover (phytoestrogen-rich plants) had adverse effects on the fecundity of grazing sheep. Phytoestrogens mainly belong to a large group of substituted natural phenolic compounds: the coumestans, prenylflavonoids and isoflavones are three of the most active in estrogenic effects in this class. The best-researched are isoflavones, which are commonly found in soy and red clover. Lignans have also been identified as phytoestrogens, although they are not flavonoids.
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