A Review of the Evidence for the Use of Phytoestrogens as a Replacement for Traditional Estrogen Replacement Therapy

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Estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) is recommended for postmenopausal women primarily for reduction of menopausal symptoms and prevention of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. However, only 35% to 40% of women ever start ERT, and many do not continue it. One of the reasons women are reluctant to receive postmenopausal ERT is that they perceive prescription estrogens as being "unnatural." Because of this, there is increasing interest in the use of plant-derived estrogens, also known as phytoestrogens. This article reviews the evidence for the potential of phytoestrogens, either in dietary or supplemental form, to replace traditional forms of ERT. A comprehensive search of the English-language literature identified more than 1000 articles published in the past 30 years about phytoestrogens. In total, 74 studies were selected for inclusion in this review based on relevance, inclusion of human subjects wherever possible, and study design. The studies examine phytoestrogens' inhibition of the growth of cancer cell lines in vitro and in animals. They also look at the role of phytoestrogens in the reduction of cholesterol levels, and the use of one phytoestrogen derivative, ipriflavone, in the prevention of osteoporosis. Some small studies examine the role of phytoestrogens in the prevention of menopausal symptoms. Evidence for the potential health benefits of phytoestrogens is increasing. However, the clinically proven health benefits of prescribed ERT far outweigh those of phytoestrogens. Therefore, there is insufficient evidence to recommend the use of phytoestrogens in place of traditional ERT, or to make recommendations to women about specific phytoestrogen products.