See also: phytoestrogens

Isoflavones belong to the category of phytoestrogens, substances of plant origin structurally and functionally similar to estrogens produced by the organism (in particular by the female one, since the male one produces limited quantities). The isoflavones, although presenting a "high affinity" towards estrogen receptors, they possess a very weak "estrogenic activity, about 1,000-10,000 times lower than their endogenous counterpart (estradiol). We can therefore compare phytoestrogens to wrong keys which, despite managing to get stuck in a certain lock, do not succeed The fact that the key is inserted but cannot turn (isoflavone / estrogen receptor binding) prevents the appropriate key (estrogen) from entering the lock, blocking the action of these hormones.

All these properties, common to isoflavones and other phytoestrogens, have a double benefit for the female organism.

Antitumor activity of soy isoflavones

In childbearing age, isoflavones balance the activity of estrogens produced by the body, protecting it from some cancers, such as breast cancer, more frequent in women with high levels of these hormones.

This characteristic has been confirmed by numerous studies, even if it is necessary to point out the presence of some conflicting results. In some epidemiological research it has been seen, for example, that the populations in which the consumption of soy is high have a lower incidence of some forms of cancer, a reduced blood cholesterol level and a lower incidence of osteoporosis in the postmenopausal period. Genistein , the main isoflavone contained in soy, has been shown to be effective in reducing the growth of blood vessels that feed tumors. This also seems to explain the protective effect that soy, according to some studies, would have in the development of prostate cancer in men. It should also be noted that this effect appears to be independent of the weak estrogenic properties of the isoflavone studied and that, while it is now established on experimental animals, the studies conducted on humans are not yet statistically significant.

Among the various researches that have reduced the enthusiasm for soy and its isoflavones, the most important have been carried out in countries where the incidence of the aforementioned forms of cancer is lower. In China, where soy consumption is one third of that in Japan, the incidence of breast cancer is equally low. Another study showed that Japanese women with breast cancer consumed similar amounts of soy to the rest of the population. For this reason the anticancer properties of soy are not yet certain.Moreover, it is really difficult to demonstrate that a single substance or food has beneficial effects on a disease with such a significant social weight and on whose development countless genetic, environmental and behavioral factors affect.

Isoflavones in menopause

Many women who refuse HRT use isoflavones as a remedy for hot flashes. These substances, mimicking the activity of estrogens, sharply decreased following menopause, also have an effective protective action against osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, while in fertile age the beneficial effect of isoflavones derives above all from their antiestrogenic properties, after menopause their estrogen-like properties are particularly useful. This double function, apparently contradictory, depends on the hormonal environment in which they act (estrogenic levels very high in childbearing age and very low after menopause).

Isoflavones in food

Isoflavones are found mainly in soybeans and other legumes (such as chickpeas, lentils and broad beans), red clover, whole grains and fennel.

The main isoflavones present in soy are genistein (about 70%), daidzein (about 25%) and glycitein (about 5%). These phytoestrogens can be found both in free and glycosylated form (genistin, daidzin, glycicin), that is, linked to a sugar. In order for these glycosides to work, they must be hydrolyzed by an enzyme produced by the intestinal flora, whose effectiveness is enhanced by a diet rich in prebiotics. The latter, mainly present in vegetables (chicory, garlic, artichokes, bananas, leeks, asparagus, whole grains) and marketed as dietary supplements (inulin, FOS), favor the balance of the intestinal bacterial flora, stimulating the activity of the good strains at the expense of the bad ones.

MORE: Isoflavones in food, supplements "

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