Sunday, 1 February 2015

Plant Oestrogens And The Like

I'm not quite as on the ball as you might think on this because in order to get the maximum benefit from the placebo effect of the stuff I'm taking, I try not to look too much into the research around it.  It's very common to find research which appears to show herbal remedies are ineffective.  I can't be sure why this is, but since I have seen thousands of people in my time whom I've treated and whose conditions have then improved by measurable criteria such as blood pressure going down, peak expiratory flow going up, skin lesions shrinking in area and the like, in accordance with the prescribed herbal remedies, there clearly seems to be a discrepancy here and I can only think there's some kind of flaw in the research.  I don't want to go into that now.  Anyway, it might be surprising that my knowledge in this area is rather sketchy compared to others, but it's because of the enormous amount of emotion I have invested in it.  In a previous entry I mentioned that people with a condition may or may not be the best people to treat it or become experts on it, and as far as gynaecological conditions are concerned, well, you don't really get much worse than being born without a female reproductive system and instead developing a fully functional male one with all the consequences that brings.

Anyway, I'm going to try to be objective about this.

Here's a structural formula for the strongest oestrogen produced by the human body and the dominant one secreted by the ovaries between the menarche and the menopause, oestradiol:

This is another oestrogen secreted by the body, oestrone:

As you can see, the only difference is the absence of hydrogen from the pentagonal ring.  It's less active as an oestrogen, and is also carcinogenic and associated with a number of other unpleasant experiences.  The third endogenous oestrogen is oestriol:

This time the difference from oestradiol is the extra hydroxyl (OH) group on the pentagonal ring.  It is closer to oestrone than oestradiol.  The second and third oestrogens are chiefly found during pregnancy.  Oestriol is produced from a hormone made by the fetus and is at the same level in most adults who are not pregnant regardless of what they have between their legs.

Two prefixes often tacked onto the word "oestrogen" are "xeno-" and "phyto-".  Xenoestrogens, "strange oestrogens", are compounds produced by non-biochemical processes which often differ considerably from oestrogens produced by living things, but still influence people the way the kind of oestrogen an ovary might produce can.  Although many xenoestrogens are similar to endogenous human oestrogen, some aren't, such as the phthalates:

(The "R" and the "R'" are shorthand for various other possibilities.)  These are used, for instance, in PVC and pills.  The problem with xenoestrogens is that they are stored in fat and the liver can't easily convert them to substances which can be easily excreted, and they tend to be carcinogenic.  Xenoestrogens have been used in, for instance, anti-barnacle paint and have tended to change the sex of molluscs exposed to them.  Some insecticides are xenoestrogens.

At this point the words "grandmother" and "eggs", or maybe their vegan equivalents, come to mind, but I suppose I should probably say that xenoestrogens have been blamed for things like precocious puberty, falling sperm counts and gynaecological cancers along with all sorts of worrying environmental effects.

Then there are the deliberately oestrogenic substances such as diethylstilbestrol (which is also quite unlike human endogenous oestrogens):

This drug, which is now banned, has been used in various obstetric and gynaecological situations until it was found to cause various unusual effects including this (I was still just about pretending to be a bloke at this point):

Finally there are of course the phytoestrogens.  These are the substances found in plants which have oestrogenic activity.  Unlike the xenoestrogens, these are often very similar to the likes of oestradiol, oestrone and oestriol.  However, when considering a plant, very often what happens is that there are a number of similar substances, or dissimilar substances with similar actions, and a lot of other substances which alter the way those so-called "active ingredients" behave.  There are even plants which seem to have no ingredients at all which have a particular effect but where the whole plant does seem to have such an action.  These are called "negative herbs".

Supposedly the herb par excellence for oestrogenic action is black cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa:

"Actaea racemosa 002" by H. Zell - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

This plant is very widely used for gynaecological problems, but now has a rather poor reputation.  It contains a wide variety of active compounds such as formononetin:

However, recent research suggests that it is not oestrogenic but instead coincidentally relieves the symptoms of certain gynaecological conditions.  Being a member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, all of whose members are significantly poisonous, it's not terribly marvellous.  All it did for me was make me throw up, cause nausea and make me feel poisonedly ill, although in itself that doesn't mean it isn't oestrogenic.

A more promising source of phytoestrogens which are substantially similar to those we secrete chemically is the bean family or Fabaceae.  Many of these are still highly poisonous, such as Laburnum, but many are edible.  The phytoestrogens I use are in fact from this family and include red clover (Trifolium pratense):

"Trifolium pratense 0522" by 池田正樹 (talk)masaki ikeda - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum):

It probably comes as no surprise that soya is in this category.  Red clover has the interesting property of being one of those drugs whose breakdown by the liver is slowed by grapefruit and pomegranate, so its action can be enhanced by drinking those provided you're not taking one of the other drugs which is affected by it.

These include the isoflavone oestrogens, including genistein:

which are sometimes said to reduce male fertility and also the risk of breast cancer.

Broom and licorice, which I unaccountably can't bring myself to spell the British way, are also in the bean family.  Broom is quite poisonous and licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra, raises blood pressure and influences sodium levels, but is in a category referred to as adaptogens, making it rather interesting from the viewpoint of gender issues.  I have my suspicions.  Anyway, before I go into that I want to show you another interesting aspect of these substances:

They're frothy!  In fact, isoflavones and steroidal saponins can even be used as detergents instead of ordinary soap.  They also taste sweet.  In large quantities they can break down red blood corpuscles, although not to the same extent in mammals as in most other vertebrates, and this can in fact be therapeutic as it can ease the flow through capillaries by destroying misshapen corpuscles.

Licorice seems to be quite mildly oestrogenic, although the picture isn't quite that simple.  I'll come back to that.

Another oestrogenic herb is that staple of my childhood, hops, Humulus lupulus:

"Hopfendolde-mit-hopfengarten". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

Hops, along with juniper, are to be honest very annoying and I don't use them at all for anything.  These two herbs are unfortunately indicated for conditions which usually coexist with other conditions for which they are contraindicated, i.e. shouldn't be taken, which effectively makes them entirely useless even though their actions are quite powerful.

Hops are related to Cannabis and stinging nettles, Urtica.  They do appear to be oestrogenic, quite strongly so in fact, but they also have a reputation of causing paradoxical anxiety (they are also sedative) and strongly exacerbating depression.  This last aspect makes me wonder though, because I have a strong tendency to depression but when I take hops they don't make me depressed at all, and I'm wondering if they only cause men to be depressed precisely because of the oestrogenic action, or whether they cause people to cry, which is completely different from depression and may even in a sense be its opposite - excretion of negative emotion and catharsis.

Another oestrogenic herb is Calendula officinalis, the French marigold:

"Calendula officinalis bgiu". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

This exuberant solar wonder, a herb of the Sun, is remarkable in being incredibly useful in a huge number of ways.  Unsurprisingly, it's in the daisy family, the Asteraceae.  It's been said that marigolds are so useful that they actually make you doubt that herbalism is even valid, since it seems too good to be true.  Another unusual aspect of the plant is that unlike most other species of herbs used medicinally, the ornamental variety is in some ways actually more useful than the wild versions because it has two rows of rays ("petals") and the orangeness implies a higher carotenoid (provitamin A) content as with cultivated carrots.

Like licorice, Calendula froths when shaken due to its oestrogenic content, and is another oestrogenic plant.  However, since it's also a liver stimulant, it's not ideal - it would also increase the rate at which steroidal hormones are inactivated and the steroidal saponins in itself are broken down.

The ideal oestrogenic herb would be one which didn't stimulate the liver much.  On that subject, there are a few herbs which would cause breast development but for really very bad reasons.  This is male gynaecomastia:

"Gynecomastia 001" by Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

One major cause of gynaecomastia is severe liver damage, which can be caused by very many toxic herbs including black cohosh in big enough doses.  The reason it happens is that the liver loses the ability to break oestrogen down first, before losing the capacity to inactivate testosterone.  Therefore the danger exists of certain plants being seen as oestrogenic when in fact all they are is severely toxic to the liver.

Talk of the liver reminds me of Silybum marianum, milk thistle.

This may or may not be oestrogenic.  However, since it is probably the best of all liver tonics, it's fairly irrelevant because it would cancel itself out.

Then there's Salvia officinalis, one of the sages:

This is also oestrogenic but unlike the others it reduces sweating and breastmilk.  I've used this for myself in a pinch but it is generally quite drying, so it's really a stop gap measure.

There are quite a few others.  A very wide variety of herbs are oestrogenic.

There are also other approaches.  The processes stimulated by oestrogens often involve signals mediated by a group of chemicals called eicosanoids, which are found in fatty acids, so supplementing with the likes of flaxseed oil can also help.

There are also ways of reducing androgen activity, but that's a different subject.

Finally, back to licorice.  Licorice is also adaptogenic, that is, it "makes you healthier" like a lot of other herbs such as Eleutherococcus senticosus and Smilax ornata.  In more detail, they provide raw materials for steroid hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone while making it easier to switch stress responses on and off.  This is where I speculate wildly.  Please remember that I lack the kind of research community I need, so this can never be more than a hunch, although of course believing in it has, as the belief in phytoestrogens has, a possible placebo effect.  This is to generalise beyond the point which I imagine orthodox medicine would sanction, but I suspect that adaptogens can be feminising for M2F gender dysphorics and masculinising for F2M gender dysphorics.

To summarise then: 
  • Black cohosh is probably not oestrogenic at all.
  • Many plants in the bean family are oestrogenic including soya, fenugreek and red clover, but soya is sometimes suspected as a cancer risk and is also quite ecologically harmful.  However, plants in this family seem to be the most clearly and uncomplicatedly oestrogenic.
  • Hops are oestrogenic but would need to be used with caution due to their depressive effect.
  • Calendula is oestrogenic but this may be cancelled out due to the liver tonic effect.  The same applies to milk thistle (which incidentally is in the same family).
  • Sage is oestrogenic but also quite drying taken in large quantities.  I suspect that other plants in the Lamiaceae tend to be oestrogenic too.  These are most of the classic culinary herbs such as rosemary and thyme.
  • Licorice and other adaptogens provide raw materials for reproductive hormones, and just possibly push people further into their underlying gender role.  For ciswomen, this would mean they are reproductive system tonics.  Licorice and some of the others, though, should be used with care because they do things like raise blood pressure.
  • There may be "pseudoestrogenic" herbs which do increase the level of oestrogens but do so by damaging the liver's ability to break them down.  These should be avoided completely.
  • Finally, oestrogen doesn't exist in isolation and the signals which control responses to oestrogen could be improved by use of the usual essential fatty acid sources such as starflower oil, evening primrose oil, flax seed oil and sesame oil.
I realise this is a bit sketchy and vague-sounding, but this is a highly emotionally charged subject to me and I can hardly bear to think about it clearly.  When you're drowning, you clutch at straws and I may have done this here.  Please be nice about this.  I know it's not up to much but I hope you understand why.