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J Nutr. 1995 Mar;125(3 Suppl):771S-776S.

Potential adverse effects of phytoestrogens.

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Department of Anthropology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322.


Evaluation of the potential benefits and risks offered by naturally occurring plant estrogens requires investigation of their potency and sites of action when consumed at natural dietary concentrations. Our investigations have examined the effects of a range of natural dietary concentrations of the most potent plant isoflavonoid, coumestrol, using a rat model and a variety of estrogen-dependent tissues and endpoints. Treatments of immature females demonstrated agonistic action in the reproductive tract, brain, and pituitary at natural dietary concentrations. Experiments designed to test for estrogen antagonism demonstrated that coumestrol did not conform to the picture of a classic antiestrogen. However, coumestrol did suppress estrous cycles in adult females. Developmental actions were examined by neonatal exposure of pups through milk of rat dams fed a coumestrol, control, or commercial soy-based diet during the critical period of the first 10 postnatal days or throughout the 21 days of lactation. The 10-day treatment did not significantly alter adult estrous cyclicity, but the 21-day treatment produced in a persistent estrus state in coumestrol-treated females by 132 days of age. In contrast, the 10-day coumestrol treatments produced significant deficits in the sexual behavior of male offspring. These findings illustrate the broad range of actions of these natural estrogens and the variability in potency across endpoints. This variability argues for the importance of fully characterizing each phytoestrogen in terms of its sites of action, balance of agonistic and antagonistic properties, natural potency, and short-term and long-term effects.

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