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Ageing Res Rev. 2007 Aug;6(2):150-88. Epub 2007 May 16.

Isoflavones--safe food additives or dangerous drugs?

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Department of Clinical and Experimental Endocrinology, University of Goettingen, Robert-Koch-Str. 40, 37075 Goettingen, Germany.


The sales volume of products containing isoflavone has increased since the publication of the Women's Health Initiative. The many apparently contradictory results published on the effects of isoflavones on a variety of estrogen-regulated organs point to both beneficial as well as adverse effects on human health. It is of particular importance that psychovegetative climacteric complaints such as hot flushes are, if at all, only slightly influenced by isoflavones. The substances appear to have weak anti-osteoporotic effect. Their anti-atherosclerotic action is debatable, as not all authors find any beneficial effect on lipids. Most importantly, there is dispute as to whether isoflavones derived from soy or red clover have negative, positive or any effect at all on the mammary gland or endometrium. It is beyond any doubt that soy products may have cancer preventing properties in a variety of organs including the mammary gland. However, these properties may only be exerted if the developing organ was under the influence of isoflavones during childhood and puberty. This may also explain the often quoted "Japanese Phenomenon", the fact that breast cancer occurs to a lesser extent in Japanese women. When administered to isoflavone "inexperienced" women at the time of menopause, the phytoestrogens appear to share the same effects as estrogen used in classical preparations for hormone replacement therapy, i.e. they may stimulate the proliferation of endometrial and mammary gland tissue with at present unknown and unpredictable risk to these organs. Therefore, the following question arises for the clinician: Why should soy or red clover products containing isoflavone be recommended, if the positive effects are only negligible but the adverse effects serious?

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