Risks and Benefits of Soy Phytoestrogens in Cardiovascular Diseases, Cancer, Climacteric Symptoms and Osteoporosis
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Phytoestrogens, plant chemicals classified as isoflavones, coumestans and lignans, display estrogen-like activity because of their structural similarity to human estrogens and exhibit high affinity binding for the estrogen receptor β. They are common components of food items such as grains, beans, fruits and nuts. Isoflavones are primarily found in soybeans and foods made from soy. In particular, significant therapeutic properties have been generally attributed to soy isoflavones, but most of the claims have been poorly, or not at all, confirmed by well designed clinical trials. Such is the case of the purported role of soy isoflavones in reducing plasma cholesterol levels. This link is now not supported by many authors or by appropriately designed clinical studies. The role of isoflavones in cancer prevention, particularly of tumours under endocrine control (breast, prostate and others) is again only supported by weak to nonexisting clinical evidence. A similar case is that of the prevention/treatment of postmenopausal symptoms and osteoporosis. Disturbing data have been reported on potential negative effects of soy isoflavones on cognitive function in the aged, particularly relating to tofu intake. Recent studies have finally indicated a potential role for soy isoflavones in inducing chromosomal changes in cells exposed in vitro and potentiating chemical carcinogens. These findings may not, however, be extrapolated to clinical conditions. Available data do not appear to unequivocally support beneficial effects of soy isoflavones, and warn against their wide use, in the absence of satisfactory clinical findings.