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Which Is Better for Balancing Estrogen - Soy or Flax?

Phytoestrogens, which are abundant in flaxseed and soy, have chemical structures resembling those of estrogens in your body and have been shown to exert hormonal effects, thereby affecting chronic diseases.

Estrogen is metabolized in two ways. Along one pathway, it is converted into a powerful metabolite, 16alpha-hydroxyestrone (16alpha-OHEthat acts to stimulate target tissues. Levels of 16alpha-OHE1 can rise in response to obesity, alcohol consumption, and toxic exposure. High levels of this potent metabolite are linked with increased risk and poorer prognosis in conditions associated with estrogen excess, including breast cancer and lupus.

Alternately, the body can break down estrogen into a much weaker metabolite, called 2-hydroxyestrone (2-OHE1). This metabolite binds weakly to cell receptors and may slow cell proliferation. However, excessive levels of 2-OHE1 may increase the risk of developing conditions associated with estrogen deficiency, such as heart disease, depression, and osteoporosis. A proper balance between 2-OHE1 and 16alpha-OHE1 is a key to optimal health. A substantial proportion of women have too much 16alpha-OHE1, which leads to problems such as breast cancer. Whether you eat soy or flaxseed may influence the balance of these two estrogen metabolites.

A study conducted at the Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto compared the effects of consuming flaxseed versus soy on estrogen metabolism in 46 postmenopausal women.

Urinary concentrations of 2-OHE1, but not 16alpha-OHE1, increased significantly in the flaxseed group, suggesting that 2-OHE1 levels increased relative to 16alpha-OHE1. In the group who ate soy, there was no change.

So, should you eat flaxseed instead of soy? It depends on whether your estrogen metabolites are in balance, or not. It's easy to find out with a simple urine or blood test. Just ask one of our physicians about an estrogen assessment. If the test shows that your levels of 16alpha-OHE1 are too high, we suggest that you eat flaxseed instead of soy.

Source: Brooks, JD et al, Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79(2):318-25