Reproductive actions of phytoestrogens

Baillieres Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1998 Dec;12(4):667-90. doi: 10.1016/s0950-351x(98)80010-4.


This chapter reviews the reproductive actions of phytoestrogens, comparing mechanisms of action, dose-response relationships, and human exposures. Although a wide range of biochemical actions have been reported for phytoestrogens, in vitro tests suggest that phytoestrogens may be more likely to act through receptor-mediated mechanisms than through enzyme inhibition. Epithelial cell proliferation in the reproductive tract and anestrus are well-documented actions of isoflavonoids in experimental studies of animals. However, thus far, soy-based diets have generally failed to produce epithelial proliferation in ovariectomized rats and monkeys or menopausal women, and clinical studies have produced mixed evidence for effects of soy isoflavones on the human menstrual cycle or post-menopausal gonadotropin secretion. There has been considerable interest in the use of phytoestrogens as oestrogen replacement therapy in menopausal women. Reported results of initial clinical trials have been mixed, and it is unclear whether isoflavones in presently advised doses can substantially reduce menopausal symptoms. Some recent trials with oral isoflavone supplements report reductions in hot flushes, vaginal dryness, and breast pain. There is also limited clinical evidence for protective actions of isoflavones in mammary cancer. Like other oestrogenic substances, the isoflavonoids are effective differentiating agents in rodent models of development. The consequences of these actions for humans is of interest due to the high concentrations of isoflavonoids in some infant formulae. Thus, it is likely that some humans may experience greater exposure to phytoestrogens in infancy than in any other lifestage. At the time of writing, no ill effects of such exposure have been reported.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Genitalia / drug effects
  • Genitalia / growth & development
  • Genitalia / physiology
  • Gonadotropins, Pituitary / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Isoflavones*
  • Male
  • Menopause
  • Ovary / drug effects
  • Ovary / physiology
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Plant Preparations
  • Rats
  • Reproduction / drug effects*


  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal
  • Gonadotropins, Pituitary
  • Isoflavones
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Plant Preparations