Phytoestrogens in botanical dietary supplements: implications for cancer

Integr Cancer Ther. 2003 Jun;2(2):120-38. doi: 10.1177/1534735403002002004.


Phytoestrogens are plant constituents that possess either estrogenic or antiestrogenic activity. Although their activities are weak as compared with human endogenous estrogens, the consumption of phytoestrogens may have clinically significant consequences. A number of botanicals, or the compounds contained therein, have been identified as putative estrogenic agents, but consensus in the biomedical community has been hampered by conflicting data from various in vitro and in vivo models of estrogenic activity. Phytoestrogens may serve as chemopreventive agents while at the same time being capable of promoting growth in estrogen receptor positive cancer cell lines. Furthermore, they may exert their estrogenic influence through receptor-dependent and/or receptor-independent mechanisms. These findings have led to speculation that phytoestrogen intake might be ill advised for patients at an increased risk for hormone-dependent cancers, cancer patients, or cancer survivors. This article will attempt to sort out discrepancies between various experimental models and establish whether certain herbs possess estrogenic activity. The review will focus on 5 popular botanical dietary supplements: Trifolium pratense (red clover), Cimicifuga racemosa (black cohosh), Humulus lupulus (hops), Angelica sinensis (dong quai), and Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice). It will address their mechanisms of action, clinical evidence bases, and implications for use in cancer.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Breast Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Complementary Therapies / adverse effects
  • Complementary Therapies / methods
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Isoflavones / administration & dosage
  • Isoflavones / adverse effects*
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / mortality
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / pathology
  • Neoplasms, Hormone-Dependent / therapy*
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Phytotherapy / adverse effects
  • Phytotherapy / methods
  • Plant Preparations / administration & dosage
  • Plant Preparations / adverse effects*
  • Prognosis
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Risk Assessment
  • Survival Analysis


  • Isoflavones
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Plant Preparations
  • Receptors, Estrogen