Once known primarily for its eliminative, detoxifying and cleansing activities, red clover is making headlines because of the role it can play in establishing hormone balance and fighting cancer.
Once known primarily for its eliminative, detoxifying and cleansing activities, red clover is making headlines because of the role it can play in establishing hormone balance and fighting cancer. In fact, these familiar roadside blossoms are among the top three sources of phytoestrogens, along with soy and licorice.
Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens that bind with and activate human estrogen receptors. They’re extremely weak compared with human hormones, but when included in the diet they are able to help normalize estrogen and progesterone levels.
Phytoestrogens block estrogen if there is too much in the body. They can also protect women from environmental, hormone-like toxins. If there is not enough estrogen, these substances fill the gap. For menopausal women, whose estrogen levels have dropped, this means relief from such symptoms as hot flashes and night sweats. Phytoestrogens have also been linked with improving the health of the arteries in women, reducing the risk of heart disease associated with menopause.
Research into the effects of phytoestrogens stemmed from observing Asian women. Menopause seems to leave these women relatively unscathed–there is not even a word or phrase in Japanese for hot flash! A study of 2,300 Thai women confirmed this. Only 10 percent of the women in the study experienced hot flashes; even fewer had other menopausal symptoms.
About 85 percent of menopausal North American women suffer from hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, memory loss and vaginal dryness. Studies on Asian women who followed a more Western diet revealed a higher risk of hormone-related diseases–indicating that diet played a greater role than genetics.
Research has focussed on isoflavone compounds–the phytoestrogens–in these diets. Soy products have gained the most press, but sweet potatoes, pumpkin, legumes, carrots, garlic, red wine, barley, green beans and oats are all also rich in isoflavones.
Red clover, a legume, is actually the most abundant source of the four main natural isoflavones: daidzein and genistein and their precursors, biochanin and formononetin.
Studies on red clover have shown that its success is comparable to hormone replacement therapy, particularly in the heart health area. One study on 25 women showed that the extract reduced the number and severity of hot flashes during treatment. Among others, a 1998 study of 36 women confirmed this effect. In this study, women were either given a placebo, one 40 milligram red-clover-based tablet or four 40 mg red-clover-based tablets per day. The women taking 160 mg per day exhibited the greatest reduction in menopausal symptoms. This is good news for women who wish to balance their hormones without the bloating, irritability, breast tenderness and intermittent bleeding associated with hormone replacement therapy.
One of the early common misconceptions was that phytoestrogens should be avoided in estrogen-dependent cancers such as that of the breast. In fact, the opposite is true. Genistein has been shown to inhibit the formation of blood vessels that feed tumors and is a potent antioxidant. One study showed that genistein actually induced destruction of breast cancer cells.
Some researchers have explained the "phytoestrogen paradox" through the recent discovery of estrogen receptors that are able to use the phytoestrogens to fight estrogen-dependent disease. Also, both genistein and daidzein decrease estrogen production and have an overall anti-estrogen effect. They have been linked to reduced risk of breast, endometrial and salivary gland cancer.
In 1997, the Medical Journal of Australia even reported the case of a 66-year-old physician who took a red-clover-based product for one week and experienced tumor regression. The cell death resembled the effect of high-dose estrogen therapy–with no adverse side-effects.
This knowledge isn’t new. Thirty-three cultures around the world use red clover to treat cancer. Dr J Hartwell of the National Cancer Institute isolated the four main isoflavones in 1970. Even though such synthetic drugs as Tamoxifen work in the same way as red clover, it wasn’t until 20 years later that any article on the anti-tumor properties of the legume was published.
With more researchers rediscovering and expanding on the initial work into this natural alternative to toxic pharmaceuticals, it won’t be long before mainstream medicine will be seeing red!