June 2002 Newsletter
Welcome to the second issue of Whole World of Herbs, my email newsletter for consumers and professionals interested in the better health and healing offered by South American medicinal herbs. You’re receiving this newsletter because you’ve recently ordered from us, or signed up to receive this free email report..
— Viana Muller, Ph.D.
Dear Viana: Is Maca Estrogenic?
I received the following email recently, and feel that it is so important that I should share the letter and my response with all my readers. — Viana
I saw an article that suggested that the herb maca might raise the risk of cancer. Could you address this issue and explain whether maca is something to be concerned about for some women?
— Maria, Age 48, Baltimore, MD
The research you are talking about came out this spring, and suggested that some herbal treatments may increase the risk of breast and uterine cancer for women who already have risk factors for these types of cancer. The study, which was conducted with animals, was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in San Francisco, by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.
The herbs that were in question were:
- Red clover and motherwort — herbs that are frequently recommended for “women’s problems” or gynecological concerns.
- Saw palmetto and rhodiola rosea root, which have a strong estrogenic effect
- Extracts of maca root, cramp bark and turmeric root, which exhibited modest estrogenic activity
Also, in previous studies, other herbs that showed strong estrogen activity include dong quai root, black and blue cohosh, vitex berry, hops flower, wild yam and licorice root.
These various plants are all frequently used by women to deal with various menopausal symptoms, and symptoms that are related to a deficiency in estrogen.
According to the study’s author, Patricia Eagon, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, “Despite the fact that these are plants, we demonstrated considerable estrogenic activity — including the ability to bind to estrogen receptors” in a manner similar to the way estrogen or estrogen replacement can do.
In the presentation, the experts cautioned that if there are medical reasons not to use estrogen, you probably should not use these herbs. In particular, they cautioned women who are at risk for estrogen-sensitive breast and uterine cancers to be particular careful about use of these herbs.
I think this study definitely raises important questions. There is great confusion over the role of normal physiological functioning, which includes the body’s making its own estrogen and the development of breast cancer. I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers!
But the body’s hormonal system is incredibly delicate and even estrogen at parts per million make a difference to our hormonal system. That is why I consider the practice of putting estrogen pellets in the ears or other parts of a cow’s body during the last six weeks of fattening up the animals before their slaughter to be used as meat to be a criminal act. Yet it is completely legal and is done routinely by companies that sell beef. Chickens also are routinely fed estrogen to increase their weight (thereby increasing the profit on them). When you add up the exposure we get from meats, and also from cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and milk — which also contain the estrogen given to the dairy cows — American women and men are virtually assaulted with estrogen-laced food.
Add to that the estrogenic effects of many pesticides (which have a chemical structure nearly identical to estrogen and which attach to the estrogen receptors in the breast, uterus, and the prostate) and you begin to get a good idea of why one in eight women eventually develop breast cancer (and not counting here the others who develop uterine and vaginal cancer) and why one in three men eventually get prostate cancer. Then count in the estrogen present in birth control pills which women often stay on for years, coupled with the Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) taken by women for years beginning in perimenopause or menopause. It should come as no surprise that the breast cancer rate is so high.
I can safely assert that it is very uncommon for a woman who has NOT been bombarded with these external commercially added estrogens to develop breast cancer. At the beginning of the twentieth century, one woman in a hundred eventually developed breast cancer–compared to the one in eight now. Medical consumers–that’s us!– should all be on an outraged campaign to get the estrogens removed from our food supply and to stop the use of these dangerous estrogen-like pesticides. Then we women have to make some hard choices about birth control and some educated choices about menstrual irregularities, PMS, and menopausal ills–since there are safe and effective alternatives to the use of drugs for these normal, physiological functions — alternatives such as the use of certified organic maca root extract.
Instead of educating women and men about the environmental dangers to our reproductive organs, the medical establishment blames a woman’s physiology as the cause of breast cancer! They back this up by pointing to studies that show that girls who menstruate early or go into menopause late–or both–have a statistically higher rate of breast cancer. This kind of spin on things can make women afraid of their own bodies or feel that God has played some kind of dirty trick on them–making their own body’s natural functioning somehow dangerous.
This is further reinforced by endless attention given to the “breast cancer gene” which is responsible for less than 5% of breast cancer!
Are Phytoestrogens and Estrogenic Herbs Dangerous?
The real question then is whether it is dangerous to take herbs or foods that act as phytoestrogens (phyto=plant) such as black cohosh, red clover, licorice root, dong quai, etc. Keep in mind that the phytoestrogens also includes soy products. I will discuss maca separately because it does NOT contain phytoestrogens.
I would have to agree with the point of view of the researchers, that these herbs CAN increase the risk of breast cancer, but probably only because these herbs and foods are not treated as “food like” but are more “drug like” in that they are sold as products that are highly concentrated — not as they grow in nature. To give one example, for which there is ample evidence, the use of soy products which contain isoflavones, which are a group of chemical compounds found in soy which have an estrogenic effect on the body. The traditional Japanese diet which is heavy on the use of soy products, including tofu, has been investigated by researchers and has been found to have a protective effect against breast cancer. That is because the amount of isoflavones found in soy foods is quite small–just enough to hook on to the estrogen receptors in the breast and uterus, thereby preventing stronger estrogens–such as excess human estrogen, or horse estrogen (made from horse’s urine which forms the basis of Premarin) or synthetic factory made strong estrogen implanted in cattle and fed to chickens–from hooking on to these estrogen receptors. But these plant estrogens are so weak (the strongest of them has only 1/200th the amount of estrogen as human estrogen) that they really are not very helpful for hot flashes or mood swings (and certainly have no effect on energy level, vaginal dryness, loss of libido, hair and nail growth, etc.) So in order to help relieve the menopausal symptoms of hot flashes and mood swings, the manufacturers of these herbal and soy supplements highly concentrate the amount of phytoestrogens (in the case of soy, isoflavones) in order to make them more effective for these symptoms. (No amount of phytoestrogenic herbs however will be helpful for vaginal dryness or loss of libido–both very common during menopause.
Highly concentrated phytoestrogenic herbs–and foods such as soy–are now causing concern because it is apparent that they are stimulating by providing excessive estrogen. This can be potentially dangerous and lead to breast cancer in certain women who are more genetically vulnerable, as the researchers point out.
But in my opinion, it is very doubtful whether these herbs and foods–not monkeyed around with by the supplements industry–i.e. highly concentrated in a drug-like fashion–will be potentially harmful. Although they may be –and usually are–relatively mild and relatively ineffective.
So what about maca? Is it estrogenic? Here are some facts.
1. Maca does NOT contain plant estrogens, or any other hormones. It has plant sterols that act in a way that is not yet well understood. These sterols are used by the body with the help of the pituitary to improve adrenal function, ovarian and testicular function, as well as the functioning of the thyroid and the pancreas, and the pineal gland (which makes melatonin). That is why it is so much more effective and full spectrum than phytoestrogens for regulating hormonal balance: it just makes the endocrine glands work better.
2. Estrogen dominance is believed to play a role in the development of breast cancer. As an adaptogenic herb, maca often corrects the symptoms of estrogen dominance, including relief from PMS and dissolving ovarian cysts and fibroid tumors. Additionally, we have some reports from women who show an increased progesterone level on their saliva tests after using Royal Maca® for 6 weeks. Progesterone plays a protective role against tumor formation in the presence of estrogen.
But the question still remains: can maca EVER have a “stimulating” rather than a “balancing” effect? The answer is yes, it CAN be stimulating under certain circumstances which are almost always dependent on the dosage involved. But stimulation can be easily avoided by paying attention to your body’s response to the dosage you give it. Stimulation with maca produces symptoms, the most common being breast tenderness. Other possible symptoms are a headache or INCREASED hot flashes! That is why I recommend starting with a small dose of certified organic (guaranteed potent and non-toxic) whole root maca extract and gradually increase it if you need to.
For women with PMS or thyroid imbalance this would usually be 2 capsules daily or 1/4 to 1/3 tsp. daily. But for women who are small and/or very sensitive, I recommend starting at one capsule or 1/8 tsp. daily. That dosage can be kept for one menstrual cycle. If the effect seems too mild (not very effective) the dosage can be increased during the next cycle to 3 caps or ½ tsp. a day (or for the very sensitive person from one capsule to two capsules daily). For women with menopausal symptoms, most will need a minimum of 3 caps (1/2 tsp.) daily. Again, the very sensitive menopausal woman may only need 2 caps daily. Dosage can be increased on a weekly basis if this amount is not sufficient until the optimum (minimum effective) dosage is found.
I have found that some women who start to take maca will not increase their estrogen level at all, but their progesterone level will significantly increase. So maca does appear to work in an adaptogenic way if the physiologically correct dosage is taken and this varies greatly from person to person.
I want to point out that it is not only drugs or herbs which can be stimulating. Food also can be stimulating, as many women with hot flashes can testify. Some foods which can stimulate hot flashes are: coffee, alcohol, and sugar. Caffeine is well known to stimulate breast lumps (benign tumors). And fatty foods, such as ice cream and cheese, will often stimulate breast tenderness in sensitive women. These women need to be extra careful in their dosage of maca: a tiny amount will be effective for you and you will be prone to overstimulation–which your body will let you know.
If a woman has a history of breast cancer in her family, she may want to be extra vigilant about her hormone levels. I recommend that all women, but especially these women, establish what their base hormone levels of estradiol and progesterone are before beginning to take maca and then retest after 8 weeks of taking maca. They will be able to see if their estradiol level went up and by how much and if their progesterone level went up and by how much.
I strongly recommend if you have ever had breast or uterine cancer that yourself that you get the advice of a trusted health care practitioner before making the decision about whether to take maca. There are no studies yet on its safety for women who have had breast cancer. Of course, it is also very helpful to work with a knowledgeable health care practitioner who can help interpret the results and give good advice. If there is no such practitioner available to you locally, I know several who do telephone consultations. If you send me an email at [email protected], I can give you contact information.
Several doctors who use Royal Maca® with their patients have expressed to me that they believe this product can actually decrease a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer because taken correctly it improves hormonal balance (including adrenal functioning) and improves immune system function. These doctors believe that hormonal imbalance is a great contributor to the development of breast cancer. In addition to the xeno-estrogens (in pesticides and plastics) and the hormonal drugs given to animals and humans as causes of breast cancer, other factors include stress (which throws off adrenal functioning and tends to send the body’s estrogen down) and exposure to radiation through nuclear power plants and to low level electromagnetic energy (women workers on repair of telephone lines have a high rate of breast cancer).
Other measures women can take to avoid estrogen dominance include eating fiber rich diets (excess estrogen will be carried out with the bowel movements), exercising (aerobic exercise lowers estrogen level), and having sufficient Omega 3 fats (including ground flax seeds or oil and fatty fish in their diet. For women who are not using maca extract, progesterone supplements can also be helpful. For those who are taking maca, this is an option, but not necessary.
All the best,
Starting with this issue of the Whole World of Herbs, you’ll find a section called “Health Action.” It’s basically about “Health Democracy.” and is based on the assumption that we can’t take for granted our access to the botanicals –both herbs and foods–that we as educated consumers want and need or to the type of health care that we feel is the best for us. This column will provide information that you might have missed in other news sources and will suggest an action that you could take to help preserve or improve our access to what we choose to keep our bodies healthy.
This month’s Health Action item is: GENETIC ENGINEERING ACTION ALERT
Contact your Members of Congress and Senators today. Ever since agribusiness started growing and selling GMO (genetically modified organism) food, U.S. consumers have been demanding that this food be labeled so that consumers can decide whether they wish to buy this type of food. The companies that produce this food (labelled “Frankenfood” by some) don’t want consumers to know what they are buying because they are afraid that we will reject genetically modified food. So far, the agribusiness lobbying has been working, and consumers have been kept in the dark. It is estimated that 40% of prepared foods contain GMO’s, so we are not talking about something rare and unusual anymore. Now we finally have a bill before Congress that would require that genetically modified food be labeled as such, so that you will have a choice about whether to buy it and eat it.
I’m pleased to be able to bring you our second issue of Whole World of Herbs. Please bear with us as we finetune our voice, tweak our format, and determine how best to meet your information needs. If you have ideas or suggestions for the newsletter, I welcome your thoughts.
Thanks again for subscribing to A Whole World of Herbs.
Hasta el próximo mes (Until next month),
“A Whole World of Herbs” email newsletter is published regularly by Viana Muller, Ph.D. Please invite your friends to subscribe! Send them a copy with your recommendation.
NOTE: All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should seek prompt medical care for any specific health issues and consult your physician or health practitioner before starting any supplements, vitamins, diet programs, fitness regimens, or changing prescribed treatments or medications. The statements contained herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, mitigate or prevent any disease.
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“A Whole World of Herbs” is copyright © 2002, Viana Muller.