Genistein: The Soy Nutrient That Puts Bone Drugs to Shame
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If you are one of the estimated 40 million US-women who are aged 51 and older—past the average age of natural menopause—you may be considering hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, to maintain youthful vigor, as well as ward-off the hazards of brittle bones and heart disease. Did you know that a nutrient in fermented soy foods has been clinically-proven to put bone drugs to shame, with no negative side effects?
Drugs like Fosamax (alendronate) and Evista (raloxifene) and hormones like estradiol (estrogen) are often prescribed by healthcare practitioners to preserve vital bone density and prevent problems associated with menopause such as fractures and osteoporosis. But what is behind the over-prescription of these drugs when a person has no symptoms, no disease, and is unaware that there is even a problem?
Medicalizing a “Non-Problem”
The marketing of “drugs as cures” by the pharmaceutical industry is a familiar trope: promotional budget (aka, wine-and-dine doctors), followed by a wave of television advertising, and prescriptions soon start flooding the populace. In many cases, a new condition is even manufactured to fit the pill.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, “More than half of all Caucasian women age 50 and older are estimated to have low bone mass, which means their bones are getting weaker but they don't yet have osteoporosis.” In the early 1990s, a consortium of doctors gathered at the World Health Organization (WHO) to decide what disease state to project onto these women. The diagnosis of osteopenia, a condition described as a precursor to osteoporosis, was the result.
It is a fact that even healthy women gradually lose bone density as they age. This natural process has been vastly over-medicalized, with more than 50% of postmenopausal white women, and 35% of same-age black women falling within the diagnostic category of osteopenia. As we explored in the article Osteoporosis Myth: The Dangers of High Bone Mineral Density, this has created a feeding frenzy for the medical industrial complex. Essentially they converted a symptomless state that most women were unaware of into a "disease" by making people think the natural thinning of bone that attends the aging process a disease. The Director of the Oregon Osteoporosis Center put it very succinctly: ''We have medicalized a non-problem." Moroever, having denser bones than is normal for one's age will significantly increase a woman's risk of malignant breast cancer.
Creating the Pill-Based Solution
In the decade that followed the conception of osteopenia, an array of bone-density drugs hit the market. In addition to Fosamax and Evista, the use of estrogen and other hormone replacement drugs to combat bone loss was popularized. Hormone Replacement Therapy, or HRT, became a popular way for aging women to combat both the inward and outward signs of a naturally-aging body, including loss of bone density.
But by the early 2000s, the harms of synthetic hormones were being increasingly validated by science. As news spread of the myths these drugs were selling, the popularity of HRT as a preventative treatment began to decline. Meanwhile, lawsuits against the makers of other bone-density drugs started stacking up. Merck Pharmaceutical has numerous pending lawsuits for Fosamax (alendronate), for tragic complications from use that include “frozen bone” syndrome which causes bones to snap in-half as if frozen solid, to the horrific “dead jaw” syndrome, where ensuing infection causes the bones of the jaw to literally crumble. Hormone therapy drug Evista’s manufacturer, Eli Lilly and Company, had to issue a warning in 2006 about increased risk of death from stroke for women who use their drug. Evista (raloxifene) has also been shown in studies to increase risks of pulmonary embolism, venous thrombosis, and coronary artery disease.
According to Dr. Susan Ott, a specialist in Metabolic Bone Disease at the University of Washington, “Many people believe that these drugs are bone-builders, but the evidence shows they are actually bone-hardeners.” This class of drugs, known as bisphosphonates, have been linked to over 40 adverse health effects. Risks associated with these drugs are most pronounced for long-term use, defined as ten years or more.
Although it is produced naturally in the body, estradiol as an estrogen replacement may have cardiotoxic and carcinogenic properties when levels are too high. Supplementation in otherwise healthy women can dangerously inflate these levels, as can any non-related health condition that causes detoxification pathways to work sub-optimally.
Genistein: Nature’s Superior Prescription
Nature has supplied humankind’s healthiest medicine cabinet since long before the American Medical Association (AMA) decided that only pharmaceutical drugs can heal people. And when it comes to maintaining healthy bones into our senior years, there is a plant-based solution that puts HRT and bone drugs to shame: it’s called genistein. An isoflavone, or bioactive flavonoid found primarily in beans such as soy, fava, garbanzos, and coffee, genistein is a phytoestrogen due to its similarity in structure to human estrogen. Eating a diet high in phytoestrogens has been attributed with alleviating symptoms of menopause and conveying preventative or therapeutic effects against cancer, atherosclerosis, and osteoporosis. Of all isoflavones, genistein possesses the strongest estrogenic activity.
The powerful effects of genistein on bone health were illustrated in a landmark study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2008. Using an animal model of menopausal osteoporosis, researchers concluded that prescription bone-density drugs alendronate (Fosamax), raloxifene (Evista), and estradiol (estrogen, E2), are all inferior to the phytoestrogen genistein in preserving bone mineral density (quantity) and strength (quality). What makes this finding so groundbreaking are the comparative benefits-versus-risks of these four different forms of treatment for bone-loss. Genistein is a plant derivative that acts naturally and holistically on the body, strengthening what is weak without causing damage to other parts of the body. In contrast, all three prescription drugs are made from biologically-foreign chemicals (xenobiotics) that can have profound, unintended adverse health effects like “frozen” and crumbling bones, among other horrific outcomes.
Genistein has been extensively researched for its potential therapeutic role in osteoporosis prevention and treatment, as well as hundreds of other health conditions. And while phytoestrogens have come under scrutiny as part of the broader reevaluation of HRT, genistein’s natural biocompatibility appears to have a more positive effect on the body than synthetic hormones in cases when endogenously-produced estrogen levels fail to meet the body's optimal requirements. Genistein’s highly selective activity is capable of binding and stimulating bone estrogen receptor sites resulting in increased strength/density for bones. Genistein has much weaker estrogenic activity compared to estradiol, yet it is capable of binding to the same estrogen receptors for a much longer duration, which may result in significant, longer-term positive effects without the risks associated with high estrogen levels. This process of binding with estrogen receptors provides an added layer of protection against cancer by preventing the estrogen from binding and initiating cancer growth.
In addition to estrogenic and anti-cancer activity, genistein is a powerful antioxidant. Consuming genistein regularly in the diet can remove dangerous free radicals from the bloodstream, effectively slowing down the aging process. Other studies show it is highly effective at lowering blood pressure and improving the quality of arterial walls, validating genistein’s cardioprotective properties.
Eat Your Way to Bone Health
The evidence speaks loudly that more awareness must be given to natural, food-based alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs, particularly when a substance has mountains of scientific data proving efficacy. Fermented soy—the most potent form of food-based genistein— has a long-standing history as a healing food, spanning many centuries and numerous cultures. Studies have shown that genistein is primarily absorbed in the GI tract, where it is extensively metabolized throughout the body. This makes food an ideal way to supplement this vital nutrient.
Natto, a traditional Japanese food made by cooking fermented soybeans, has long been believed to destroy blood clots and improve blood glow, among other benefits. Tempeh, a fermented soybean cake with a firm texture and nutty taste, is a popular protein source for vegans and vegetarians, as well as staple in the diets of many Asian countries. Miso, a fermented soybean paste used to make delicious miso soup, is an inexpensive and easy way to integrate genistein into the daily diet.
As eating well becomes more popular and even fashionable, products such as fermented soy drinks and snack foods have become available at select markets and specialty stores. Asian markets are a great place to find a large variety of fermented soy foods, however it should be noted that these labels may not indicate if the product is made from GMO-soybeans. With more than 90% of all soybeans in the world now a genetically-modified version of the crop, it is vital to source organic, non-GMO soy and genistein products. Caution should be exercised when purchasing supplements for this same reason, and because genistein’s poor solubility “may prevent absorption of larger doses without proper formulations.”
It is possible to eat your way to bone health and hormonal balance. Both your body and your bones deserve nothing less!
For additional research on the health benefits of Genistein, visit the GreenMedInfo database on the subject.
 WHO (1994). "Assessment of fracture risk and its application to screening for postmenopausal osteoporosis. Report of a WHO Study Group". World Health Organization technical report series 843: 1–129. PMID 7941614.
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