Phytosterols: Just Can't Get Enough!

Phytosterols are natural plant derived nutrients that the body uses to produce the hormones it needs.  

They are another of the "must supplement" nutrients since, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University and other notable health researchers, the Western diet is low in phytosterols compared to early human diets which were rich in these compounds.

Hormones are chemical messengers released by a cell or endocrine gland in one part of the body that sends out messages that affect cells in other parts of the organism.  

Whereas Glyconutrients were discussed as enablers of cell-to-cell communications, phytohormones can be viewed as enablers of organ-to-organ communications.

Endocrine glands are organs such as the pancreas, adrenals, thyroids, thymus, pituitary, pineal, ovaries and testes; all of which secrete their hormones directly into the bloodstream.

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Importance of Phytosterols

The medical community seems to be obsessed with cholesterol and is determined to keep it as low as possible. 

If we got all the phytosterols we needed in our food, perhaps there wouldn't be so many prescriptions for Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor and others written. 

Right, a prime function of phytosterols is to inhibit the intestinal absorption of cholesterol.  It has been proven in numerous clinical trials that a daily diet enriched with plant sterols or stanols, does lower serum LDL cholesterol.  Low density lipoprotein is popularly known as the bad cholesterol.

The book Understanding Medicinal Plants is written to help the layman unravel the mysteries of phytosterols, saponins, lignans, glycosides, tannins and all the rest of those strange sounding words.  Click on the image to read a review and add it to your library.

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One of the most important and most prevalent of phytohormones are the phytoestrogens.  Throughout this section, we will be using phytosterols and phytohormones interchangeably. 

The estrogens produced naturally in our bodies are actually a group of hormones that have a major effect on the metabolism of nutrients such as minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fats. 

Phytoestrogens are similar to our natural estrogens and have been shown to have the same effects but can also block the action of our natural estrogens.

There are three types of phytoestrogens:  saponins, isoflavones and lignins; all of which bestow differing health benefits. 

For example, diosgenin, one of the saponins, can be converted into the natural hormones progesterone and cortisone.  Studies on this compound indicate that it may lower blood cholesterol levels, reduce blood sugar, decrease inflammation and protect against bacterial infections and even certain types of cancers.

There are about 700 known isoflavones, many of which are thought to provide protection against such health issues as cancers, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and numerous others. 

The lignin phytohormones provide the building blocks for cell walls in plants and in humans, have shown the ability to inhibit fungus growth and kill various bacteria and viruses. 

The lignins are most prevalent in whole grains, beans, vegetables and seeds.  Flax seeds are one of the best sources for lignins.

The FDA Weighs In.

About 12 years ago, 2003 to be exact, the FDA issued a letter advising its enforcement branch to use discretion in going after health claims pertinent to coronary heart disease.  They would henceforth allow some leeway concerning plant stanol and sterol esters, also known as phytosterols, and coronary health claims.  

Fast forward to 2010, in the light of new intervention studies validating such health claims, the FDA began revisiting its earlier position to possibly expand the number of foods and substances eligible for making health claims.  As of 2011, the proposed changes were still open pending the receipt and evaluation of comments from interested parties.  So far as we know the proposed changes are still pending as of the end of 2014.

A good writeup on the FDA actions and proposed changes can be seen at the FDA Law Blog of the law firm of Hyman, Phelps and McNamara, P.C. This is an issue worth following.

How much is enough?

On average, most Americans get between 2 and 4 mg/day of the phytosterols discussed above.  Natural health practitioners believe that we actually need to consume between 30 and 50 mg/day of phytosterols. 

In comparison, many Asian populations that exhibit low incidences of prostate and breast cancer consume between 20 and 80 mg/day of the isoflavone genistein, mainly from soy.  In contract, we in the U.S. might get 1 to 3 mg/day of genistein.

With all phytosterols, bioavailability (absorption) is an issue in that dietary phytohormones undergo a fermentation process in the gut and both fermented products and the phytoestrogens are absorbed into the blood stream. 

The process depends on the availability of bacteria to breakdown the food products and there are several things that can impact on the presence of such bacterial.  

Antibiotics will kill off beneficial bacteria as well as the harmful bacteria.  An inadequate intake of fiber can reduce the fermentation action of digestive bacteria. 

To get an idea of how many mg/serving some of the common sources contain, following are a few examples:

  • a half cup of wheat germ contains 197 mg
  • a tablespoon of sesame oil contains 118 mg
  • a tablespoon of corn oil contains 102 mg
  • a tablespoon of canola oil contains 92 mg
  • half a cup of wheat bran contains 58 mg
  • one ounce of almonds contains 39 mg
  • two slices of rye bread contain 33 mg
  • Lets Supplement

    Before getting into phytosterol supplementation, it is helpful to know something about the "Master Hormone", dehydroepiandrosterone.  For simplicity, we will just refer to it as DHEA.  It is a hormone made in the body, and secreted by the adrenal gland.

    DHEA serves as precursor to male and female sex hormones and the levels in the body begin to decrease after age 30, sometimes even at age 20.  Low levels of DHEA are seen in some people with anorexia, end-stage kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, AIDS, adrenal insufficiency, and in the critically ill.

    DHEA levels may also be depleted by a number of drugs, including insulin, corticosteroids, opiates, and danazol.  So the thinking is that if we can keep our DHEA levels relatively high throughout life, perhaps we can delay the aging process and avoid some of those so-called diseases of old age.

    Phytosterols: Dioscoria Villosa, Mexican Wild Yam

    This is where Dioscorea comes in; specifically Dioscorea villosa, the Mexican Wild Yam. 

    There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of plants on earth that the body can use to make hormone precursors that eventually convert to hormones, specifically DHEA, but the Mexican Wild Yam is the best.

    Just any old yam won't convert to DHEA, it has to be the Dioscorea villosa.
    Photo:  Dioscorea Villosa or Mexican Wild Yam

    However, eating a lot of Mexican Wild Yams won't do the trick.  We need a standardized quantity of sterols for the body to effect the conversion. 

    In simple terms, the more DHEA there is in the body, the more other hormones the body can produce and there are at least 70 hormones, possibly more, the endocrine glands produce for regulation of all the bodily functions.

    So since phytosterols are a natural combination of plant estrogens, steroidal saponins and amino acids, what we want to look for in a supplement is a combination of these compounds.   Beta sitosterol is one phytosterol that should be included in any phyto supplement.

    Phytosterols: Saw Palmetto, a source of beta sitosterol

    By itself or in combination with similar phytosterols, beta-sitosterol reduces blood levels of cholesterol. 

    Because the structure of beta-sitosterol is very similar to that of cholesterol, beta-sitosterol takes the place of dietary and biliary cholesterol causing less cholesterol absorption in the body.

    Photo:  Saw Palmetto, source of beta sitosterol

    Saw Palmetto Extract Organic - $25.83
    from: Starwest Botanicals Inc.

    Why not just take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or steroid drugs from your friendly physician; most will gladly comply.  

    The reason is that all synthetic hormones and steroids have harmful side effects.  HRT in particular has been linked to blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, breast cancer and endometrial cancer (uterine lining).

    A template of what an ideal phytosterol supplement should look like would be a label that shows wild yam extract, beta-sitosterol, relevant amino acids (glycine, L-arginine, L-lysine, L-glutaminc acid), and critical polysaccharides (arabinogalactans and gums).

    Please feel free to do your own research for sources of phytosterol supplements keeping in mind that phytosterol supplements, like all dietary supplements, are not intended to prevent, mitigate, cure or treat any disease condition.

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