How to Block Breast Cancer’s Estrogen-Producing Enzymes

The vast majority of breast cancers start out “hormone-dependent,” meaning the primary human estrogen, called “estradiol plays a crucial role in [breast cancer] development and progression.” That’s one of the reasons why soy food consumption appears so protective against breast cancer—because soy phytoestrogens, like genistein, act as estrogen-blockers. They block the binding of estrogens, like estradiol, to breast cancer cells.

But, wait a second. “The majority of breast cancers occur [after menopause], when the ovaries have [stopped producing estrogen].” What’s the point of eating estrogen blockers if there’s no estrogen to block? It turns out the breast cancer tumors themselves produce their own estrogen from scratch to fuel their own growth.

Estrogens may be formed in breast tumors by multiple pathways. The breast cancer takes cholesterol, and, using the aromatase enzyme, or two hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzymes, produces its own estrogen.

So, there’s two ways to stop breast cancer. One is to use “antiestrogens,” estrogen-blockers, like the soy phytoestrogens, or “the anti-estrogen [drug] tamoxifen…However, another way to block estradiol is by using anti-enzymes” to prevent the breast cancer from making all the estrogen in the first place.

And, indeed, there are a variety of anti-aromatase drugs in current use. In fact, inhibiting the estrogen production has been shown to be “more effective” than just trying to block the effects of the estrogen—”suggesting that the inhibition of estrogen synthesis is clinically very important for the treatment of estrogen-dependent breast cancer.” It turns out soy phytoestrogens can do both.

Using ovary cells taken from women undergoing in vitro fertilization, soy phytoestrogens were found to reduce the expression of the aromatase enzyme. What about in breast cancer cells, though? Breast cancer cells, too—not only suppressing aromatase activity, but the other estrogen-producing enzyme, too.

But, this is in a petri dish. Does soy suppress estrogen production in people too Well, circulating estrogen levels appear significantly lower in Japanese women than American white women. And, Japan does have the highest per capita soy food consumption. But, you don’t know it’s the soy until you put it to the test. Japanese women were randomized to add soymilk to their diet—or not—for a few months. Estrogen levels did seem to drop about a quarter in the soymilk-supplemented group. Interestingly, when they tried the same experiment in men, they got similar results: a significant drop in female hormone levels, with no change in testosterone levels.

These results, though, are in Japanese men and women that were already consuming soy in their baseline diet. So, it’s really just looking at “higher versus lower…soy intake.”

What happens if you give soymilk to women in Texas? Circulating estrogen levels cut in half. Since increased estrogen levels are a “[marker] for high risk for breast cancer,” the effectiveness of soy to reduce estrogen levels may help explain why Chinese and Japanese women have such low rates of breast cancer.

And, what was truly remarkable is that estrogen levels stayed down a month or two, even after they stopped drinking it. This suggests you don’t have to consume soy every day to have the cancer-protective benefit.

Doctor’s Note

Wait, soy protects against breast cancer? Yes, in study after study after study. Even in women at high risk? See BRCA Breast Cancer Genes & Soy.

Even if you already have breast cancer? See Is Soy Healthy for Breast Cancer Survivors?

Even GMO soy? See GMO Soy & Breast Cancer.

Okay, then, Who Shouldn’t Eat Soy? Watch that video too! 🙂

What else can we do to decrease breast cancer risk? See:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United

How Much Soy Should You Eat To Lower Breast Cancer Risk?

So, we know 7 to 18 servings of soy a day may neutralize some of the beneficial effects of avoiding animal protein. At the same time, studies have repeatedly found that women who eat lots of soy appear to have a lower risk of getting breast cancer, and a better risk of surviving breast cancer than those who don’t eat soy. So is there some magic number of soy food servings we should shoot for?

So far we know that somewhere between 7 and 18 may not be so good, so more than 18 definitely gets the axe. This two year study found no effect on IGF levels of adding two servings of soy foods daily, whether they were tofu, soy milk, soy nuts, or the concentrated soy isolate found in plant-based meats, protein bars, or protein powder; still fine.

Still got a big range here. This study suggested 5 to 10 servings a day was bad— increased IGF—so we’re kind of slowly but surely narrowing down the safety window. Same year in Japan; three servings a day cleared the IGF radar. And then, that’s it. That’s all the science we have so far.

The bottom line is that legumes should be a part of everyone’s daily diet, which means lentils, peas, and/or beans, ideally with each of our meals—of which soy is an excellent choice. But, I recommend that we should probably stick to no more than 3 to 5 servings a day.

Doctor’s Notes

This is the fourth in a string of videos on the role plant and animal proteins play in determining levels of the cancer-promoting growth hormone IGF-1. Also see IGF-1 as One-Stop Cancer ShopProtein Intake and IGF-1 ProductionHigher Quality May Mean Higher RiskAnimalistic Plant Proteins; and Too Much Soy May Neutralize Benefits. For the role soy plays in extending breast cancer survival, see Breast Cancer Survival and Soy. And, I’ve got dozens of other videos on soy.

For further context, be sure to check out my associated blog posts: How Much Soy Is Too Much? and Why Less Breast Cancer in Asia?

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United

BRCA Breast Cancer Genes & Soy Consumption Research Results

Why do people who eat legumes—beans, chickpeas, split peas, and lentils—live longer? Well, men and women who eat legumes tended towards being lighter, having a slimmer waist, lower blood sugars, lower cholesterol, lower triglycerides, better kidney function, lower blood pressure, and so—no surprise—may live longer. But, interestingly, bean intake was “a better protectant against mortality in women than men.” They think this may be because cancer was the leading killer of women in this population—especially breast cancer. And, we know that breast cancer survivors who eat soy foods, for example, have a significantly lower likelihood of the cancer recurrence. Eating soy foods appears to protect against the cancer coming back. This 2012 review looked at three prospective human studies done to date, and found that women who ate the most soy had a 29% lower risk of dying from breast cancer, and a 36% lower risk of cancer recurrence. And, a fourth study was since published, and it showed the same thing. “[S]oy food intake is associated with longer survival and lower recurrence among breast cancer patients. With an average intake of soy phytonutrients above 17 milligrams a day, which is about what’s found in a single cup of soy milk, the mortality of breast cancer may be able to be reduced by as much as 38%.

Here’s the survival curve over five years. The purple line represents the survival of the women with the highest soy consumption. As you can see, after two years, all the breast cancer survivors eating lots of soy were still alive. But, a quarter to a third of the women who ate the least soy were dead. And, after five years, 90% of the tofu-lovers were still alive and kicking, whereas half of the tofu-haters kicked the bucket. And, you can see a similar relationship when you look at breast cancer survival and soy protein intake, as opposed to soy phytonutrient intake.

How does soy so dramatically decrease cancer risk, and improve survival? Soy may actually help turn back on BRCA genes. BRCA is a so-called caretaker gene, an oncosuppressor—meaning a cancer-suppressing gene responsible for DNA repair. Mutations in this gene can cause a rare form of hereditary breast cancer, popularized by Angelina Jolie’s public decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy.

But, only about 5% of breast cancers run in families. So, 95% of breast cancer victims have fully functional BRCA genes. So, if their DNA-repair mechanisms are intact, how did breast cancer form, grow, and spread? Well, tumors do it by suppressing the expression of the gene, through a process called methylation. The gene’s fine, but cancer found a way to turn it off, or at least turn it down—potentially facilitating the metastatic spread of the tumor.

And, that’s where soy may come in. Maybe the reason soy intake is associated with increased survival and decreased cancer recurrence is because the phytonutrients in soy turn back on your BRCA protection—removing the methyl straightjacket the tumor tried to place on it.

So, researchers put it to the test. These are three different types of human breast cancer, specially stained so that the expression of BRCA genes turns up brown. So, this is what full DNA repair would look like—hopefully, what normal breast cells would look like. Lots of brown, lots of BRCA expression. But, instead, we have column two, raging breast cancer.

Well, if you add soy phytonutrients back to the cancer, BRCA does indeed get turned back on. The DNA repair appears to start ramping back up—though this was at a pretty hefty dose, equivalent to about a cup of soybeans.

Their results suggest that treatment with soy phytonutrients “might reverse DNA hypermethylation, and restore the expression” of the tumor-suppressor genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. May help with other breast cancer genes, as well. “Women at increased [genetic] risk of breast cancer may especially benefit from high [soy] intake.”

Doctor’s Notes

Legumes leading to a longer life? See Increased Lifespan from Beans.

No matter what genes we inherit, changes in diet can affect DNA expression at a genetic level. For example, see:

I’ve previously covered the available science in Breast Cancer Survival & Soy. Other effects are detailed in:

It may be possible to overdo beans, though (see How Much Soy Is Too Much?).

For further context, check out my associated blog posts: Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2013 and Can Eating Soy Prevent Breast Cancer?

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United

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