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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

Soy isoflavones, estrogen therapy, and breast cancer risk: analysis and commentary

Mark J Messina1* and Charles E Wood2

Author Affiliations

1 Nutrition Matters, Inc, 439 Calhoun Street, Port Townsend, WA 98368, USA

2 Department of Pathology/Section on Comparative Medicine, Wake Forest University, School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC, USA

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Nutrition Journal 2008, 7:17  doi:10.1186/1475-2891-7-17

Published: 3 June 2008

Abstract

There has been considerable investigation of the potential for soyfoods to reduce risk of cancer, and in particular cancer of the breast. Most interest in this relationship is because soyfoods are essentially a unique dietary source of isoflavones, compounds which bind to estrogen receptors and exhibit weak estrogen-like effects under certain experimental conditions. In recent years the relationship between soyfoods and breast cancer has become controversial because of concerns – based mostly on in vitro and rodent data – that isoflavones may stimulate the growth of existing estrogen-sensitive breast tumors. This controversy carries considerable public health significance because of the increasing popularity of soyfoods and the commercial availability of isoflavone supplements. In this analysis and commentary we attempt to outline current concerns regarding the estrogen-like effects of isoflavones in the breast focusing primarily on the clinical trial data and place these concerns in the context of recent evidence regarding estrogen therapy use in postmenopausal women. Overall, there is little clinical evidence to suggest that isoflavones will increase breast cancer risk in healthy women or worsen the prognosis of breast cancer patients. Although relatively limited research has been conducted, and the clinical trials often involved small numbers of subjects, there is no evidence that isoflavone intake increases breast tissue density in pre- or postmenopausal women or increases breast cell proliferation in postmenopausal women with or without a history of breast cancer. The epidemiologic data are generally consistent with the clinical data, showing no indication of increased risk. Furthermore, these clinical and epidemiologic data are consistent with what appears to be a low overall breast cancer risk associated with pharmacologic unopposed estrogen exposure in postmenopausal women. While more research is required to definitively allay concerns, the existing data should provide some degree of assurance that isoflavone exposure at levels consistent with historical Asian soyfood intake does not result in adverse stimulatory effects on breast tissue.