Vegan HRT

” The resulting brew is drinkable, but to me tastes sort of like overcooked spinach.”

I’ve seen quite a few posts on transgender-related Facebook groups asking about various possible plant sources of estrogens or androgens. This happens to be something I researched in some detail during the years when I was trying to get around the Harry Benjamin standards of care. The most helpful source I found during that time was a U.S. Department of Agriculture website, “Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases” (https://phytochem.nal.usda.gov/phytochem/search ). It’s a comprehensive compilation of research on chemicals found in plants and is searchable by plant species, chemical name, chemical activity and other, more technical terms.

Here’s a brief rundown on some of what I found out there in looking for sources of estrogen:

First, there’s a difference between actual estrogens and other chemicals that are estrogenic, i.e., have effects or activities that are similar to estrogens in some way and/or to some degree. The database lists a total of 81 chemicals as estrogenic (plus one more listed as possibly but not confirmed as estrogenic, rutin (see more below). In contrast, the database lists just five estrogens: estradiol, estradiol-17-beta, estriol, estrone and coumestrol.

Here is each of the estrogens and the plant sources for them, by species name followed by common names (the words in parentheses refer to the actual part of the plant in which they’re found):

Estradiol
Humulus lupulus – Hops (fruit)
Panax ginseng – Ginseng; Oriental Ginseng; Korean Ginseng; Chinese Ginseng (root)
Panax quinquefolius – American Ginseng (plant)
Punica granatum – Pomegranate (seed)

Estradiol-17-beta
Phaseolus vulgaris – Navy Bean; Green Bean; Pop Bean; Field Bean; Haricot Bean; Flageolet Bean; Snap Bean; French Bean; Black Bean; Dwarf Bean; Popping Bean; Kidney Bean; Wax Bean; String Bean; Haricot; Garden Bean; Haricot Vert (seed; i.e., the bean itself, not the pod)

Estriol
Glycyrrhiza glabra – Licorice; Smooth Licorice; Licorice-Root; Common Licorice (root)
Panax ginseng – Ginseng; Oriental Ginseng; Korean Ginseng; Chinese Ginseng (root)
Punica granatum – Pomegranate (seed)
Salix sp. – Willow (flowers)

Estrone
Humulus lupulus – Hops (fruit)
Malus domestica – Apple (seed)
Olea europaea – Olive (seed)
Panax ginseng – Ginseng; Oriental Ginseng; Korean Ginseng; Chinese Ginseng (root)
Panax quinquefolius – American Ginseng (plant)
Perilla frutescens – Perilla (sprout, seedling)
Phaseolus vulgaris – Navy Bean; Green Bean; Pop Bean; Field Bean; Haricot Bean; Flageolet Bean; Snap Bean; French Bean; Black Bean; Dwarf Bean; Popping Bean; Kidney Bean; Wax Bean; String Bean; Haricot; Garden Bean; Haricot Vert (seed)
Phoenix dactylifera – Date palm (pollen, seed)
Prunus armeniaca – Apricot (seed)
Punica granatum – Pomegranate (seed)
Zea mays – Corn, Maize (seed, oil)

Coumestrol
Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera – Brussels Sprout (shoot)
Glycine max – Soybean (shoot, plant, seed, root, leaf)
Medicago sativa – Alfalfa; Lucerne (root, sprout/seedling, leaf, shoot, plant)
Phaseolus lunatus – Lima Bean; Butter Bean (seed)
Phaseolus vulgaris – Navy Bean; Green Bean; Pop Bean; Field Bean; Haricot Bean; Flageolet Bean; Snap Bean; French Bean; Black Bean; Dwarf Bean; Popping Bean; Kidney Bean; Wax Bean; String Bean; Haricot; Garden Bean; Haricot Vert (seed)
Pisum sativum – Pea (fruit)
Psoralea corylifolia – Black Dot; Malaya Tea; Babchi (root)
Trifolium pratense – Red Clover (root, sprout, plant, flower)

One thing to be taken into consideration upfront: Estradiol is by far the strongest (i.e., the most biologically active) of these substances; all the others are far weaker, which means they would have to be consumed in much larger quantities to get the same effect. At the same time, the concentrations of all of the chemicals, including estradiol, are pretty low, so even those plants would have to be consumed in mass quantities to have any effect. It should also be mentioned that some of these plants also show up on a search of the database for chemicals with anti-estrogenic properties, which would suggest that consuming those plants would end up having no net effect.

My impression is that while many of these plants might offer some help to women dealing with the symptoms of menopause, they offer little or no help to transgenders seeking substitutes for prescription HRT. And I speak from experience, having tried some of them.

Based on my research, some years ago I decided that the most promising of these plants was red clover. For one thing, it has a much higher concentration of coumestrol than any other plant (1,322 mg/100g compared with 14.08 mg/100g for the second-place source, dry kala chana, whatever that is; so almost 100 times as strong). In addition, red clover also contains high concentrations of coumarin, a chemical precursor for anti-coagulants such as coumadin (Warfarin).

Which brings us to rutin. The USDA database cites one study (Economic & Medicinal Plant Research, 6: 189) that found estrogenic properties for rutin, a flavonoid found widely in citrus fruit and numerous other plant species. It’s also an anti-coagulant recommended for prevention of HRT-related blood clots. The USDA database lists a total of 263 plants that contain some rutin, but since it’s readily available as a nutritional supplement, I won’t go into detail.

Many of the other plant sources are also available at health food stores, pharmacies, etc. Estriol is also available in pill form outside the U.S., but in this country it’s only available in topical creams. Red clover can be found in capsules, which I personally found fairly indigestible, and also in teabags; the resulting brew is drinkable, but to me tastes sort of like overcooked spinach. (I also tried ginseng capsules for a while, with similarly disappointing results.)

Anyone who’s on HRT should avoid phytoestrogens because they bind to estrogen receptors and block the more active prescription estrogen you’re taking. If for whatever reason you’re unable to obtain prescription estrogen, you could try these phytoestrogens, but my personal experience was that they had no perceptible effect. (Which is not in any way meant to imply that they aren’t effective for treatment of menopausal symptoms; there does appear to be a fair amount of research supporting their efficacy for that purpose.)

As for the non-estrogen “estrogenic” chemicals, some may actually have stronger effects than the actual estrogens. Most are flavonoids or isoflavones, such as genistein and daidzein, which are found in abundance in soybeans. The same caveat about avoiding them while on HRT applies here, too.

Not on any of these lists is that favorite ingredient in nutritional supplements aimed at menopausal women: black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). According to USDA, black cohosh contains no estrogens, but does contain one isoflavone, Formononetin, that (like other isoflavones) has some estrogenic properties.

I apologize to any transmen readers for not including information about androgens and androgenic chemicals, but I would surmise that the same kinds of limitations and caveats apply to the phyto- sources for those types of chemicals: use only if you can’t get the prescription stuff, and don’t expect much effect.