Mother Nature’s Hormone Therapy

19 Apr


When April’s here and meadows wide

Once more with spring’s sweet growths are pied

I close each book, drop each pursuit,

And past the brook, no longer mute,

I joyous roam the countryside.  (Jessie Redmon Fauset)


[Are there deformed frogs in the brook?]


Today’s roamed countryside was the Kiplinger Natural Area on Kanner Highway in Stuart, a bundle of habitat diversity tucked into a small package—weedy meadow, brook with baby gator, mangrove swamp, river bank, low pine woods, and marsh.   The usually modest Gallberry was having its 15 minutes of fame with millions of white flowers abuzz with happy bees.  White Pinebarren Aster (Oclemena reticulata) and Elliott’s Milkpea (Galactia elliottii) splashed more white into nature’s garden.  Rabbit Bells (Crotalaria rotundifolia) were at their yellow best, and Smilax reached out with tender new tendrils and its yellow-green “lily” blossoms.

Galactia elliottii (All photos today by John Bradford)

Galactia elliottii (All photos today by John Bradford)

We’ll zoom in (again) on Smilax as an example of plants able to make compounds, phytoestrogens,  that mimic or interfere with mammalian estrogen hormones and related functions.  A lot of natural and unnatural chemicals do that. The “Silent Spring of the 90s,” increasing public awareness of environmental estrogens, was “Our Stolen Future,” 1997 by Theo Colborn and collaborators.



There are things to worry about in the estrogen endocrine-disrupting realm.

Thing 1:  Natural botanical “phytoestrogens” can impact animals, including humans for better or worse, an observation not lost on diet- and herbal-conscious writers.   When we talk of artificial estrogens, we’re not merely talking about potentially feminized males (although possible, as in the famous “teenie weenies” on Lake Apopka gators),  but also fundamental developmental disruption and cancers, especially breast cancers.  Hormonal  activity and the altered gene control of cancers are no doubt intertwined.  As two examples of dietary plant-derived phytoestrogenic booboos, A) multiple post-menopausal women have suffered uterine ailments apparently from high consumption of soy products (legumes can be high in phytoestrogens).   And B) a man developed breast cancer after six years of herbal remedies rich in phytoestrogens.

Some observers suspect that traditional plant medicines for reproductive complaints often tend to involve phytoestrogens or similar endocrine-active compounds.  After all, the first birth control pills came indirectly from yams.   And that brings us back to Smilax.

Smilax is a popular trail nibble and as a genus serves worldwide in traditional medicines including several hormonally related problems, including menstrual  complaints, perimenopausal symptoms (for which it is promoted), impotence, prostate enlargement, childbirth, and psoriasis, which has a hormonal connection.   Smilax is a much-touted source of hormonally active compounds..

(Disclaimers:  I am using the term “phytoestrogen” broadly to include compounds that mimic estrogens, or that impact directly or indirectly regulation of the mammalian estrogen-related system.  Also, Smilax has traditional non-reproductive uses too, and of course human history is loaded with attempts to alleviate reproductive ailments.)

Moving on to additional worrisome things:

Thing 2.  My colleague Maura Merkal last week shared a  report on pesticides in South Florida waters:  “Ambient Pesticide Monitoring Network:  1992-2007” (linked below).  Here is a fun fact from the report:  The chlorinated agricultural and lawn-grass herbicide Atrazine turned up at every sampling location.   Did I mention, every sampling location in our general area.   1517 detections.

Crummy, but how does it tie to Smilax?   We’re getting there.  A recent issue of the New Yorker Magazine (Feb. 10 2014)  recounted an epic battle between  University of California researcher Dr. Tyrone Hayes and the manufacturer of Atrazine.   The rub grew out of Dr. Haye’s research conclusions that a profitable herbicide is an estrogen-related source of developmental deformities in amphibians, or let’s call them canaries in the water.

To comfort ourselves we may say, sure there’s Atrazine in all the water, but optimists and vested interests claim the effects are not proven, and the concentrations are low.  (It was not “proven” that cigarettes cause lung cancer.)  There’s been a loud  “Hayes is nuts”  reaction to his research, including assertions that the results can’t be replicated and that his alarm is debunked.  But there are also independent indications that Hayes is not nuts, and there is evidence of human damage from Atrazine in the water.  It would be an understatement to call this dispute controversial.   Interested persons can conduct their own Google research on this remarkable dustup.   (Readers interested in a broad history of inconvenient research in relation to economic interests might enjoy David Michaels’s “Doubt is Their Product.”)

Thing 3.  Now let’s worry that no matter how hormonally pernicious Atrazine may or may not be, there are a lot of additional estrogen-interfering chemicals in the air and water.  Addiitonal estrogen-related compounds haunt the Ambient Pesticide study.  And even if Atrazine is in “low” concentrations now, we’re adding more and more, and what about combined effects of mixed estrogen mimics?  That brings us to worrisome thing #4.

Thing 4:  According to Our Stolen Future and other sources, hormonally-related chemicals can work in astoundingly low concentrations exponentially below what we tend to talk about in terms of toxicity thresholds, such as killing water-fleas.  (“Didn’t kill the fleas, so I guess we’re safe” does not comfort me.)   Hormones and their mimics seem to have chronic effects at levels of parts per billion, or, yikes, even parts per trillion.  But admittedly all very general and murky.

To  return to native plants, why would a natural organic plant be so crass as to make hormonally -interfering compounds?   Plants able to sabotage their herbivores’ baby-making don’t get gobbled.  Human case in point:  Cottonseed oil, containing phytoestrogens, is touted as a potential male oral contraceptive.  Turns out couples in regions heavy on dietary cottonseed oil have trouble making babies.

Are Dr. Hayes and his supporters correct?   As the detractors say, there is no “proof,”  but the fear of Dollarweed in my lawn ranks below my fear of impaired aquatic ecosystems, deformed babies, and adolescent cancers.



Ambient Pesticide report

More on Dr. Hayes, Atrazine,  and the New  Yorker article

More on Atrazine and people:

Digest this before scarfing down herbal remedies 

Interesting blog on phytoestrogens

New  Yorker article


Posted by on April 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


15 responses to “Mother Nature’s Hormone Therapy

  1. theshrubqueen

    April 20, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Is there Atrazine in the groundwater on the Treasure Coast?

  2. George Rogers

    April 20, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    I have no factual data, but given that it is basically everywhere, I’d guess almost certainly yes.

  3. theshrubqueen

    April 20, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    I was afraid you were going to say that, Thanks.
    Thanks for the phytoestrogen information as well. I have always felt like taking that stuff was playing with fire.

  4. George Rogers

    April 20, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Right—I think it is pretty clear that wild plants are loaded with defensive chemicals, even if subtle or slow-acting. Except for proven wild fruits, I kinda like to get my grains and greens from species subjected to centuries of cultivation. And rarely even then in an unbalanced diet there could be trouble as noted above.

    • theshrubqueen

      April 20, 2014 at 5:15 pm

      Nothing better than the cooperative wheat..If there was a war I think Smilax won, I am truly amazed by its range and prolificity (if that is a word)

  5. Mike Y

    April 21, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    Hey George, I’ve always been curious as to why the loblolly bays like that site so much. It is not really common in any of our other natural areas but goes absolutely bonkers on the Kiplinger tract. Any thoughts?

  6. George Rogers

    April 21, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    Best loblolly display in town, but I have no useful idea why.

  7. Jen Foglia

    April 21, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    This was a very interesting read! I even downloaded the document and read a lot of it. Is there a shorter version of it to read with more details about which supplements and plants have phyto estrogen? I didnt have time to read the 350 pages. I also went on a very long off road bike ride last Sunday into JD park via the Florida to Ocean Lake Trail (which is inaccessible by vehicles, only foot and bike traffic) and saw a lot of leather ferns, ball moss, spanish moss, hog plum, painted sedge, and miles of smileax (it got me a few times on the legs) but not one vine of poison ivy! I also saw a lot of lizards tail and other varieties of ferns plus the cactus were all in bloom! I took a lot of pictures of the other flowering plants that I couldn’t identify so I could show Dr. Rogers in class Thursday. I noticed there were two different varieties of beauty berry? It looked variegated because some were solid green and others had yellow mixed with green.



    • George Rogers

      April 24, 2014 at 9:17 pm

      Hi Jennifer, You are so lucky to get to go explore, and hopefully the new plant knowledge makes exploring even more fun. Enjoyed seeing you in JD Park today!

  8. prautenkranz

    April 23, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    It has been a pleasure taking this course. I can now identify many native species that look at everyday. Still working on rushes and sedges! Thanks Doc Rodgers!

  9. George Rogers

    April 24, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Paul, Keep saying those plant names in your brain, and join us for the grass and sedge class when it runs—sometime before too long. Thanks for making the fieldtrips more fun.

  10. Click Here

    April 26, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Thank you, I really appreciate this information- so much misinformation and strong opinions are out there and it is very difficult to sort through and find things that make sense and ring true. Love the sensuous background very natural.

    • George Rogers

      April 26, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      I agree with you! Misinformation and strong opinions are driving me nuts!

  11. SmallHouseBigGarden

    April 27, 2014 at 10:16 am

    lots to digest here. I’m off to explore the related links attached to this post.

  12. George Rogers

    April 27, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Don’t digest anything loaded with ‘mones.


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