I’ve searched your archive in vain–how is it that the vital 6eld of phytoestrogen research has escaped your scrutiny? The straight dope, please: Can herbal supplements containing phytoestrogen truly increase a woman’s breast size significantly? Is this method safe, or are there negative side effects (sure they’re bigger, but they feel like baseballs)? You know you’re the only source I trust. –Impatient, via e-mail
You don’t need me to help you figure this one out, Imp. You need about as much brains as you’d find in the average fish tank. Obviously if the stuff worked as advertised it’d be the hottest thing since Viagra and half the women on the planet by now would look like Salma Hayek. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying phytoestrogens don’t have their advantages–just not the one most purchasers are looking for.
For those who don’t know phyto from fiduciary, a little theory: Phytoestrogens are chemicals found in plants that mimic the female sex hormone estrogen. Female sex hormones give rise to female secondary sex characteristics, e.g., the enlargement (sometimes to an impressive degree) of the milk-producing glands whence the class Mammalia derives its name. Ergo, some would reason, phytoestrogens = more hormones = bigger tits.
Elements of said reasoning are not entirely without basis in fact. For one thing, some plants undeniably yield significant amounts of phytoestrogens when eaten, notably soy, hops, flaxseed, alfalfa, and red clover. Second, phytoestrogens do have a measurable impact on human biochemistry–one study showed that men given soy milk daily for two to four weeks experienced a 13 to 14 percent decrease in two key hormones. For those running a significant estrogen deficit, such as postmenopausal women or male-to-female transsexuals, it’s not impossible that phytoestrogens could increase estrogen levels.
But probably not by much. The main phytoestrogen in soybeans, genistein, for instance, is only 0.1 percent as strong as the human-produced variety. For women who do produce enough estrogen of their own, phytoestrogens actually decrease overall estrogen activity by competing with the homegrown estrogen for positions on estrogen receptor sites; when phytoestrogens latch onto these sites, they push aside the real estrogen and provide only a weaker version. In fact, that could be their real benefit, some experts think–by lowering the body’s effective estrogen level, phytoestrogens may reduce a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. But here’s the thing: if so, they’d likely make breasts smaller, not larger.
In short, whatever uses phytoestrogens may have, increasing breast size isn’t one of them. Many breast-enlargement products contain only small amounts of phytoestrogens anyway, and none has been proven to work in double-blind laboratory tests.
So if they don’t work, why are people allowed to advertise them for breast enhancement? Because these products are sold as dietary supplements (like vitamins), not as medical treatments. As such, they don’t require Food and Drug Administration approval and thus aren’t subject to rigorous testing before hitting the shelves. The government can still go after them, though. The Federal Trade Commission and state consumer protection agencies have acted on complaints in several cases: the company that sold Herbal Breast Advantage was sued by the Washington State attorney general’s office for its breast-enhancement claims; the FTC sued Vital Dynamics over its Isis System (obtaining a $22 million settlement) and Wellquest International over its Bloussant breast-enhancement product. (An Arizona company, C.P. Direct, was shut down for making claims about its various herbal products, which besides a breast enlarger included a penis-growth pill called Longitude and something called Stature that was supposed to make you taller. And no, Impatient, these didn’t work either.)
Phytoestrogens aren’t the only plant product touted as a route to bigger boobs. Some natural breast-enlargement products claim to increase the body’s progesterone levels. The logic here is slightly sounder than that for estrogen, since progesterone can increase breast size by stimulating the growth of milk-producing cells. (Whether a woman would actually want this is a separate question.) A few plants are said to boost progesterone, including chasteberry and Mexican yam. But don’t go believing they actually do. Mexican yam, for one, has no proven effect on progesterone levels; yes, it was one of the original sources for the progesterone used in early contraceptives, but only after the saponin chemicals in the yam had been processed industrially.
Why do people persist in taking these things? Because they’re noninvasive and relatively cheap and breast-augmentation surgery isn’t, which by some lights (admittedly dim) may compensate for the fact that surgery produces results while nutritional supplements don’t. Self-delusion no doubt is another big part of it. And let’s not lose sight of the larger fact: in the three-ring behavioral laboratory known as the United States, it’s been proven beyond a doubt that a tissue enlargement of no practical benefit from a child-rearing standpoint (small-breasted women lactate just fine) can nonetheless help ensure a woman’s reproductive success.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.