Red Clover, Trifolium pretense, is an interesting medicinal herb that belongs to the legume family. This flowering plant is native to Europe, Western Asia and northwest Africa, although it has been naturalized to grow in many other areas. Red clover is a source of many nutrients including calcium, chromium, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, and vitamin C. Historically, red clover has been used as a folk remedy to treat conditions such as respiratory problems, skin inflammations, eczema and even cancer. The flowering tops of the red clover plant are used to prepare medicinal extracts and can be administered in tablets and capsules, as well as in teas and tinctures.
More recently, red clover has been used a popular alternative treatment for menopausal symptoms. But how did this all begin? In a field full of sheep, actually!
In the 1940’s it was observed that sheep feeding on red clover had multiple fertility problems. By the 1950’s, scientists had isolated compounds from the red clover plants that mimicked the actions of estrogen, explaining the observed fertility issues. These estrogen-like compounds are called isoflavones.
Isoflavones are plant-based chemicals that produce estrogen-like effects in the body. Because of this, we also call these types of compounds “phytoestrogens.” The premise supporting the use of red clover for menopausal symptoms is that the isoflavones (or “phytoestrogens”) will act as a natural estrogen replacement in women and alleviate hot flashes and other symptoms of low estrogen. You can see how similar the two compounds are:
In addition, Red clover isoflavones have been associated with an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol in pre and postmenopausal women and preliminary evidence suggests these isoflavones may stop cancer cells from growing or even kill cancer cells in vitro (in test tubes.)
Much more research is needed to elucidate the benefits of these isoflavones and currently the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative health and other researchers are studying red clover to learn more about its active components and how they might work in the body. In the mean time, red clover is contraindicated in people with a history of breast cancer, endometriosis, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, uterine fibroids or other estrogen-sensitive conditions. It is also unclear whether red clover is safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding at this time.
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Article written by Lauren Beihoffer, a biochemist and lover of natural, holistic skin care