Saponin: Natural Steroids

Herbs can mimic human hormones and steroids.

As any reader of the sports pages knows, some athletes looking for a competitive edge “bulk up” by using synthetic steroids. These anabolic compounds, which are synthetic derivatives of testosterone, have many side effects, including liver damage, mood swings, and impotence. It’s no wonder that these compounds have a bad reputation.

But not all steroids are harmful. In fact, they’re essential to our health. Human sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are all classified as steroids, as are cortisone and forms of ­vitamin D. The class also includes the bile acids and sterols such as cholesterol, which our bodies use to make sex hormones.

Plant pretenders

Some plants can affect human hormones, a feat they achieve by producing their own steroids. Although we don’t yet understand why plants produce these compounds, we do know that some plant steroids resemble human steroids in both form and function. For example, plants are rich in beta-sitosterol, a compound that resembles cholesterol. Plants use this compound almost in the same way humans use cholesterol—to make hormones that control cell growth and reproduction.

One class of plant steroids is known as the steroid saponins. “Sapon” means soap in Old German, and refers to the tendency of saponins to foam in water and, perhaps, their tendency to taste like soap. The instructions on a package of quinoa tell you to rinse the grain before cooking. When you do this, a foamy, milky liquid washes off that contains saponins. If it wasn’t rinsed off, the grain would taste bitter.

Some plant saponins can weakly mimic the human hormones that they resemble. For example, yam (Dioscorea spp.) contains variable amounts of a saponin called diosgenin, which can be converted into hormones such as progesterone and estrogen. In fact, Mexican yam (D. composita) has been used to make oral contraceptives. But our bodies can’t convert diosgenin into steroids without some help from a chemist; converting diosgenin into hormones needs to be done synthetically in a laboratory. Because of this, many commercial wild yam creams popular among menopausal women add synthetic progesterone to increase the product’s effectiveness, although the added progesterone may not be listed on the label.

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