Soy for Hot Flashes and Menopause: Does It Work?

You wake up drenched in what feels like buckets of sweat … your heart is racing, and there’s a sensation in your chest like a furnace burning up into your neck and face. Your adrenaline shooting through the roof. You toss and you turn, and eventually—what feels like an age later—it goes away.

 … You start to drift off again, relieved—only to wake up again ten minutes later with another burst of heat and sweat and palpitations.

 What’s going on? Are you sick with a fever? Nope—you are just experiencing one of the most pervasive and unpleasant symptoms of menopause: hot flashes.

I’m going to tell you today about how soy may be able to help treat your hot flashes—but first, let’s talk a little more about hot flashes and why a traditional treatment like HRT is a bad idea.

What Are Hot Flashes?

Hot flashes are the bane of menopause for many women. They can strike during the daytime or night, and may do so numerous times over the course of any given 24-hour period. Worse, they may become a chronic, ongoing problem. For some women, they abate after a few years. But for others, they go on well into old age.

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If you suffer from hot flashes, your first thought might have been to turn to hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which used to be commonly recommended as a treatment for menopause symptoms. But ever since the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) revealed that HRT poses deadly long-term health risks, HRT has fallen out of favor.

Searching for a healthier solution, you may have found out that a lot of menopausal women are turning to soy for a natural alternative.

Why Soy?

Soy contains isoflavones, which are a type of phytoestrogen. A “phytoestrogen” is a compound which behaves like estrogen and which is derived naturally from a plant. The phytoestrogens in soy do have an estrogenic effect in the body, but they are very weak.

Interestingly enough, there is some evidence that eating soy products may replace some of your naturally-occurring powerful estrogen with weak estrogen, which could protect you from certain forms of cancer before you hit menopause.

When you do hit menopause, your body’s production of natural estrogen drops off a cliff however—so eating soy is a way to augment your body’s estrogen with a natural, healthy replacement.

Does Soy Really Work? Let’s Examine the Science

Of course, you may be thinking, “That sounds great—but you just said that soy contains only a very weak phytoestrogen. So how do I know it will do me any good?”

On this the evidence is mixed. There are some studies (and anecdotal evidence) which indicate that soy can help to balance your hormones in menopause, but there are also studies which show that the effect is negligible.

  • This study provides some strong support for soy as a treatment for hot flashes. 104 postmenopausal women were split into two groups. One was given a placebo while the other was given 40 g of isolated soy protein. The trial ran for 12 weeks. At the end of that time period, the patients taking the soy had experienced a 45% reduction in their hot flashes. Those on the placebo reported a 30% reduction.
  • One study in Menopause in 2002 also found that soy was useful in fighting hot flashes, concluding, “Soy isoflavone extract may help to reduce the frequency of hot flushes in climacteric women and provides an attractive addition to the choices available for relief of hot flushes.”
  • Another study at Tufts School of Medicine studied 85 menopausal women over a period of three months. This double-blind study found “no differences in the number or intensity of hot flashes when the soy and placebo time periods were compared.”

Right now, researchers still are at a point where they do not entirely understand soy and its effects on the body. So while you will find there are many studies supporting soy for hot flashes, you will find there are quite a few that also make no recommendation either way.

Still, we know for sure that HRT can cause diseases—and soy certainly seems a healthier alternative, and certainly a more natural one. And there is certainly some evidence backing it up as a treatment. So it may be worth a try. It is entirely likely that some of the differing results in the studies point toward other lifestyle factors which could be confounding the outcomes. Again, a lot more research is needed to understand the conflicting results.

Other Health Benefits of Soy

There are actually other reasons to consider taking soy—not simply as a treatment for your hot flashes.

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Soy for example is a heart-healthy food to add to your diet, particularly if you use it to replace other foods instead of taking it as a supplement. For instance, if you decide to eat tofu once a week instead of red meat, you will protect your heart from a food which is high in saturated fat and replacing it with one which is high in healthy fat, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Soy may also reduce LDL cholesterol levels (when replacing animal protein).

As far as additional benefits go, the jury is still out on most of them. There are some studies which indicate that soy could be good for memory, cognitive function, and preventing breast cancer—but other studies contradict and show the exact opposite effect. Read more about it here.

If you do have concerns about your heart health, that alone might be a good reason to add more soy to your diet. And if you are lucky, it may reduce your hot flashes along the way. Just make sure that you moderate your intake since researchers still are not sure if soy is always good for every aspect of your health.

How To Take Soy to Control Hot Flashes

So if you have decided to try soy for hot flashes, what form should you take it in? Well, you have a number of different options you can try:

  • Eat it as part of your diet.
  • Drink soy milk.
  • Take soy protein or fiber powder.

I want to talk a little bit more about each of these in-depth.

1. Eat it as part of your diet

There are so many different ways you can add more soy to your daily menu! Some delicious options include:

  • Meat replacements which are made out of soy
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Edamame (soy beans—they taste awesome with a little salt on them)
  • Soy nut butter
  • Miso soup
  • Soy sauce

If you have never tried tofu and are leery of it—don’t be. The texture is a bit odd and takes some getting used to, but there are two different types (firm and “silken”), and hopefully you will like one or both of them. In terms of flavor, tofu has almost none, and will soak up whatever sauce it is cooked in. This means it can blend nicely into a lot of different dishes.

2. Drink soy milk

This is self-explanatory. Replace your dairy-based milk with soy milk and you can enjoy the benefits of soy as part of a delicious, refreshing beverage. Many soy milk products are also fortified with other healthy nutrients.

3. Take a soy supplement

This is probably the easiest way to get more soy in your diet—especially if you do not like soy milk or enjoy foods which contain soy. If that is the case, then by all means go ahead and try taking a soy supplement. It is better than skipping out entirely just because you do not enjoy the taste of soy.

That said, I recommend eating or drinking soy rather than taking the supplements if at all possible. Why? There are a couple of reasons. The first comes down to quality control, the second nutrition.

Studies conducted on soy supplements on the market have found that most of these products are not high in quality. Fewer than a quarter of soy products researched contained even 90% of the isoflavone content which they claimed they did. And no—paying more will not necessarily guarantee you more isoflavones. So locating a quality supplement with honest labeling is a real challenge.

As I mentioned, the other reason is nutrition. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of soy for balancing hormones (with the general consensus these days that it is “worth a try”), the heart-healthy benefits of choosing soy protein over red meat and other foods high in saturated fat is well-demonstrated.

Obviously you will not get that benefit if you are simply supplementing your regular diet with soy protein or fiber powder. You will benefit far more from replacing meat with tofu in some of your favorite dishes. You also are more likely to get a high-quality product which contains the isoflavones you need.

Conclusion: Soy Offers a Healthy Alternative to HRT

Is soy truly effective in combating hot flashes and the other symptoms of menopause? Right now the research is inconclusive, but it is promising. What we do know is that HRT can land you with some serious long-term (and even deadly) health problems. So for right now, soy is well worth a try. It is safe, healthy and delicious—and you may just find it works to get your hot flashes under control!

Sources:

https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/whi/
http://www.webmd.com/women/features/soy-hot-flashes#1
http://www.breastcancer.org/tips/nutrition/reduce_risk/foods/soy
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3074428/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9464712
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12218721
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11896091
http://tuftsjournal.tufts.edu/archive/2002/september/features/soy_puzzle.shtml
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7596371
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2014/02/12/straight-talk-about-soy/
http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-975-soy.aspx?activeingredientid=975