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What causes menopause symptoms?

Menopause refers to the time when the body gradually stops producing estrogen and releasing an egg every month. This drop in estrogen can cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • hot flashes
  • night sweats
  • mood swings
  • lack of focus
  • fatigue
  • vaginal dryness
  • trouble sleeping

Hormone therapy is one way to relieve these symptoms. It involves taking estrogen to counteract the natural drop in estrogen during menopause. While the method is very effective, it comes with some risks.

Taking estrogen — especially for a long period of time — may increase your risk of a blood clot, stroke, or breast or uterine cancer. Estrogen may not be an option for many women depending on their health and family health history.

Some have turned to natural alternatives, such as soy, to manage their menopause symptoms with fewer risks. Soy is found in foods like tofu and soy milk, as well as in supplements. It contains chemical compounds called isoflavones that have some estrogen-like effects.

Read on to learn more about the potential benefits of soy for menopause symptoms.

Isoflavones are part of a group of plant-based chemicals called phytoestrogens. These chemicals act like a weaker form of estrogen in the body.

The main isoflavones in soy are genistein and daidzein. When you eat soy, bacteria in your intestines break it down into its more active forms.

Once in your body, soy isoflavones bind to the same receptors as estrogen. Receptors are like docking stations on the surface of cells. When isoflavones bind to some receptors, they mimic the effects of estrogen. When they bind to other receptors, they block estrogen’s effects.

When isoflavones mimic estrogen, they might help reduce hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause.

Dozens of small studies have looked at the effects of soy on menopause symptoms, especially hot flashes and night sweats. So far, the results have been mixed.

Soy supplements

In a 2012 analysis of 19 studies, soy isoflavone supplements reduced the severity of hot flashes by just over 26 percent, compared to a placebo. A Cochrane review from 2013 found no firm evidence that dietary soy or isoflavone supplements eased hot flashes. But it did find a benefit from supplements that were high in genistein, one of the main isoflavones in soy.

A 2015 analysis of 10 studies found that plant isoflavones from soy and other sources reduced hot flashes by 11 percent.

Although many studies show that soy and soy isoflavones can modestly reduce the number and severity of hot flashes, it doesn’t seem to work as quickly as hormone replacement therapy.

Soy products can take several weeks or more to reach their maximal benefit. For example, a 2015 review found that soy isoflavones take more than 13 weeks to reach just half of their maximum effect. Traditional hormone therapy, on the other hand, takes about three weeks to show the same benefit.

How your body processes isoflavones might also determine whether this remedy works for you. People who grew up in Asia, where soy is a dietary staple, have much lower rates of hot flashes than Americans do. In addition, more than half of Asian women produce the more active form of isoflavones, called equol. Less than a third of American women produce equol.

Soy-based foods

Some studies have also looked at the potential benefits of soy-rich food sources, such as soybeans, soy flour, and soy nuts. But a 2010 review of 10 studies on the subject found little evidence that soy from food sources reduced hot flashes, vaginal dryness, or other symptoms of menopause.

While the jury’s out on how effective soy is for the treatment of symptoms associated with menopause, soy has other potential health benefits, too.

It’s packed with nutrition

Soy is low in saturated fat and calories. It’s also high in these beneficial nutrients:

  • fiber
  • protein
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • antioxidants

It may help to reduce your risk of heart disease

Eating tofu and other soy-based foods a few times a week can help you cut back on some animal-based protein sources, such as steak or hamburger, that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Reducing saturated fat and cholesterol can lower your risk of heart disease, which increases as you reach menopause.

It might strengthen your bones

Estrogen plays a role in preserving bone strength. That’s why your risk of developing osteoporosis increases during menopause. But some research suggests that soy may be helpful for preserving bone health in those who’ve gone through menopause.

If you’re interested in exploring soy’s potential health benefits, consider adding some of these foods to your diet:

You can also take soy isoflavones in supplement form. The North American Menopause Society recommends starting at a dose of 50 milligrams a day. You may need to increase the dose to have benefit. Keep in mind that it could be several weeks to months before you start to notice any change in your menopause symptoms.

While some of the existing research is promising, it’s unclear how well soy works for reducing menopause symptoms. Some women seem to benefit, while others do not. There’s also some debate over the potential risks associated with soy. Read about them here. Still, soy may be worth a shot if you’re looking for alternatives to hormone therapy.

However, if you have a family or personal history of breast cancer, you may want to steer clear of soy supplements. Talk to your doctor. Soy supplements also aren’t recommended if you’re already doing hormone therapy. There’s some uncertainty about the safety of soy supplements for those with a history of breast cancer or undergoing hormone therapy.