Our bodies are constantly changing and at menopause our ovaries are no longer producing regular amounts of oestrogen. The oestrogen receptors in our cells signal this lack. Our brain doesn’t understand what’s going on, so it attempts to kick-start the ovaries back into function by sending thermal surges through our body that we call hot flushes and night sweats. What can we do to reduce them? Besides bringing nutrients back into an optimum range, which has a normalizing effect on brain chemistry and hormones, we can eat small amounts of phytoestrogens — oestrogen-like compounds from plants — throughout the day. By binding to the oestrogen receptors in our cells, these compounds fool the brain into believing there is a significant amount of oestrogen circulating in the body.
Although phytoestrogens are only about one-thousandth as potent as the oestrogen produced by the body, they have been hailed by many as the natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy HRT. These neat little ‘look alike’ substances can not only soothe menopausal symptoms but also protect us against heart disease, dementia, and osteoporosis. They may also help lower the risk of hormone-related cancers in both women and men (some types of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer).
Benefits of Phytoestrogens
- Reduce menopausal hot flushes
- Prevent bone loss
- Reduce blood levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol
- Unblock clogged arteries
- Normalize blood glucose levels
- Regulate the menstrual cycle
- Help prevent oestrogen-related cancers
- Improve cognitive function
- Restore memory
How Do Phytoestrogens Work?
A wealth of research has shown that a regular intake of phytoestrogens throughout the day can play a useful part in controlling menopause symptoms, producing effects similar to treatment with HRT. Two kinds of phytoestrogen have been found to be particularly effective: isoflavones, derived from soya products and red clover, and lignans, found in flax- seeds (also known as linseeds).
Isoflavones are fast becoming known as great hormone regulators, as they help to keep oestrogen circulating in our system. When oestrogen is in oversupply in the body, as can happen before menopause, isoflavones play musical chairs with oestrogen, competing for the receptor sites in cells. (Receptors are structures found on the surface of cells that allow specific hormones and other chemicals into cells, rather like a key in a lock.) Some of the isoflavones displace the body’s own oestrogen and, being weaker, may mitigate oestrogen’s cancer-promoting effects.
As oestrogen levels start to drop around the time of menopause, isoflavones have the opposite effect, binding to oestrogen receptors in the absence of oestrogen. Combined with supplements and regular relaxation, consuming isoflavones can help ease hot flushes and night sweats. In Asia, where the typical diet is high in isoflavones, women over the age of forty-five rarely experience menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. In fact, the term hot flash had no equivalent in the Japanese language until recently. An isoflavone-rich diet can also protect against osteoporosis, memory loss, and heart disease in the long-term.
Which foods are rich in phytoestrogens?
The richest food sources of isoflavones are soy products, including soy milk, tofu, edamame beans (immature soybeans in the pod), miso paste, and soy flour. The most lignan-rich food is golden flaxseed. Smaller quantities of isoflavones are found in lentils, chickpeas, mung and other beans, green and yellow vegetables, and sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seeds. Additionally, red clover is a rich source, but it must be taken in the form of supplements.
Is soya safe?
This is probably the most common question women ask about our program. Literally, dozens of menopausal women ask whether soya is safe, as they have heard or read conflicting reports.
People in Asa have been consuming substantial amounts of isoflavone-rich foods for hundreds of years with no recorded ill effects. In fact, those consuming a traditional
Japanese diet has far lower rates of heart disease, osteoporosis, and oestrogen-related cancers like breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. Although studies have shown positive effects from consuming up to 170 mg of isoflavones daily, the long-term effect of high doses has not been studied. The traditional Asian diet delivers 50–100 mg of isoflavones per day. Similar quantities have been found to have therapeutic effects in several clinical trials.
In the West, numerous medical experts, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the European Food Safety Authority have concluded on the basis of medical research that soy products are safe and can even have a protective effect on health. Women who have had breast cancer and are now going through menopause can absolutely benefit from consuming soy products.
In conclusion, provided we can tolerate soya, soya products help us overcome menopause symptoms. An added bonus is that they can help us to maintain our short- and long-term memory and protect us from heart disease and osteoporosis after menopause.