Natural Alternatives to Hormone Therapy
Protection against uterine cancer vs. the risk of breast cancer. The decision to take estrogen and progesterone supplements can be daunting. In the world of women's health, it could be the decision of decisions: Should I take hormone replacement therapy? The considerations can be so deep, and the scientific debates so confusing, many women are turning to herbal and food supplements, hoping they will calm the symptoms of menopause while staving off heart disease and osteoporosis.
Though the science is still young, research offers some encouragement for women seeking non-pharmaceutical ways to cut down on mood swings and hot flashes.
Soy to the World
The most widely cited natural remedy is soy, which is very high in phytoestrogens, or plant estrogens. Other sources are red clover and flaxseed, both of which are available as supplements.
Phytoestrogens are much less powerful than pharmaceutical or natural estrogen, and they enter the cells through a different receptor. That's why scientists believe that soy doesn't promote breast cancer the way other hormones may. In the form of tofu, miso, and other preparations, soy is a staple of diets in Japan, where rates of breast cancer are lower and symptoms of menopause milder than in western countries.
However, the latest research on soy is contradictory. A new study reported in Archives of Internal Medicine found there was no difference between soy and a placebo in relieving menopausal symptoms such as bone loss or vaginal dryness. At the study's start, about 50% of women reported having hot flashes. By the end of the study, more women in the soy group reported hot flashes compared to the placebo group, 48% vs. 32%.
Another study, released in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, tested similar doses of soy against a placebo in 224 early menopausal women. It also concluded that soy offered little protection against bone loss.
On the bright side, after researcher reviewed 19 studies of soy for hot flashes, they concluded that compared to placebo, the use of soy resulted in about a 50% reduction in the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
Another analysis of 19 studies also found a benefit in soy supplements for hot flashes. The benefit, though, was very slight. That review, which was published in the journal Menopause in 2010, found that on average, soy supplements cut the number of daily hot flashes women had by less than half a single hot flash.