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Help for Hot Flashes

Is soy the solution to this menopausal symptom?
By
WebMD Feature

Soy once was relegated to an obscure corner of most supermarkets, if it was there at all. In most communities, if you really wanted to take a taste of tofu or other soy products, you had to venture instead into a health-food store, searching for soy somewhere between the bean sprouts and the herbal remedies.

But these days, the soy fad has gone mainstream. Faster than you can say tempeh or edamame, more Americans than ever have become convinced that there might be some substance to the 5,000 years of Asian reliance on the simple soybean and the foods derived from it. Moreover, particularly as many menopausal women have become concerned about the safety of using prescription hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to cool down their hot flashes and related symptoms, soy just might be a sensible alternative worth trying.

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Calming the Fire Within

The simplest definition of menopause is "the end of menstruation." When women reach menopause, about 25% feel no different, except that their periods stop. But for the remainder, at times they may feel like a 9.5 quake has jolted their body to its core, providing an inescapable reminder that they're not as young as they used to be. Hot flashes. Night sweats. Sleep disruptions. Vaginal dryness. Mood swings.

More than any other symptom, however, it's those scorching hot flashes that sabotage the sense of well-being, affecting as many as 85% of menopausal women to one degree or another. And while HRT once was seen as the best hope for dousing those hot flashes, a major new study -- the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) -- has sent a chill down the spines of many health-conscious women and their doctors. In July 2002, WHI researchers reported that long-term use of the most commonly used hormone replacement preparation of estrogen and progestin, Prempro, could increase a woman's risk of heart disease, stroke, and invasive breast cancer.

More recently, the second arm of that same study, in which women who had hysterectomies received estrogen only (Premarin) -- was stopped one year ahead of schedule.

The main goal of this study was also to see if starting menopausal hormone therapy might lower a woman's risk of heart disease. It did not. In the estrogen-only group, there was no increase or decrease in heart disease. However, women taking estrogen-only hormone therapy had a slightly increased risk of stroke, a risk similar to that seen in the estrogen and progestin study.

As a result, the search for a non-drug approach to managing menopausal symptoms has accelerated, with many women looking toward soy for deliverance from the raging heat within. And, in fact, they're finding many soy products that are being marketed as nutritional fire extinguishers.

Heating Up the Soy Debate

In Asian countries where soy is a dietary staple, women tend to get fewer hot flashes than women in the U.S. But when studies have looked closely at soy's effects on menopausal symptoms, the results have been mixed.

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