That's the conclusion of a study published today in the Journal of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Researchers found that at least one component of soy, a compound known as isoflavone, quelled a variety of menopause symptoms, including insomnia, mood swings and hot flashes -- and it also reduced cholesterol levels significantly.
"The isoflavone may, in fact, be [a possible] alternative treatment for menopause symptoms," says study author Dr. Edmund C. Baracat, a professor of gynecology at the Federal University of San Paulo in Brazil.Baracat believes isoflavone packs the one-two punch because it works in two distinctly different ways.
"One possibility is that the isoflavone binds to the estrogen receptor," says Baracat. This lets more estrogen stay in the bloodstream, and eases the symptoms of menopause.
The other way it works may be through "an antioxidant effect," he explains. This could account for its ability to improve cholesterol levels.
One expert says the study is an important piece of evidence in the soy puzzle, but he's not sure isolated isoflavone is the ultimate answer for women.
"The study is well done for what it is, but what it fails to tell us is what, if any, long-term effects are related to taking isoflavone," says Dr. James N. Dillard, a clinical medical advisor at the Rosenthal Center of Alternative and Complementary Medicine at Columbia University.
Indeed, Dillard points out the study hints there may be some estrogenic effects with isoflavone -- including a rise in estrogen levels that might pose other health problems for some women.
"If it wasn't potent, then it wouldn't yield any results, and the fact that it did means it's also potent enough to require long-term studies with follow-up before women should consider it for long-term therapy," Dillard says.
Baracat's study involved 80 women, aged 45 to 55, all medically verified as being in menopause.
At the start, women answered detailed questionnaires about age, race, education, gynecologic history, medications, use of cigarettes or alcohol and level of physical activity. The Kupperman Index, an accepted medical rating system for menopause symptoms, was used to convert the women's symptoms to a numerical equivalent that could be used for comparison.
Blood tests measured levels of hormones, triglycerides, glucose and cholesterol. Blood pressures were taken, and the women had sonograms to determine the health of their uterus.
The women were then randomly assigned to use either a combination of 50 milligrams of soy protein with 33.3 milligrams of isoflavone, or 50 milligrams of soy protein with 33.3 mg of glucose. This combination allowed researchers to separate the effects of isoflavone from those of soy.
Further, the isoflavone was analyzed to ensure each dose contained precise amounts of these active ingredients: 23.3 milligrams of genistein, 6.2 milligrams of daidzen and 3.8 milligrams of glycitein.
What really set this study apart was that the daily intake of 100 milligrams of isoflavone was spread out evenly in three doses, eight hours apart. This, says Baracat, helped ensure a steady stream of the compound in the blood, and may be one reason for the continuing effect of the therapy throughout the study.
At the end of four months, all tests were repeated. One month later, the women were asked to return for a follow-up exam to assess any physical complaints.
The final result: Using the Kupperman Index to quantify menopausal symptoms, the group taking the isoflavone experienced measurable decreases in almost all symptoms, including hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia, headaches and palpitations.
In addition, the group taking the isoflavone saw cholesterol levels drop an average of 25 points, while LDL (bad cholesterol) dropped an average of 14 points. Women in the placebo group saw a rise of LDL of nearly six points, and virtually no change in their menopausal symptoms.
While Baracat says he was pleased with the study results, he cautions women about considering similar treatment on their own.
"We do not yet have enough data on isoflavone side effects to recommend women use this drug in self-treatment of menopausal symptoms, " he says.
Dillard agrees, adding women who do want to experience the benefits of isoflavone should do so by eating soy-rich foods, such as those made with tofu or soy meal.
Baracat says the daily dose of 100 milligrams of isoflavone found effective in the study is about equal to 100 grams of soy-rich foods.
What To Do
To learn more about soy and menopause, visit Soy Living.
To find the soy foods highest in concentrations of isoflavone, visit The U.S. Soy Foods Directory.
For a terrific comparison between traditional hormone treatments, and a variety of alternative or natural treatments , visit Menopause Online.