DURING THIS STAGE of life, millions of women experience menopausal symptoms. Fluctuating hormones can lead to a host of side effects, including hot flashes, mood swings and insomnia. In addition to aggravating insomnia, the stimulant effect of caffeine can increase the number of hot flashes you suffer, or make them more intense, so consider quitting coffee or at least cutting back to no more than a cup a day. Anecdotally, many practitioners of natural medicine have found that flaxseed oil and evening primrose oil alleviate hot flashes for some women, and so does vitamin E, in either supplements or foods. And the sugar cravings and mood swings caused by unstable hormones can be managed by eating your normal amount of protein, hut in small portions throughout the day instead of having it at just one meal. You can also stave off cravings with snacks of fresh or dried fruit.
The most promising news for menopausal women comes from the soybean, which contains phytoestrogen. This plant chemical is similar to the estrogen produced by the body but has only a fraction of its strength. Research indicates chat phytoestrogen blocks the effects of human estrogen by binding to the body’s estrogen receptor sites; because it is so weak, however, it doesn’t have the effects of human estrogen. Japanese women, who consume lots of soyfoods, report fewer menopausal symptoms than American women; a study in the Australian journal Maturitas (April 1995) found a 40 percent decrease in menopause symptoms with a daily intake of 45 grams (about 2 oz.) of soy flour.
“I’m not fully sure about this study, since there was also a 20 percent decrease in the control group, which ate wheat flour,” says nutritionist Mark Messina, Ph.D., a specialist in soyfoods and vegetarianism. “But I tend to believe it’s true. Anecdotally, I hear a lot of evidence that it helps.” Several other studies are now being conducted, and Messina expects more reliable results by the end of 1996. In the meantime, he says, “I suspect a serving a day of a soyfood would help–one cup of soymilk or one-half cup of tofu. Try one serving a day first, then add another if you don’t see an improvement.”
In addition, says Anne Patterson, R.D., a consultant for the Illinois Soybean Association, based in Bloomington, many studies have shown that soy protein lowers high levels of LDL cholesterol, a common health risk in this age group. True, to achieve the results found in the best-known study, you’d have to eat 47 grams of soy protein a day, the equivalent of seven cups of soymilk. But when you consider the decline in menopausal symptoms, the low incidence of certain types of cancer in soy-dependent countries, the osteoporosis-fighting calcium in tofu, and the possible anti-cancer effects of soy’s phytoestrogen, you’ve got a potent case for making soyfoods part of a midlife diet.