I have a client who is fortunate enough to have recovered from breast cancer and now spends time sailing around New Zealand with her husband. Her only recent complaint is what she calls "hell-mones," those quirky glandular secretions — notably the hormone estrogen — that fluctuate dramatically in menopausal women.

Over the years, hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) has been somewhat discredited because of the risks of estrogen causing breast and other reproductive cancers. According to the National Institutes of Health, based on early studies, many health care providers believed that HRT might help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporotic bone fractures, in addition to treating menopausal symptoms. The Women's Health Initiative study led health care providers to modify their advice regarding HRT, however.

The study was partly intended to examine the health benefits and risks of HRT. It showed that women who took estrogen with or without the hormone progesterone for five or more years actually had an increased risk for stroke, heart disease, breast cancer and blood clots.

Given these acknowledged risks, women have looked to dietary and lifestyle solutions, including specific foods and dietary supplements containing herbs and nutrients. Soy foods, for example, have shown promising results. Soy is not the only food that women ought to rely on for menopausal symptom relief, however, as it may affect thyroid metabolism in some individuals. In others, soy tends to cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as bloating that may be related to food allergy or disruptions in nutrient absorption. Many individuals claim that fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh are more digestible than other soy foods.

Though soy has clear benefits for menopause symptom relief, there are other good sources of isoflavones, the plant chemicals in soy credited with reducing hot flashes and night sweats. Since soybeans are now so commonly found in a wide array of foods, I recommend moderate intake, often as a transitional aid for menopausal women.

There is a healthy debate about soy in nutrition circles, and clearly if we look at the historical food record, it's never been so widely consumed, yet soy does have other benefits relating to cholesterol reduction and protective effects against breast and prostate cancer. The scorecard is undecided, but documented pro-soy evidence is still strong, and "soy menopause therapy" works best with ongoing exercise.

I recently wrote about flaxseeds providing support for menopausal symptoms, yet sesame seeds, garbanzos and some other beans contain compounds similar to those in flaxseeds and soy, though not in such great quantities. As such, garbanzo bean dip, aka hummus, with crushed sesame tahini and extra garlic, may be just what the doctor orders to stand up to those hell-mones.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness in Medford and the Centre for Natural Healing in Ashland. He also teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at michael@ventanawellness.com.

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