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Eat Your Way Past Hot Flashes?

New research suggests soybeans benefit postmenopausal women

spinner image menopausal woman sitting in front of a fan and blotting her head during a severe hot flash
humonia / Getty Images

Here’s a hot news flash: A vegan diet that includes a healthy dose of soybeans may help reduce moderate to severe hot flashes experienced by postmenopausal women. That’s according to a recent study published in the North American Menopause Society’s journal Menopause.

The study included postmenopausal women who experienced two or more hot flashes a day. Half were assigned a low-fat vegan diet that included half a cup of cooked soybeans daily. The others were asked to maintain their normal diet. Over a 12-week period, the researchers found moderate to severe hot flashes were reduced by 88 percent in the group assigned the vegan diet, compared with 34 percent in the control group. The results were about as effective as hormone replacement therapy for reducing menopausal hot flashes, according to the researchers.

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If this new research holds up, it could help provide relief to the millions of women who suffer from hot flashes,  especially since the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reiterated this week in the medical journal JAMA that hormone replacement therapy is not recommended for use in prevention of chronic conditions such as heart disease.

Although the task force did not evaluate safety in the use of the medications for hot flashes, the report says that the use of combined estrogen and progestin is linked with risk of breast cancer, stroke, dementia, gallbladder disease and urinary incontinence. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that women use menopause hormone therapy at the lowest dose and for the shortest time it's needed, so dietary changes could be a good solution.

“We do not fully understand yet why this combination works, but it seems that these three elements are key — avoiding animal products, reducing fat and adding a serving of soybeans,” lead researcher Neal Barnard, M.D., an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Theories about soybeans for menopausal health

The role diet may play in postmenopausal women experiencing hot flashes, flushes or night sweats is not new. Historically, scientists have seen a low prevalence of these vasomotor symptoms in Japan, China and rural Mexico, where traditionally the diet has been rich in grains, legumes and vegetables. Moreover, the researchers note that in Japan a shift toward a more Westernized diet (between the 1980s and early 2000s) coincided with an increase in reports of hot flashes — rising from about 15 to more than 40 percent of menopausal women.

“Our results mirror the diets of places in the world, like pre-Westernized Japan and modern-day Yucatán Peninsula, where a low-fat, plant-based diet including soybeans is more prevalent and where postmenopausal women experience fewer symptoms,” Barnard said.

As to the potential benefits of soybeans, they suggest the beans are a rich source of estrogen-like compounds (particularly daidzein and genistein) that have “proven modestly effective in controlled trials.” A 2000 article published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings observed that previous studies had found “a minimal effect of soy on hot flashes, with soy reducing hot flashes 45 percent and a placebo causing a 30 percent reduction, compared with an approximate 70 percent reduction in hot flashes with estrogen replacement therapy.”

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In a 2021 article published in Menopause, the researchers reported initial findings based on results from the first half of study participants who were monitored during the fall of 2020.

Questions were raised as to whether seasonal temperature changes may have been a factor since outside temperatures were cooling in the fall. The second trial was done in the spring with warming temperatures, ruling out the seasonal effect, according to the researchers. ​“These new results suggest that a diet change should be considered as a first-line treatment for troublesome vasomotor symptoms, including night sweats and hot flashes,” Barnard said.

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