If you’re experiencing the symptoms of menopause, you might be tempted to try soy-based foods or herbal supplements to get relief. But do these so-called plant-based therapies really work?
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A new analysis says these therapies can provide modest reductions in some — but not all — menopause symptoms.
The analysis, led by researchers from Erasmus University Medical Center, the Netherlands, examined more than 60 earlier studies that tested various plant-based therapies, including certain soy foods and herbal remedies. In total, researchers analyzed 62 studies involving 6,653 women.
The analysis showed that soy isoflavones in food and supplements improved some menopause symptoms, including modest reductions in hot flashes and vaginal dryness, but did not significantly reduce night sweats.
Isoflavones are a type of phytoestrogen, plant-derived compounds that can mimic estrogen. Foods high in soy isoflavones are tofu, tempeh, miso and natto.
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The study also found that several medicinal herbs improved symptoms of menopause. One was red clover, a rich source of the phytoestrogens formononetin, biochanin A, daidzein, and genistein. Red clover was associated with improvements in night sweats, but not with the frequency of hot flashes.
Newer herbal remedies such as ERr 731, an extract isolated from Rheum rhaponticum, and pycnogenol, a pine bark extract, reduced the number of hot flashes over a 24-hour period. However, the researchers say, more trials are needed because evidence is limited.
Interestingly, researchers found that black cohosh supplements and Chinese medicinal herbs such as dong quai, which are widely used to ease menopause symptoms, did not reduce menopause symptoms.
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Treat the problem, not the symptoms
The results were a bit of a mixed bag, says women’s health specialist Holly L. Thacker, MD.
“Some of these studies show improvements in hot flashes, but not night sweats, or night sweats, but not hot flashes,” Dr. Thacker says. “So the take-home message is that if you have severe menopausal symptoms, you should see your physician and not be afraid to treat the real problem, which is hormone deficiency.”
Classic menopausal symptoms are a result of a loss of the hormone estrogen, which for many women cannot be treated with complementary therapies alone, she says.
“Even though menopause is a natural life event and not everyone is hormonally deficient, the people who are hormonally deficient should not feel bad about needing to take a hormone to treat that problem,” she says.
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Supplements carry risk
These studies highlight many women’s desire for a more natural, plant-based alternative for menopause symptoms, Dr. Thacker says. Many women choose to use complementary therapies instead of hormone replacement therapy because of concerns of health consequences.
But so far, none of the complementary therapies have proven to be substantially effective.
Women with mild menopausal symptoms who are looking for relief can add soy to their diet through food, but should talk to their doctor before trying supplements, Dr. Thacker says.
You may not need a prescription for a supplement, but supplements still carry a risk, Dr. Thacker says. For example, other studies have shown that overuse of some soy supplements can increase a woman’s risk for certain types of cancer.
Menopause is a good time for women to take stock of their health habits — like diet and exercise — and to get a regular examination from a women’s health physician, Dr. Thacker says.
Treatment guide to perimenopause and menopause
Read more expert advice from Holly L. Thacker, MD on her blog.