Soy once was relegated to an obscure corner of most
supermarkets, if it was there at all. In most communities, if you really wanted
to take a taste of tofu or other soy products, you had to venture instead into
a health-food store, searching for soy somewhere between the bean sprouts and
the herbal remedies.
But these days, the soy fad has gone mainstream. Faster than
you can say tempeh or edamame, more Americans than ever have become convinced
that there might be some substance to the 5,000 years of Asian reliance on the
simple soybean and the foods derived from it. Moreover, particularly as many
menopausal women have become concerned about the safety of using prescription
hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to cool down their hot flashes and related
symptoms, soy just might be a sensible alternative worth trying.
The simplest definition of menopause is "the end of
menstruation." When women reach menopause, about 25% feel no different,
except that their periods stop. But for the remainder, at times they may feel
like a 9.5 quake has jolted their body to its core, providing an inescapable
reminder that they're not as young as they used to be. Hot flashes. Night
sweats. Sleep disruptions. Vaginal dryness. Mood swings.
More than any other symptom, however, it's those scorching hot
flashes that sabotage the sense of well-being, affecting as many as 85% of
menopausal women to one degree or another. And while HRT once was seen as the
best hope for dousing those hot flashes, a major new study -- the Women's
Health Initiative (WHI) -- has sent a chill down the spines of many
health-conscious women and their doctors. In July 2002, WHI researchers
reported that long-term use of the most commonly used hormone replacement
preparation of estrogen and progestin, Prempro, could increase a woman's risk
of heart disease, stroke, and invasive breast cancer.
More recently, the second arm of that same study, in which
women who had hysterectomies received estrogen only (Premarin) -- was stopped
one year ahead of schedule.
The main goal of this study was also to see if starting
menopausal hormone therapy might lower a woman's risk of heart disease. It did
not. In the estrogen-only group, there was no increase or decrease in heart
disease. However, women taking estrogen-only hormone therapy had a slightly
increased risk of stroke, a risk similar to that seen in the estrogen and
As a result, the search for a non-drug approach to managing
menopausal symptoms has accelerated, with many women looking toward soy for
deliverance from the raging heat within. And, in fact, they're finding many soy
products that are being marketed as nutritional fire extinguishers.
Heating Up the Soy Debate
In Asian countries where soy is a dietary staple, women tend to
get fewer hot flashes than women in the U.S. But when studies have looked
closely at soy's effects on menopausal symptoms, the results have been