Should You Eat Soy in Perimenopause?
By Leslie Weidner
Registered Dietitian, Perimenopause Nutrition Coach
Soy foods have become quite controversial on whether or not to consume them during midlife. Perimenopause is a transitional and often confusing time for women, and making it even more confusing is all of the misinformation circulating online when it comes to nutrition.
Many women have been told to avoid soy because of its estrogenic effects on the body, particularly for those with a history of or at risk of developing breast cancer. Others have argued that soy is not safe to consume for those with thyroid disease, endometriosis or other hormonal conditions.
Let’s take a look at what the actual science shows, so we can separate the facts from fiction.
But first, what exactly is perimenopause?
Perimenopause refers to the time leading up to menopause when hormonal fluctuations begin to occur. It can last on average 4-5 years but for others up to 10 years. Typically, it starts in a woman’s forties, but can start as early as 35.
As a woman transitions into menopause, the ovaries slowly stop producing estrogen and progesterone. Usually, progesterone begins a steady decline while estrogen levels tend to fluctuate up and down at any given time. This can lead to many unpleasant symptoms.
While there are a broad range of physical and emotional symptoms, every woman’s experience is unique. The most common symptoms include hot flashes and night sweats, mood changes, irregular periods, sleep problems, skin changes, vaginal and bladder problems, brain fog, and anxiety and/or depression. Some of these changes are subtle, yet others can be very frustrating to deal with. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 80% of menopausal women experience hot flashes. They tend to last anywhere from a few minutes to 10 minutes.
Soy Foods and Phytoestrogens
What are Phytoestrogens?
It makes sense for many women to seek out dietary changes to help manage their symptoms, including the consumption of soy-based foods. But there’s so much debate as to whether soy foods are beneficial or harmful due to their plant-based compounds known as phytoestrogens.
Soy contains a specific type of phytoestrogen called isoflavones that act similarly to estrogen in the body, but to a much weaker extent. Isoflavones can bind to estrogen receptors causing a weak estrogenic or anti-estrogenic effect. Most of the studies done on soy have yielded conflicting results, mainly because of the wide variation in which it is studied. Most population studies suggest that consuming soy foods have either beneficial or neutral effects on various health conditions.
Potential Benefits of Soy
Reduction in Perimenopausal Symptoms
Soy foods have been associated with several potential benefits for women going through perimenopause. Some studies suggest that including soy in a varied diet may help reduce hot flashes, night sweats and other bothersome symptoms like mood swings and vaginal dryness.
Soy foods also have shown the potential to improve cardiovascular health during perimenopause. Isoflavones may help lower LDL cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure and improve blood vessel function, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.
Soy isoflavones have been linked to helping maintain bone density, potentially reducing the risk of osteoporosis, a common condition among postmenopausal women. However, the evidence is mixed.
Provide Essential Nutrients
Soy foods are rich in fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and B-vitamins. They’re also a good source of trace minerals such as manganese and copper. Fermented soy foods such as miso or tempeh have been cultured with beneficial bacteria or yeast which may help improve digestibility and absorption by the body. Most soy milks are fortified with calcium, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12 making their components similar to cow’s milk.
Incorporating Soy Foods into Your Diet
If you decide to include soy foods in your perimenopause diet, try starting with whole soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, soy milk/ice cream and soy sauce. These foods will provide a range of essential nutrients along with phytoestrogens.
Considerations and Controversies
Current research available on soy’s influence on breast cancer risk remains inconclusive. Individual factors, such as genetics and personal health history play an important role on the impact of soy foods on the body. Earlier studies suggest a potential protective effect, however subsequent research has yielded mixed results.
Some women with hormonal conditions such as endometriosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or hypothyroidism have been told to avoid soy foods, either by their healthcare provider or nutrition influencers online. This is not uncommon with all the misinformation floating around. However there’s very little evidence available to suggest that consuming soy foods is harmful.
Leslie Weidner has been a registered dietitian for over 10 years. Her struggle with all the changes that came with perimenopause led her to focus her practice on helping alleviate symptoms through simple nutrition and lifestyle changes.