Coping With Menopause Naturally – Alternatives to HRT
by Monique N. Gilbert
Many women are searching for an effective natural approach to relieving their menopausal symptoms because of the recent negative findings of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). On May 31, 2002, the National Institutes of Health in the US stopped a major long-term clinical trial of the risks and benefits of combined estrogen and progestin before the trial was completed. Due to the increased risk of breast cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, and blood clots, it was determined that HRT’s risks outweigh its benefits.
The first thing to remember is that menopause is not a disease. It is a natural part of a woman’s reproductive life cycle which can be managed with exercise and diet. Hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings and bone loss are the chief complaints among women going through menopause. Learning to deal with these unpleasant symptoms will help you cope with life’s changes.
Menopause not only causes a decline in hormone levels, but can also leave you feeling moody, irritated, tired and unfocused. This is partly due to the lack of a good night’s sleep caused by night sweats. Regular exercise (at least 3 to 4 times a week) is probable the most important thing you can do to improve your nighttime rest and overall health. (Taking a cool shower before bedtime can also help promote a good night’s sleep.)
Exercising strengthens your muscles and bones, helps circulate your blood (which nourishes the skin and internal organs); improves your mental outlook (about yourself and life in general), and promotes a tranquil night’s sleep. It also increases your levels of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. Serotonin, a chemical your brain manufactures, produces a calming effect and creates a sense of satisfaction and well-being. Endorphins decrease pain, reduce stress, cause mood stability and a sense of happiness and joy. Dopamine increases your vitality, concentration and alertness.
Weight bearing exercises and strength training is also one of the most effective methods of fighting bone loss and osteoporosis. Resistance placed upon the skeleton during physical activity makes bones stronger and denser while improving posture, balance and muscle tone. The positive effects of exercising keeps you fit, trim, feeling younger and energetic. Taking a daily dose of calcium (1,200 mg to 1,500 mg), magnesium (500 mg to 750 mg) and vitamin D (400 IU) also helps preserve bone density and strength.
The next step to help you through the symptoms of menopause is to increase your intake of phytoestrogen rich foods. Many women experience positive results by eating soy. Soy foods contain isoflavones (natural plant estrogen) that have similar properties to human estrogen, but are much weaker. Isoflavones can bind to the body’s estrogen receptors and help offset the drop in estrogen that occurs at menopause.
Scientists have shown isoflavones function similarly to HRT without producing the risks associated with this controversial treatment. Soy foods offer women a more natural way to treat their menopausal symptoms. Research on soy’s protein and isoflavones indicate that soy can help to relieve hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue, and vaginal dryness.
Besides helping regulate estrogen when it is declining, soy can also help with other conditions such as osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke and breast cancer. Women have an increased risk for these disorders during and after menopause. Many studies show that soy can prevent these diseases by helping the body absorb and retain calcium, inhibit bone loss, lower LDL (the bad) cholesterol and decrease blood clotting.
The best forms of soy are those with the highest amount of isoflavones and protein; like whole soybeans (edamame), tempeh, textured soy protein (TVP), soynuts, and some soy protein powders. Next would be tofu, soymilk and miso. However, the actual isoflavone content has to be high enough to produce positive effects. Some foods made from soy protein concentrate, like soy hotdogs, have very little isoflavones due to their processing method. Other products, such as soybean oil and soy sauce, contain no isoflavones in them at all.
Researchers recommend consuming at least 25 grams of soy protein and 30-50 milligrams of isoflavones daily (equal to 1-2 servings). This is only a starting point. You can safely consume 2-3 times this amount. The North American Menopause Society suggests 60 to 90 milligrams of isoflavones a day.
Many health experts encourage people to incorporate soy foods into a balanced diet and discourage solely taking soy supplements. Soy foods have various nutrients and compounds that contribute to its health benefits, while soy supplements usually only contain isoflavones. They advise taking soy supplements along with soy foods. This way the benefits of both forms can complement and enhance each other.
Some women have found that taking Black Cohosh and Vitamin E (400 IU to 800 IU daily) can also provide relief from hot flashes, night sweats and other menopausal symptoms. Black Cohosh is a phytoestrogen herb that women have used for centuries to help manage their hormones. Other beneficial herbs include Dong Quai, Evening Primrose Oil and Red Clover.
Since each woman is unique and reacts differently to natural treatments, try them out for yourself. Women who exercise regularly and consume soy daily generally have fewer menopausal symptoms than those who do not. Test these approaches for at least 6 to 8 weeks to see if you get positive results.
To get you started, try this easy and delicious soy recipe from my book “Virtues of Soy: A Practical Health Guide and Cookbook.”
Golden Tofu Strips
- 5.3 ounces of firm tofu (1/3 of a 16-ounce block)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 tablespoon canola oil
Cut tofu into strips 1/4 inch wide and 2 inches long. Heat 1/2 tablespoon canola oil. Add tofu strips, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon turmeric. Stir to thoroughly coat all sides of tofu. Cook tofu strips about 5 minutes or until golden brown. Serve on top of a salad, stir-fry, or stuffed in a pita with shredded lettuce. (Makes 1-2 servings)