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Could a Change in Diet Get Rid of Those Hot Flashes?

Why some say plant-based eating may help with menopausal symptoms.

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Of the many changes that come with the onset of menopause, hot flashes are among the worst — ambushing women with intense waves of heat and sweating that can disrupt sleep and affect their mood and memory, all thanks to declining estrogen levels.

Up to 75 percent of U.S. women in either perimenopause or menopause report experiencing hot flashes. Unfortunately, there are few consistently effective treatments other than hormonal therapy, which comes with its own risks. But what if a change in diet could dramatically reduce those fiery flashes?  

The results of a new study, published in 2021 in the journal Menopause, suggest that women who follow a low-fat, vegan diet — including having half a cup of cooked soybeans daily — may be able to reduce moderate-to-severe hot flashes by 84 percent. (A vegan diet avoids all animal foods, including dairy and eggs.)

Researchers randomly assigned 36 postmenopausal women reporting two or more hot flashes a day to either a low-fat vegan diet with soybeans group, or a control group with no diet changes. At the end of 12 weeks, women in the vegan group had reduced their total hot flashes by 79 percent, while moderate-to-severe flashes were reduced by 84 percent. Nearly 60 percent of the vegan group also reported no longer having any moderate-to-severe flashes.

Lead researcher Neal Barnard, M.D., an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and longtime researcher and advocate of the health benefits of a vegan diet,  called the study’s results “a game-changer for women aged 45 and over,” one that offered relief from severe menopause symptoms without having to take any drugs.

Barnard, 68, is also founder and president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group of doctors and others that emphasize preventive medicine through nutrition and good health. His research and many books stress the benefits of a vegan diet for help with obesity, diabetes and heart problems.

Barnard knows a totally plant-based diet can be a hard sell to life-long carnivores. His own mother, he says, “ignored me for the longest time, until her doctor told her her cholesterol was too high and she needed to start a statin.” After she switched to a plant-based diet for two months, her cholesterol dropped by 80 points. “Her doctor thought the lab had made a mistake.” 

Barnard tells his patients to try eating only plant-based foods for a week and his clinic helps them come up with breakfast, lunch and dinner ideas. It’s easier now, he says, “because there are so many more vegan foods. There’s vegan sausage, vegan cheese and plant-based milks. I even tell them a bean burrito from Taco Bell (skip the cheese) can work.”

We talked to Barnard about his latest research and how eating a more plant-based diet may benefit older women.

Q: Your new study found that eating a low-fat, vegan diet that included a daily half-cup of cooked soybeans dramatically decreased the number of hot flashes women were experiencing. Do you think eating a daily portion of cooked soybeans would help menopausal women who were not following a vegan diet?

A: We would recommend trying all three parts — low-fat, vegan and a daily half-cup cooked soybeans — and see if the hot flashes back off. In the study, we wanted to get the fastest results to give women relief. Our first goal was to allow them to sleep at night. But women could see if just adding the soybeans to their current diet helps, or just trying the low-fat or vegan part. Try half of the changes and if it works, then it’s OK.

Q: Why the additional cooked soybeans to an already plant-based diet? What role do soybeans play in reducing hot flashes?

A: Soy contains isoflavones, also known as phytoestrogens, which occur naturally in plants and have estrogen-like properties. In the past, there was worry soy foods could increase the risk for cancer, but research since then has found eating moderate amounts may decrease the risk of some cancers. Phytoestrogens seem to have weaker effects in the body than does the type of estrogen in hormone therapy, which is why other studies have also found eating soy foods is helpful in relieving hot flashes. But, of course, a woman with a history of breast cancer should talk to her doctor before eating more soy.

Q: How else does a vegan diet benefit an older woman’s health?

A number of women also notice dramatic improvement in vaginal dryness and help with losing weight. In our study about hot flashes, the women in the vegan group also lost eight pounds over the 12-week study. In other studies we’ve done on overweight women following a simple vegan diet — no animal products was the only rule — they lost a pound a week. A vegan diet is also a good way to get blood sugar levels down, which is great for those with diabetes, and it can help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. In the long run, making this kind of diet change may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment because it avoids a lot of the foods linked to higher risk of these brain conditions

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