“Girls, remember when you went through puberty, they told you that you were becoming a woman?” said comedian Mrs Hughes back in 2007. “You go through the ‘change of life’; they don’t tell you what you’re becoming.” Of course, ask anybody currently going through menopause, and they might have an answer for you: they’re becoming just unbelievably warm. A new study might just have the answer for this famously uncomfortable symptom: go vegan.
Part of the Women’s Study for the Alleviation of Vasomotor Symptoms (WAVS) trial run by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC, the project took 84 postmenopausal women and split them randomly into two groups. The intervention group was assigned a low-fat, vegan diet, including half a cup of cooked soybeans daily, while the control group was instructed to eat as normal.
The results were incredible: for the 42 assigned to the intervention group, the number of moderate to severe hot flashes experienced by 88 percent – that’s nearly eight out of every nine flashes, gone. For a lucky three out of every five of those study participants, hot flashes actually disappeared altogether.
“We do not fully understand yet why [it] works,” said Neal Barnard, adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and lead researcher on the study, in a statement. “But it seems that these three elements are key – avoiding animal products, reducing fat, and adding a serving of soybeans.”
It’s a discovery with an impact that should not be understated, especially for those who experience more severe symptoms of menopause and perimenopause.
Hot flashes are one of the most common and uncomfortable menopausal experiences, and they’re exactly what they sound like: there you are, minding your own business, when, without warning, you suddenly feel incredibly hot. Your face, neck, and chest might warm up so much they turn red; you become soaked through with sweat as your heart rate increases, making you anxious and flustered – and then, almost as quickly as it began, off it disappears again.
“The hot flashes are so bad I thought global warming was my fault,” Hughes joked.
The symptom is caused by fluctuating hormone levels as your body clock ticks over from “put a baby in me!!” to “grandma time now”, and so it makes sense that, currently, the most effective treatment is to take an estrogen supplement. However, taking hormones, or indeed any of the other drugs often prescribed to help counteract the worst symptoms of menopause, isn’t without risk for older women. It’s no surprise that doctors have been on the hunt for an effective non-hormonal intervention for some time now.
None, though, have managed to combine the ease of this intervention with the massive success of its outcome. “These new results suggest that a diet change should be considered as a first-line treatment for troublesome vasomotor symptoms, including night sweats and hot flashes,” said Barnard.
While the study effects and size were too moderate to identify any single factor responsible for the effect, there are some clues in the literature and incidental results.
For example, soy is known to contain compounds known as isoflavones, which are a type of phytoestrogen – that is, plant compounds that have estrogen-like structures. While not as potent as a certain far-right insult would have you believe, these do interact with the body’s naturally occurring estrogens in a variety of ways – so perhaps the higher levels of soy have something to do with the effect.
Or perhaps not. Participants assigned to the intervention group also lost an average of 3.6 kilograms (eight pounds) over the 12 weeks of the study. That’s not totally surprising, since the dietary changes involved resulted in an average reduction of over 200 calories and 30 grams of fat per day – but higher levels of fat in the diet have long been known to increase levels of the female sex hormone estradiol pre-menopause.
The point is, it’s totally plausible that dietary changes might influence hormonal changes in perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause too – even if the researchers have yet to figure out exactly why. If nothing else, cultural clues would seem to support this: “Our results mirror the diets of places in the world, like pre-Westernized Japan and modern-day Yucatán Peninsula, where a low-fat, plant-based diet including soybeans is more prevalent and where postmenopausal women experience fewer symptoms,” Barnard pointed out.
So, once again – even if we don’t know why yet – veganism seems to have saved the day. And the best news of all? Its effects aren’t just limited to reducing hot flashes. In fact, for those going through this sweaty and uncomfortable biological process, Barnard noted, there’s pretty much nothing but benefits to adopting the diet.
“It is precisely the diet that would be expected to reduce the health concerns of many women reaching menopause,” he said. “[That is,] an increasing risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and memory problems.”
The results were published in the journal Menopause.