For the last few decades, doctors have had a simple solution for menopause: writing prescriptions for estrogen drugs. With millions of women taking estrogen, all seemed to be going well, until data revealed that estrogen drug use resulted in significant increases in lethal diseases ranging from breast cancer to stroke.1 This development left both the medical profession and menopausal women paralyzed, with no direction and no answers as to how best to relieve the debilitating symptoms of menopause.
Clearly overlooked is the fact that menopause is a complex, multifactorial health condition. Addressing menopause requires a diverse approach that both restores normal hormone balance and protects against the multitude of diseases that can arise during this period in a woman’s life. The onset of menopause triggers profound changes in cardiac health, mental states, bone strength, and cell proliferation, all of which combine to greatly elevate a woman’s risk for contracting heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain cancers.
These health issues are not easy to correct, especially when they occur simultaneously. The ideal approach to addressing menopause would be comprehensive and holistic, providing fast-acting, short-term symptomatic relief as well as longer-term benefits that support women’s health as their body chemistry changes. While declining levels of estrogen are what gives rise to the difficulties of menopause, both nutritional and hormonal support are required to address and ameliorate the physiological symptoms and other changes that accompany menopause.
Fortunately, researchers have identified natural approaches that may safely relieve hot flashes, breast pain, insomnia, irritability, and other menopausal symptoms. Unlike estrogen-progestin drugs, the use of these natural agents is correlated with reduced risks of certain cancers, along with improved bone and cardiovascular health.
Scientists have known for years that women who consume certain plant-based nutrients are less likely to develop hot flashes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast cancer.2-5 In response to the health debacle arising from the use of estrogen drugs, researchers have begun digging deeper into the botanical medicine chest, critically evaluating the efficacy of various traditional herbal products that safely stimulate estrogen receptors and create estrogen-like responses.
Mounting scientific evidence indicates that menopausal women may safely benefit from inexpensive, readily available botanical extracts that do not require a prescription.6-18 This article reviews the latest research findings concerning menopause-related health conditions—ranging from depression and hot flashes to osteoporosis and heart disease—and how women may benefit from highly researched botanicals. Taken together, these findings suggest a new approach to safely and effectively managing menopause.
Why Lignans Are So Important
For women approaching meno-pause, plant lignans offer important protection against cancer, cognitive decline, and hypertension. These fibrous compounds are present in large quantities in foods such as flaxseed, whole grains, and vegetables. In the digestive tract, they are converted to beneficial estrogenic compounds by resident bacteria. Two of these metabolic byproducts, enterolactone and enterodiol, are believed to play an important role in cancer prevention in mammals.19-22
A recent study published in the Journal of Hypertension concluded that dietary lignans, even in small amounts, are likely to normalize blood pressure and reduce hypertension, thereby lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.23
Research from Korea indicates that high enterolactone levels also are associated with greater bone mineral density in postmenopausal women. Furthermore, scientists have found that women with low levels of enterolactone are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis.5 Scientists in the Netherlands recently reported that “higher dietary intake of lignans is associated with better cognitive function in postmenopausal women.”24
Surprisingly, the evergreen tree is an excellent source of potent lignans. Scandinavian researchers recently discovered that the knotwood of these majestic trees contains highly concentrated amounts of a lignan known as hydroxymatairesinol, or HMR. Numerous studies have shown that HMR is a potent antioxidant that may promote health and help protect against diseases such as cancer. In laboratory models of uterine, breast, colon, and other carcinomas, HMR lignan has demonstrated efficacy in reducing the volume and growth of existing tumors and preventing the formation of new tumors.22,25-29
Bioavailability—that is, the ease with which HMR lignan is converted directly to enterolactone and absorbed into the bloodstream—is what sets HMR apart from other plant lignans. Its unique chemical composition allows natural gut bacteria to convert HMR directly to the beneficial enterolactone and enterodiol lignans. This contrasts with other plant lignans, which must undergo further metabolism.29 Although flaxseed has long been recognized as one of the most concentrated sources of plant lignans, it takes far more flaxseed than HMR lignan to deliver an equivalent amount of beneficial enterolactone into the bloodstream. While one would have to eat about four tablespoons (20-30 grams) of unrefined flaxseed to get a beneficial dose of lignans, just 10-30 milligrams of HMR lignan (about 1,000 times less) provide an equivalent amount of enterolactone in the body.28
Protective Effects of Pomegranate
One of the more devastating long-term effects of menopause is an increase in both cancer and heart disease risk. Doctors initially thought that estrogen drugs would reduce cardiovascular risk, but these drugs instead dramatically increased a woman’s risk of contracting these lethal diseases. Fortunately, scientists are now discovering that natural agents can help protect aging women from these diseases.
Long venerated for its health-promoting properties, the fruit of the pomegranate tree is drawing new attention as a source of beneficial compounds that provide powerful protection against heart disease and cancer. Among these compounds are unique antioxidants that may dramatically improve cardiovascular health. A recent study conducted in Israel, for example, examined the effects of consuming pomegranate juice on the cardiovascular status of patients with atherosclerosis. Although some patients were followed for three years, dramatic differences were noted after just one year. Patients receiving the juice experienced a 30% improvement in atherosclerosis as measured by blood flow capacity through the carotid artery. In control patients who did not receive the juice, the same parameter of cardiovascular health actually worsened by 9%. Systolic blood pressure was reduced by 21% and total serum antioxidant status increased by 130% in the pomegranate-supplemented patients.30
These dramatic improvements were achieved within one year of treatment. Subsequent years yielded no further improvements, except in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation, which continued to decrease with continued consumption of pomegranate juice.30 More recent research confirms that pomegranate juice fights cardiovascular disease by preventing LDL peroxidation and by significantly suppressing the synthesis of new cholesterol by macrophages.31 In fact, punicalagin, the major antioxidant polyphenol ingredient in pomegranate juice, is found nowhere else in nature. But pomegranate also contains ellagic acid, the compound that makes berries the health-promoting powerhouses of the produce aisle. A recent analysis of the abilities of various components of pomegranate juice to fight cancer and quench free radicals found that pomegranate’s many compounds work synergistically and in a variety of ways to stop cancer.8
New research indicates that pomegranate may be particularly indicated in the prevention of breast cancer, one of the most common cancers threatening women after menopause. The most powerful estrogen in the body, 17-beta-estradiol, plays an important role in the genesis and development of breast cancers, most of which are hormone dependent in their early stages.32 Pomegranate-derived polyphenol compounds inhibit 17-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type I, the enzyme that converts the weak estrogen estrone into its most potent metabolite, 17-beta-estradiol.33 High expression of 17-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type I can be an indicator of adverse prognosis in women with estrogen-receptor-positive breast tumors.32 Based on these findings, scientists hope to conduct clinical trials assessing the preventive and therapeutic applications of pomegranate in human breast cancer.
Hormonal Effects of Soy
Phytoestrogens are plant-derived compounds that closely mimic the natural estrogens women produce in abundance before menopause. In the body, phytoestrogens have been shown to modulate the effects that estrogen exerts on cells in a way that could reduce the risk of contracting various diseases. It was long ago established that natural estrogens play a role in the healthy function of bones, heart muscle, and blood vessel linings. Estrogens also contribute to learning and memory.34
Aging women need to counter the depletion of beneficial natural hormones that occurs upon meno-pause. Soy contains genistein and daidzein, which are among the most extensively studied phytoestrogens. Epidemiological evidence shows that cancer and heart disease are less prevalent in populations that consume large amounts of soy.35 Moreover, scientists have demonstrated in laboratory studies that genistein inhibits the proliferation of breast cancer cells.36-39
Rates of cardiovascular disease and hormone-dependent cancers are lower among Asian women who consume soy.4 Epidemiological evidence shows that North American women who consume the greatest amounts of phytoestrogens enjoy significantly better cardiovascular risk profiles than women who consume the least phytoestrogens.40 Such epidemiological evidence suggests that dietary rather than genetic differences account for Asians’ better health.
Numerous studies have shown that increased consumption of phytoestrogens, including genistein and daidzein, is associated with a reduced risk of breast and other hormone-dependent cancers, such as endometrial cancer.19,41-44 Scientists have also determined that phyto-estrogens confer protection against lung cancer.45 Recent studies have documented significant improvements in long- and short-term memory, mental flexibility, and attention with increased phytoestrogen consumption.46-49
Phytoestrogens from soy have also been shown to reduce the loss of bone density in postmenopausal women.50 The findings from a recent prospective study suggested that postmenopausal women who consume more soy products experience a decreased risk of bone fracture compared to those who consume little soy. This association was most pronounced in the years immediately following menopause.51
Asian women experience hot flashes less frequently than do Western women. Less than one fifth of menopausal Chinese women, for example, complained of hot flashes in one such study.3 By contrast, more than three fourths of menopausal North American and European women suffer from hot flashes. Numerous studies have demonstrated that isoflavone-rich soy extracts decrease both the frequency and severity of hot flashes in postmenopausal women.52 In one study, 80% of women using a soy extract experienced a significant decrease, averaging 48%, in the number of daily hot flashes. These women also reported statistically significant improvements in other menopausal symptoms, including sleep disorder, anxiety, depression, vaginal dryness, loss of libido, and bone pain.53
In response to these findings, scientists conducted clinical trials using soy extracts in an attempt to relieve menopausal miseries. Because these studies produced inconclusive results, many mainstream medical doctors lost confidence in soy’s ability to relieve menopausal symptoms. This is regrettable considering the many diseases associated with normal aging and menopause that soy-derived phytoestrogens have been shown to prevent. While soy phyto-estrogens by themselves may not be equal to potent estrogen drugs in alleviating menopausal symptoms, their estrogen-modulating effects merit including soy in a comprehensive approach to both reducing disease risk and relieving the symptoms of menopause.