Women and Menopause: Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle modifications are often relatively simple changes that can provide benefits to women with menopausal symptoms. For example, women can wear layers of easily removed clothing, or use cold water, fans or ice packs to counter the hot feeling associated with hot flashes. Also, women can use breathing and relaxation training as well as regular exercise to decrease symptoms.

Even though lifestyle changes are recommended, many of the scientific studies examining their effects on menopause symptoms have been small (or totally absent). One such study followed 164 menopausal women. Individuals who walked or participated in yoga experienced fewer menopausal symptoms and a better quality of life than women who led a sedentary lifestyle. As with the lifestyle changes discussed in the previous section on PMS and PMDD, charting your reaction to modifications across time can help determine whether particular strategies are successful. In addition, adequate time (i.e., several months) should be allotted to a particular strategy before deciding it is unhelpful.

Increasing levels of soy in the diet is another recommended lifestyle change, because soy contains isoflavones (a plant- based substance that acts on estrogen receptors). The exact way isoflavones affect our body is unclear. Most likely, the isoflavones are able to bind to estrogen receptors which "tricks" the body into thinking that more estrogen is circulating. This signal possibly decreases estrogen-related symptoms such as hot flashes.

Some of the interest in using isoflavones to treat menopause symptoms comes from research comparing the diets of women in Asia to women in the West. Typically, Asian diets are high in soy (approximately 50mg per day). Studies suggest that 20% of women in China have hot flashes as compared to 80% of women in Western cultures. There have been additional high quality studies examining the direct effects of soy on menopause symptoms. The results of these studies were mixed; seven found no benefit and 4 found a 15% decrease in symptoms. As a result, it is still unclear whether isoflavones in the form of dietary soy are truly beneficial for menopausal women.

If a woman chooses to incorporate soy into her diet, current data suggest that consuming 40 grams of soy protein or 40 mg of isoflavones per day is safe (1 gram of soy protein contains 1 mg of isoflavones). Soy protein and isoflavones are found in soy flour, tofu, edamame (shelled or unshelled soybeans), and dietary supplements. Consuming this amount of soy/isoflavones does not appear to stimulate the growth of the uterine lining. Some potential side effects of increased soy consumption include a decrease in thyroid hormone, bloating, and gas.

There is mixed data on the level of risk of developing breast cancer with increased soy intake. Some researchers suggest that soy might possibly protect breast tissue. Others think that soy might stimulate abnormal growth of breast tissue in women with a breast cancer history. Women who have any concerns about adding soy to their diets should consult with their physicians. Currently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist (ACOG) recommends limiting the use of soy to less than 2 years.