Does Soy Relieve Menstrual Cramps?
In recent years, there has been some controversy in the medical community over the benefits of soy and soy products for women's health, especially menstrual health. As a long-time sufferer of severe menstrual cramps, I have been following the debate with interest.
The Phytoestrogen Controversy
Soy has a high concentration of chemicals called phytoestrogens, also known as "plant estrogens" or "dietary estrogens," because they mimic the behavior of the hormone estrogen in our bodies. Estrogen is one of two primary hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle in women's bodies. (The other is progesterone.) Estrogen is required to maintain the healthy function of the female reproductive system, but excess levels of estrogen have been linked to increased risks of breast cancer and other problems. Some studies have suggested that excess levels of estrogen in relation to progesterone can exacerbate menstrual cramps.
Phytoestrogens are "weak" estrogens. In the body, they trigger and bind to estrogen receptors, but do not affect the body in the same way as real estrogen. The phytoestrogens block real estrogen from binding to estrogen receptors, and the excess estrogen is then released from the body. This should reduce the effect of high estrogen levels on the body, however, some studies have suggested that even weak phytoestrogens can have some effect on the body's hormone balance.
What Does This Mean for Me?
In practice, some women report relief of menstrual symptoms when they increase their soy intake, while others experience a worsening of symptoms. I believe that the other benefits of soy make it worthwhile to experiment with soy products. Those benefits include:
High levels of magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is a common cause of menstrual cramps, because magnesium acts to relax muscles and improve blood flow in the body. Other good dietary sources of magnesium include pumpkin and sunflower seeds, flax seeds, halibut, and a number of vegetables, including spinach, kale, broccoli, cucumber, celery, and mustard greens.
High levels of dietary fiber. A diet rich in fiber can reduce constipation and bloating, two conditions that often exacerbate cramps. In the body, fiber also binds to waste estrogen to carry it out of the body, helping maintain hormone balance. Other good sources of dietary fiber include: whole grains, beans, legumes (such as lentils), split peas, black beans, and many kinds of fruits and vegetables, including spinach, broccoli, strawberries, Romaine lettuce, celery, eggplant, sweet potato, and grapefruit.
High levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Along with their many cardiovascular benefits, omega-3 fatty acids also act as natural anti-inflammatory agents, which reduce menstrual pain.
Soy has also been found to be beneficial in reducing the risks of high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some forms of cancer.
Talk to your doctor before increasing your intake of soy if you have an autoimmune or thyroid disorder, or any history of soy allergies.
New to Soy?
Soy has been a popular food in East Asian cultures (many of whom, incidentally, report a much lower rate of menstrual cramps and other problems than Western cultures) for thousands of years, but it is still new and strange to many Western consumers. If you are new to soy, here are some things to try:
Tofu is the most famous soy product and it tends to get an unfairly bad rap, perhaps because people try to use it as a substitute for meat instead of treating it as a unique food in its own right. Tofu is naturally much blander than meat, but it takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with. I like it best in stir-fries with a good sauce and lots of vegetables, in miso soup with spinach or kelp, or crumbled into sloppy joe sauce.
Miso is fermented soy, used most commonly in soups. I find a good cup of miso soup to be as comforting and homey as chicken noodle soup, though it can be an acquired taste. The soup's warmth may feel good when you're having cramps, as well. If you think that soy products exacerbate your cramps, you may still be able to take advantage of soy's other benefits with miso, which affects hormone balance less than other soy products because of the fermentation process it goes through.
A friend of mine once described tempeh as "chewy fried air," with some justification. If I find a way to eat it that's edible, I'll let you know.
Soy sauce is, with tofu, the most famous soy product, but should be used in moderation because the high sodium content can increase bloating, which exacerbates cramps. Low sodium soy sauce is available, however, and it even tastes as good.
Soymilk isn't very good, in my opinion, though there are those who disagree. However, after extensive experimentation, I've discovered that Silk Chocolate Soymilk is rich and chocolatey enough that I forget that it's actually soy. Unfortunately, many soymilks contain refined sugars, which can increase bloating, and the caffeine in chocolate can exacerbate cramps, so use soymilk sparingly.
Roasted soybeans are surprisingly good snacks and are now available in many flavors. Use cautiously, however, as some have high sodium content that can contribute to bloating and worsen cramps.
Because many preservatives, pesticides, and other additives (including "natural" ones like sodium and certain sugars) have been connected to menstrual cramps or other health problems, buy organic soy products whenever possible and avoid those that have been heavily processed and/or have lots of added sodium or refined sugars. In general, the healthiest and most beneficial soy products are those created through traditional Asian fermentation and precipitation processes, including tofu, miso, and soy sauce.