Kerry loves to write about gardening, nutrition, sustainability, and entertainment.
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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Amelia on June 25, 2018:
I have been off dairy for over 10yrs but I love coffee so instarted using almond milk or soy milk. What I notice on soy milk is that I can gain weight way quicker than just eating a bunch of fatty food. I also notice that it reduces my menstrual cramps if I drink it before. I also have irregular menstrucal cycles and noticed that since consuming soy I have been regular now. But I no longer consume it as much only at the end of my cycle.
Kate on March 06, 2018:
I started drinking soy milk frequently about a month ago because I personally find that cow milk worsens cramping on my period but I needed something to put in my coffee (I know, I know...I usually try to avoid caffeine on my period too but I was exhausted). My cramps went away after drinking a bunch of the stuff, and I didn't think much of it and honestly didn't correlate the two at all. I found this post today because after suffering from cramps and lower-back pain all day, despite taking two extra strength menstrual relief pills (a generic version of Midol complete, and the pills usually work for me), I happened to pour myself a glass of soy milk and my cramps disappeared almost immediately after drinking it. Naturally, I went straight to the internet to find out if this was a coincidence or if it was a known "cure" for period cramps. I've been through a bunch of sites now, because in addition to finding out that this may be the case for my body I obviously stumbled across a bunch of articles debating the risks of soy consumption. I'm no doctor or dietitian, but from what I understand soy is perfectly safe in moderation, although you may want to steer clear if you're trying to conceive a child or if you personally find concerning or even just annoying symptoms. It's probably also smart to find out if you have a soy allergy if you experience negative impacts, as those are common. If you drink soy milk or are interested in trying it, be aware that not all soy milks are created equal: avoid brands that use carageenan as it has been linked to ulcerations and cancer, and also be advised that genetically modified soy isn't as nutrient-rich as non-GM soy. Fortified soy milks are the healthiest option as they have been enriched in vitamins and minerals to be a viable nutritional supplement for dairy milks. Personally, I've been drinking Silk Fortified Soy Beverage in the vanilla flavour, and was surprised to find that it actually contains 4 grams less sugar per cup than cow milk! I know that lactose is a sugar, but considering how sweet the vanilla flavour is I was convinced I was overloading on sugar until I looked it up. I'm sure other brands are similar too, but I haven't checked. I plan on trying unflavoured soy milk soon (when I find it on sale so I won't feel bad if I hate it) 'cause I have a feeling that drinking the flavoured stuff is getting me used to the taste of soy and I am sure I could stand to cut a little more sugar from my diet. BTW there are also a lot of fortified nut milks out there so if you're trying to replace dairy milks but you don't think soy is a good fit for you because of taste or symptoms there are lots of good options (maybe try cashew milk!). I'd avoid coconut milk, however, because it's full of saturated fat.
Nik on January 23, 2018:
Soy has caused some of the worse menstral symptoms for me ever. I started drinking/using soy in the 90s and i believe that it made my breasts grow.
However, consumption before or around my menstruation now cannot happen.
Cara on January 27, 2011:
I started getting soy lattes in stead of milk based lattes and the side effects were startling. Less than five hours later each time I get spotting and menstrul cramps. If I have soy once a day it brings on my period no matter what time a month or if I just had it. I tried soy nuts and the same thing happened. I'm sad because I love soy. I've only been drinking and eating soy for two three months, but if this keeps up I have to stop. Its uncomfortable and inconvenient.
Christine on June 10, 2010:
Eating soy while on my period gives me REALLY bad cramps. I guess it really depends on the person.
Tina on May 31, 2010:
In order not to put sugar in my coffee, which was only 1/2 tsp. anyway, I began using vanilla soy milk. I began about 5 weeks ago. One side effect was about one week after starting, I began having regular daily bowel movements for the first time in my life. Second, now I just ended my period, for the first time ever, no extreme cramps. Only light ones. I'll have to wait until next month to see if it continues. I only drink 1/2 cup per day and this is what happened. Hallelujah.
Art Linn on March 02, 2010:
Great reading. Thanks!!!
Kk on June 27, 2009:
Unflavored soymilk works for me!