You may have encountered conflicting information regarding soy foods - some sources suggest they're beneficial for your health, while others advise avoidance. So, what's the truth?
Numerous studies strongly support the positive effects of unprocessed soy foods on both health and hormone regulation. Whole soy foods, in their natural state, are considered a nutritional powerhouse and have been extensively validated as safe when consumed in typical quantities as part of a balanced diet, as opposed to highly processed soy ingredients.
Are Soy Foods Good for Your General Health?
Soy is rich in protein, polyunsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These nutrients offer various health benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and certain cancers.
Are Soy Foods Good or Bad for Your Hormonal Health?
Soy contains soy isoflavones, well-known phytoestrogens. To put it simply, scientific research indicates that these phytoestrogens can have a beneficial impact on our hormone balance. It's important to clarify that soy does not contain the same oestrogen as the body produces. However, the phytoestrogens in soy interact with our oestrogen receptors in a protective and advantageous manner.
The Unique Hormone Modulating Effect of Soy
Soy isoflavones have the unique ability to interact with the body's oestrogen receptors in a modulating way. Depending on their location in the body, soy isoflavones can either act like estrogen or block the effects of oestrogen. In the brain, cardiovascular system, and bones, they provide a beneficial oestrogenic effect - improving cognitive function, reducing the risk of heart disease, and supporting bone density. In tissues like the breast, uterus, and prostate, they provide a beneficial anti-estrogenic effect, lowering the risk of cancer in these areas.
Soy for High Oestrogen
Soy helps balance oestrogen levels. In states of high oestrogen, soy competes with the body's own oestrogen, occupying receptors where it has a much weaker effect and mitigating the negative impacts of high oestrogen. This can be useful in conditions like endometriosis and PMS.
Soy for Low Oestrogen
In low oestrogen states, such as post-menopause, soy compensates for the lack of oestrogen, alleviating symptoms like brain fog, mood changes, hot flashes, headaches, migraines, and vaginal dryness/irritation. It's not a substitute for menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) where indicated, but it's an excellent supportive treatment for those on MHT and those who cannot take it.
The ability of soy isoflavones to assist in both high and low oestrogen states makes it particularly useful for the peri-menopausal years when oestrogen levels fluctuate between highs and lows.
Will Soy Work for Your Hormones?
It’s important to note, that not all people can convert soy isoflavones to their active form so not everyone will experience the hormonal benefits of dietary soy. It’s important to give it a hood trial of a few months before you decide whether it helps you. For those not experiencing benefits it’s worth talking to your naturopath about whether a soy isoflavone supplement may be an alternative for you.
Effects of Soy on the Brain
In the brain, soy stimulates beneficial oestrogen receptors known as oestrogen receptor-beta. This enhances cognitive function by influencing neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that affect mood, memory, and focus) and executive function (cognitive skills that help you get things done).
It also acts as an antioxidant, protecting against oxidative stress and potentially guarding against Alzheimer's, though research is not yet definitive.
Effects of Soy on Metabolic Health
Metabolic health involves maintaining healthy levels of blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, waist circumference, and blood pressure. Good metabolic health protects against metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, NAFLD, obesity, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
Regular consumption of soy has been linked to a reduced risk of elevated cholesterol levels and insulin resistance. Isoflavones may also improve blood vessel function and reduce blood pressure.
Studies support that soy can improve blood glucose regulation and significantly reduce the risk of NAFLD and cardiovascular disease in post-menopausal individuals.
Soy is rich in protein, which can help maintain and build lean muscle mass. Muscle mass is important for metabolic health as muscle tissue burns more energy than fat, contributing to a healthy metabolic rate.
Who Should Eat Soy?
Including a moderate amount of soy in your diet is generally beneficial for most individuals. However, there are situations where your healthcare provider might recommend a specific focus on soy for you. It's essential to be aware that individuals with a known soy allergy should completely avoid it.
Soy can also cause abdominal discomfort in those prone to irritable bowel syndrome. If you experience this issue, consult with your naturopath as it's likely you need to address y our gut health. Additionally, some individuals with specific thyroid disorders may need to avoid soy, although it's not a blanket recommendation. If you have a thyroid condition, discuss soy consumption with your naturopath for personalised advice.
In the ongoing debate surrounding the consumption of soy, the evidence is compelling: when included as part of a balanced diet in its whole, unprocessed form, soy emerges as a nutritional powerhouse with significant benefits for our health and well-being. Its positive impacts extend from metabolic health, including blood sugar and cholesterol regulation, to its remarkable ability to modulate hormonal balance.
Soy is not just a friend but a reliable ally in the quest for a healthier lifestyle. It offers a rich source of protein, polyunsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which collectively contribute to reducing the risk of various chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Its role in protecting against osteoporosis and enhancing cognitive function cannot be overlooked.
Moreover, soy's unique phytoestrogens, the soy isoflavones, demonstrate their magic by balancing our hormonal equilibrium. They adapt to our body's needs, acting like oestrogen when required and blocking its effects when necessary. In this dynamic dance, they promote cognitive clarity, support cardiovascular health, and decrease the risk of certain cancers in one context, while alleviating symptoms in another, such as those experienced during menopause.
While soy's many benefits are well-established, specific situations may warrant different recommendations. For those with soy allergies, complete avoidance is crucial. Individuals susceptible to irritable bowel syndrome may experience discomfort, and those with certain thyroid conditions should consult their healthcare providers.
So, are you ready to start experiencing the benefits of soy for yourself? Download our Soy Foods Handout here for guidelines on how much to eat and links to our favourite soy recipes that take soy from being a bland mush to a delicious, affordable, healthy meal.
We hope you enjoy the free resource.
The RH:Reproductive Health team.