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A hormone found in soybeans may be able to ease menopausal symptoms without the negative side-effects caused by standard estrogen treatments, and lower cholesterol levels at the same time, Brazilian scientists said on Wednesday.

Gynecologists from the Federal University of Sao Paulo (Unifesp) working with the Agriculture Ministry's research arm Embrapa conducted tests over six months on 80 menopausal women to assess the possible benefits of isoflavin, a hormone present in soybeans. "Of the women taking isoflavin, 85 percent reported a marked improvement in their (menopausal) symptoms because isoflavin is a phyto-estrogen, which is an estrogen of vegetable origin," said Gynecologist Kyung Koo Han of Unifesp. "Isoflavin does everything estrogen does. It is only slightly less effective than conventional estrogen to which about 90 to 95 percent of women respond positively," said Koo Han.

From the onset of menopause, the woman's body produces only a fraction of the natural estrogen that it once did. This can sometimes lead to a deterioration in quality of life brought on by insomnia, depression, loss of bone mass and hot flashes.

Unlike some women treated with conventional estrogens, the test patients taking isoflavin showed no swelling of the mammary glands or endometrium, the lining of the uterus, Koo Han's study showed.

Mercedes Panizzi, an Embrapa doctor and co-worker on the study, said her research suggested that soy products did not carry the same health risks as the prolonged use of estrogen that increases the risk of uterine and breast cancer. "Soy is among the most complete and versatile foods known to man. Beyond its nutritional values, it has great potential as a cure and preventative for disease such as cancer and osteoporosis," she said.

Isoflavin is sold in homeopathic pharmacies in Brazil as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy. It is also marketed in the United States and other countries. Koo Han said he also found that 75 percent of the women showed lower cholesterol levels after they started taking isoflavin. He will present the study's findings on Sept. 3, in Washington D.C. at the International Congress of Gynecology.

Isoflavin might also prove effective against osteoporosis a degenerative bone disease often caused by the lack of estrogen in women after the onset of menopause, Panizzi said. Unifesp is currently conducting a one-year study on the hormone's effects on bone mass in menopausal women.

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