Review question: This Cochrane review has evaluated whether phytoestrogen treatments reduce the number and severity of hot flushes and whether they are safe and acceptable.
Background: Hormone therapy is an effective treatment for controlling the most common menopausal symptoms—hot flushes and night sweats. However, it is now recommended only in low doses given for the shortest possible time because of concerns about increased risk of some chronic diseases. Many women have started to use therapies that they perceive as 'natural' and safe, but they often do not have good information about the potential benefits and risks. Some of these therapies contain phytoestrogens—a group of plant-derived chemicals that are thought to prevent or treat disease. Phytoestrogens are found in a wide variety of plants, some of which are foods, particularly soy, alfalfa and red clover.
Study characteristics: This review found 43 RCTs conducted up to July 2013 that included 4,084 participants with hot flushes who were close to the menopause or were menopausal. Evidence obtained is current to July 2013.
Key results: Some trials reported a slight reduction in hot flushes and night sweats with phytoestrogen-based treatment. Extracts containing high levels of genistein (a substance derived from soy) appeared to reduce the number of daily hot flushes and need to be investigated further. Overall no indication suggested that other types of phytoestrogens work any better than no treatment. No evidence was found of harmful effects on the lining of the womb, stimulation of the vagina or other adverse effects with short-term use.
Quality of the evidence: Many of the trials in this review were small, of short duration and of poor quality, and the types of phytoestrogens used varied substantially.
No conclusive evidence shows that phytoestrogen supplements effectively reduce the frequency or severity of hot flushes and night sweats in perimenopausal or postmenopausal women, although benefits derived from concentrates of genistein should be further investigated.
Vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flushes and night sweats, are very common during the menopausal transition. Hormone therapy has traditionally been used as a highly effective treatment, but concerns about increased risk of some chronic diseases have markedly increased the interest of women in alternative treatments. Some of the most popular of these treatments are foods or supplements enriched with phytoestrogens—plant-derived chemicals that have estrogenic action.
To assess the efficacy, safety and acceptability of food products, extracts and dietary supplements containing high levels of phytoestrogens when compared with no treatment, placebo or hormone therapy for the amelioration of vasomotor menopausal symptoms (such as hot flushes and night sweats) in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women.
Searches targeted the following electronic databases: the Cochrane Menstrual Disorders and Subfertility Group Specialised Register of randomised trials (29 July 2013), the Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 29 July 2013), MEDLINE (inception to 29 July 2013), EMBASE (inception to 29 July 2013), AMED (1985 to 29 July 2013), PsycINFO (inception to 29 July 2013) and CINAHL (inception to 29 July 2013). Attempts were made to access grey literature by sending letters to pharmaceutical companies and performing searches of ongoing trial registers. Reference lists of included trials were also searched.
Studies were included if they were randomised, included perimenopausal or postmenopausal participants with vasomotor symptoms (hot flushes or night sweats), lasted at least 12 weeks and provided interventions such as foods or supplements with high levels of phytoestrogens (not combined with other herbal treatments). Trials that included women who had breast cancer or a history of breast cancer were excluded.
Selection of trials, extraction of data and assessment of quality were undertaken by at least two review authors. Most trials were too dissimilar for their results to be combined in a meta-analysis, so these findings are provided in narrative 'Summary of results' tables. Studies were grouped into broad categories: dietary soy, soy extracts, red clover extracts, genistein extracts and other types of phytoestrogens. Five trials used Promensil, a red clover extract; results of these trials were combined in a meta-analysis, and summary effect measures were calculated.
A total of 43 randomised controlled trials (4,364 participants) were included in this review. Very few trials provided data suitable for inclusion in a meta-analysis. Among the five trials that yielded data assessing the daily frequency of hot flushes suitable for pooling, no significant difference overall was noted in the incidence of hot flushes between participants taking Promensil (a red clover extract) and those given placebo (mean difference (MD) -0.93, 95% confidence interval (CI) -1.95 to 0.10, I2 = 31%). No evidence indicated a difference in percentage reduction in hot flushes in two trials between Promensil and placebo (MD 20.15, 95% CI -12.08 to 52.38, I2 = 82%). Four trials that were not combined in meta-analyses suggested that extracts with high (> 30 mg/d) levels of genistein consistently reduced the frequency of hot flushes. Individual results from the remaining trials were compared in broad subgroups such as dietary soy, soy extracts and other types of phytoestrogens that could not be combined. Some of these trials found that phytoestrogen treatments alleviated the frequency and severity of hot flushes and night sweats when compared with placebo, but many trials were small and were determined to be at high risk of bias. A strong placebo effect was noted in most trials, with a reduction in frequency ranging from 1% to 59% with placebo. No indication suggested that discrepant results were due to the amount of isoflavone in the active treatment arm, the severity of vasomotor symptoms or trial quality factors. Also, no evidence indicated that these treatments caused oestrogenic stimulation of the endometrium or the vagina or other adverse effects when used for up to two years.