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.