Oestrogen levels, soy and changing libido in older women

By Catherine Jeans

A low sex drive, or low libido, is one of the most common problems experienced by women during menopause, and it can also be one of the most distressing. Some women find that they’re no longer in the mood for sex, whereas others don’t feel like having sex because they start to find it uncomfortable or even painful. However you experience a changing libido, it can cause emotional strain and affect intimacy with your partner. The good news is there are many things you can do to help support your sex drive during the menopause, and soy is just one of the natural approaches available. 

Why do women experience low libido during menopause?

Before we look at how soy may help your libido, it’s important to understand why you may be experiencing a decline in your sex drive. The female sex hormone oestrogen has a key role to play, because it supports the blood supply to the vagina, vulva and cervix. As levels of this hormone decrease leading up to and during menopause, this can cause a lack of sensation in this sensitive area, and reduced feelings of arousal. Oestrogen also helps to keep the vaginal wall lubricated, and as levels decline the vagina can become dry and irritated, which may make sex uncomfortable or painful, and therefore less desirable.

Other factors to consider include a reduction in testosterone, which may support libido. The other symptoms experienced during menopause, such as stress, depression, changes in physical appearance, hot flushes, and low energy can also have a negative impact on our desire to have sex.

Using soy to support your libido

Soy beans are one of the foods richest in phytoestrogens, which are naturally occurring plant oestrogens that may help to support hormonal balance. To have an effect in our body, hormones have to lock into receptors on the membranes of cells they are targeting. It’s like a lock and key system, so only the right hormone will have an effect.

Plant oestrogens can mimic our own oestrogens, by locking into the receptor sites on our cell membranes. What this means is that when we reach menopause and our levels of oestrogen start to decline, plant oestrogens can help to stimulate the appropriate receptor sites, which in turn can help to make up for our lower levels of oestrogen. This is how soy can help to support our libido, by stimulating a mild oestrogenic effect in the body.   

There are many foods which are rich in phytoestrogens, including flaxseed, sesame seeds, chickpeas, bean sprouts, celery, garlic, fennel, cress and wholegrains. However, soy is the richest source of phytoestrogens, with excellent levels of the phytoestrogen group known as isoflavones

How to include soy in your diet

Soya beans are commonly eaten in Asian diets, where they use mostly fermented soy beans. The process of fermentation helps to release the phytoestrogenic potential of the food, which is why fermented soya products such as tamari, tofu, miso and tempeh are the best to include in your diet.

Tofu is a white soya bean curd, which is great used in stir fries or salad. It’s fairly bland in taste, so marinating with ginger, garlic, chilli and soya or tamari sauce helps to add flavour. You can also use silken tofu, which is a wobblier form of tofu, to add creaminess to dishes. For example, blend some silken tofu with frozen berries for an instant ice-cream, or add to some fresh fruit and water to make a smoothie. It’s also really nice added to soups or in place of cream cheese in a cheesecake. Miso is another form of fermented soya which comes as a paste, and can be used in soups as a replacement for stock. Tamari is a traditional soya sauce, which adds flavouring to dishes. 

Are there any dangers to soy?

There have been some concerns about the aluminium content in processed soy milks and yoghurts, so it’s advisable to stick to soy in its natural form – tofu, miso, tempeh or tamari – all forms of fermented soy.

Some women have also been put off the use of soy due to its phytoestrogen content, with fears that soy could contribute to oestrogen dominance (an excess of oestrogen), which is known to underlie female cancers such as ovarian and breast cancer. However, soy has a dual effect in the body: stimulating oestrogen receptors where levels are low, and blocking receptors from too much of the hormone where there is an excess. In parts of the world where traditional fermented soy intake is highest, such as Japan, they have a very low rate of these cancers compared to the UK or USA. Soy can therefore have a protective effect, and it does this by helping to block oestrogen receptors, protecting them from excess oestrogen. 

Phytoestrogens also have a mild oestrogenic effect in our bodies. To put this into perspective, your own oestrogens are far more potent than phytoestrogens, and external sources of oestrogen, also known as foreign or xenoestrogens, which come from pesticides and pollutants, and are even more potent. 

If you are going to supplement soy, make sure it contains all the components of the soy bean, not just the isoflavones. Research has shown that other compounds in soy may help to activate phytoestrogens, and may even help to protect cells from over activation.

Catherine Jeans

From Catherine Jeans

Catherine Jeans DipION mBANT CNHC is a nutritional therapist and founder of The Family Nutrition Expert. She has a special interest in women’s health, supporting hormonal balance and optimal wellbeing in women of all ages, through the use of food, nutrition and functional health.

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