Adding to evidence of the potential benefits of plant estrogens, a new study suggests that isoflavone supplements may help reduce menopausal bone loss. UK researchers found that, when taken for a year, the supplements appeared to curb spinal bone loss in women between the ages of 49 and 65.
Isoflavones, compounds found in soybeans, chickpeas and other legumes, are similar to the female hormone estrogen. Because of this, researchers have been studying whether soy protein or supplements containing isoflavones might act as a sort of "natural" hormone replacement therapy.
Studies have shown that Asian women, whose traditional diet is rich in soy, have a relatively low rate of hip fracture, as well as breast cancer and heart disease. In addition, animal research has suggested that isoflavones might lessen bone loss related to declining estrogen levels. Some studies of women, however, have found no evidence of bone benefits, and much of the research on isoflavones has involved only small groups of women followed for a relatively short time.
The new study followed 177 women for a year and found that compared with women randomly assigned to take a placebo, those who took a daily red clover isoflavone tablet showed less bone loss in the lower spine. At the end of the study, women in the supplement group had lost less bone density in the lumbar spine than those in the placebo group had. There was no clear difference between the groups as far as bone density in the hip, according to the report. The findings are published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Novogen Ltd., maker of the isoflavone supplement Promensil, provided the supplements and partial funding for the study.
Despite the study's positive results, it's too early to recommend isoflavone supplements for fighting bone loss, said the researchers from the Medical Research Council Dunn Human Nutrition Unit in Cambridge. Long-range studies are necessary to determine whether isoflavones can cut the risk of bone fractures, a major cause of disability among older adults.
Also unclear is whether a soy-rich diet might be more or less beneficial than isoflavone supplements when it comes to bone health. The supplement her team studied is derived from red clover.
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