Hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats, anxiety, low libido, forgetfulness, and weight gain are just some of the symptoms affecting women in the phase of life leading up to menopause. These symptoms can last for several years before actual menopause occurs, in a transition phase known as perimenopause (which technically means around menopause).

During perimenopause, the hormones estrogen and progesterone begin to fluctuate, affecting every part of the body from bones, skin, and hair, to your muscle composition, your cholesterol levels, and even how your brain functions.  Many women turn to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to gain relief, but HRT isn’t for everyone and ultimately it just delays the inevitable onset of menopause. Making diet and lifestyle changes, on the other hand, is something anyone can do, and there are several key plant foods that have been proven to help ease perimenopause symptoms. 

Phytoestrogens – Plant Power for Hormone Health

One of the most important plant-based compounds for managing perimenopause symptoms is phytoestrogens.  These naturally occurring substances in foods such as soy and flaxseed have a similar molecular structure to human estrogen but are hundreds of times weaker than our own hormones. and therefore protect against some of the effects of estrogen fluctuation. Rather than being a synthetic hormone replacement, they instead help to modulate fluctuating estrogen levels in the body.

Hot flashes, erratic periods, brain fog, forgetfulness, low mood: All these different perimenopausal symptoms are caused by normal levels of estrogen and progesterone being out of balance. We usually think of menopausal women being low in estrogen – and that’s true, but in the early phases of perimenopause, many women actually experience low progesterone. The ovaries no longer release an egg with each cycle, which means there isn’t a trigger for progesterone production. The result is much lower progesterone and relatively higher estrogen. Over time, estrogen levels start to fall too, promoting periods to cease.

This is where the power of phytoestrogens comes in. When estrogen is relatively high (thanks to low progesterone) the phytoestrogens latch onto estrogen receptors on cells throughout the body, blocking some of the stronger human estrogen.  

When estrogen is low, the phytoestrogens can at least provide a weak estrogen-like effect to the cells, helping to mitigate a lack of human estrogen.

Because of these modulating effects, phytoestrogens are considered to act in a similar way to SERM (Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulator) medications. 

The 3 Different Types of Phytoestrogens

Soy is the most well-known source of phytoestrogens, but there are in fact 3 different categories of these compounds and a wide range of plant-food sources.

Isoflavones: the most well-known type of phytoestrogen.  Found in soybeans (also known as edamame), chickpeas, aduki beans, kidney beans, and red clover.  

Soy isoflavones are the most extensively researched type of isoflavone.  Studies show they have a protective effect on bones, can reduce hot flushes, and support cholesterol balance.  Maintaining a healthy cholesterol balance is key for cardiovascular health, as we’ll discuss later in this article.

In traditional East Asian cultures, the regular consumption of fermented soy products like tofu, miso, tempeh, and soy sauce is thought to be the reason why women there experience much lower incidences of perimenopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and breast and womb cancer. Fermenting the soy makes it easier to digest as the natural bacteria have already begun breaking down the fibers and proteins in the soybeans. Eating traditional soy foods several times a week is the best way to increase your intake of soy isoflavones rather than relying on heavily processed soy extracts found in convenience foods.

Top up on sources of isoflavones by enjoying hummus, bean salads, bean chili, and red clover sprouts.

Lignans: Flaxseeds (also known as linseeds) and sesame seeds are far and away the richest suppliers of this type of phytoestrogen. Flaxseed is a virtual superfood in itself being a key source of soluble fiber, protein, and one of the highest plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid, the essential omega-3 fatty acid. Sesame seeds are packed with calcium as well as lignans, making them an ideal food for supporting bone health post-menopause.

Other sources of lignans include broccoli, cashew nuts, Brussel sprouts, green beans, white and red cabbage, pears, and green bell peppers. Eating a diverse range of vegetables, nuts, fruits, and seeds is a guaranteed way to enjoy a wide variety of lignans, which in addition to helping ease perimenopausal symptoms are also known to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant actions.

Coumestans are most easily found in red clover and red clover sprouts, sprouted alfalfa, and mung bean sprouts. These can be grown at home or purchased ready-to-eat from wholefood grocery stores. Remember that seed and bean sprouts can easily harbor harmful bacteria, so always follow growing instructions if sprouting at home, and eat shop-bought sprouts within the use-by date.  Pregnant women and those at high risk of illness should cook seed and bean sprouts to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria. 

Hormone Detoxification and Plant-Based Diet

The fluctuating hormones of perimenopause can put additional strain on the liver – the body’s main detoxification organ. Hormones, alcohol, medications, and toxins of all kinds are processed by the liver via two pathways.  The first pathway, called Phase 1, involves the biotransformation of old hormones and toxins, making them more water-soluble and ready for Phase 2. In the second pathway, the toxins and hormones are bound to a carrier substance and transported out of the body via the kidneys or bowels.  

Both pathways rely on plentiful supplies of vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds.  Top sources of these nutrients include:

  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, mustard greens, arugula). These supply glucosinolates, compounds that specifically support enzymes working in Phase 1 estrogen detoxification.
  • Turmeric: powerfully anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
  • Bright colored berries such as cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, haskap berries, and strawberries.
  • Sulfur-containing vegetables: onions, garlic, leeks. 
  • Sulphur-containing plant proteins found in soybeans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, lentils, spirulina, kidney beans, peas, and chickpeas.

Aiming to include as many different colored fruits and vegetables as you can each day gives your liver the tools it needs to process and detoxify old used hormones, and in turn, can help ease perimenopausal symptoms. 

Phytoestrogens Benefit Heart Health

In addition to their hormone modulating and bone protective effects, phytoestrogens play a vital role in cardiovascular health. Before menopause, estrogen provides many benefits to the cardiovascular system, helping to keep blood vessels supple, and reducing inflammation and plaque build-up in arteries.  The effects are so strong that rates of high blood pressure (hypertension) are much higher in post-menopausal women than in pre-menopausal women.  

Cardiovascular disease is the biggest overall cause of mortality for women, largely due to the loss of these protective effects of estrogen post-menopause. Incorporating phytoestrogens alongside other antioxidant nutrients can help reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and hypertension. 

A Mediterranean-style diet is known to offer cardiovascular protection thanks to the high levels of antioxidants in the brightly colored fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and good quality olive oil.  Swapping sugary sodas for herb teas and green teas can help too.  Green tea is packed with polyphenols known to protect cells from oxidation damage and inflammation.

Bottom line: Plant-based phytoestrogens help manage perimenopausal symptoms

To reduce symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats and protect heart and bone health pre- during and post-menopause eat plant-based sources of phytoestrogens from all three categories (isoflavones, lignans, coumestans). These foods offer anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and estrogen-like benefits, helping to modulate hormone levels and protect cells from damage. 

For more great content like this from The Beet check out Here's the Truth About Soy and Breast Cancer and Health & Nutrition articles about the benefits of a plant-based diet.

More From The Beet