Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
August 23, 1996

Study may change women's change of life

by Michelle Johnson
Can munching soy protein erase the symptoms and side-effects of menopause? It's a question Lee Alekel intends to answer.

Alekel recently launched a major research study to explore whether soy protein can help alleviate menopausal hot flashes and reduce risks of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.

The study will be conducted in the food science and human nutrition department's Human Metabolic Unit, which is headed by Alekel. Researchers will examine the effects of soy protein with isoflavonoids (estrogen-like compounds) on the menopausal transition of women.

Three groups studied

Three groups of perimenopausal women (those experiencing the symptoms of menopause) will participate in a 24-week study. One group of women will be given soy protein with isoflavanoids, another group will be given soy protein without isoflavanoids and a third will be given neither.

Women in the study will consume the soy protein in muffins and in powder mixed with beverages, soup and other dishes. The women must consume 40 grams of protein a day.

Alekel hopes that a connection can be made between the consumption of the soy with isoflavonoids and the reduction of menopausal symptoms, the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

Symptoms of menopause

Isoflavonoids long have been recognized as having estrogen- like effects and may play a role in helping alleviate some of the symptoms of menopause. Alekel notes that in Japan, only about 20 percent of women experience hot flashes, compared to 65 percent in the western world. It isn't known for sure, but the consumption of soy food by Japanese women may offer an explanation.

During menopause, the ovaries' production of hormones (which help to prevent bone loss) is significantly decreased, and a woman experiences a loss in bone mass. This puts her at greater risk for osteoporosis. It is hoped that the soy protein, with its estrogen-like compounds, will help slow the loss of bone mass.

Postmenopausal women also tend to deposit fat more centrally, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension, Alekel said.

"We are hypothesizing that by giving these women the soy protein with isoflavonoids, we'll lessen the amount of centrally deposited fat," Alekel said. "I am not certain if we'll be able to see that effect in 24 weeks, however."

The first group of research participants is already in place.

"People are really able to identify with you when you tell them that you do research at Iowa State," Alekel said. "Research has a very positive image at ISU. There is a real personal aspect to it."

Additional subjects needed

Additional subjects will be needed for round two of Alekel's study. Interviews will be held this winter. Subjects must be experiencing menopausal symptoms; free of chronic diseases, such as osteoporosis or cardiovascular disease; non-smoking; not taking medications on a regular basis; and at a healthy weight.

Participants in the study will receive a computerized dietary analysis, blood lipid profile, physical activity and fitness assessment, as well as information about their body composition and bone density. People could pay as much as $700 for these tests and the interpretation of their results, Alekel said. In addition, at the end of the study, each woman will receive $300 for her participation.

Results expected in 1998

Alekel looks forward to the results of her study, expected in 1998. She has been researching osteoporosis since 1989 and continues to be intrigued by factors that affect the disease. While genetics is the biggest determinant of good bone density, there are things a woman can do to decrease her risk of osteoporosis, Alekel said.

The best step for postmenopausal women is hormone replacement therapy. Exercise also is helpful. It helps build bone mass for women 35 and under, and in older women, can help slow the loss of bone mass. A good diet rich in calcium also helps women gain bone mass early in life and maintain bone during menopause.

"The most common misperception about osteoporosis is that it only strikes old people," Alekel said. "This simply isn't true."

That is why Alekel feels strongly about sending a message to young girls and women striving to obtain that "perfect" body. At a time when they should be building valuable bone mass, they are instead losing bone as they lose weight, thus significantly increasing their risk for osteoporosis.

"Young people still feel that they are invincible," Alekel said. "It is true that our bodies are very forgiving, but as we grow older, there is a price to pay."

For additional information about the study, call 4-8673.

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