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Soy – The Wonder Bean

Soy based foods have been making headlines again in the news with their cancer preventing properties, aiding in women’s health concerns like menopause and osteoporosis, cholesterol lowering effects, and their ability to aid liver and brain functions. Soybeans have been used for over 5,000 years in Asian countries. Epidemiological studies have shown that the Asian diet consists of over 30 percent soy based. These studies also show a lower incidence of breast and prostate cancer, PMS, menopausal and other disease processes as compared with a typical American lifestyle where little or no soy is eaten. We in the United States have been using the soybean mostly in this century, and most Americans consume very little soy-based products like tofu, tempeh, soymilk and other soy products. Soy, however, is the base for many meat substitutes and is used in infant formulas and protein powders.

In addition to being a source of complete protein, soy is rich in many essential nutrients including, calcium, zinc, and b vitamins. Lecithin is one of the fatty acid components of soy as well as phosphtidylcholine and phosphtydlserine, both of which work with the liver and the brain. This article will deal with another compound of soybeans called isoflavones, which are a class of phytoestrogens (plant based).

Phytoestrogens are estrogen-like compounds found in plants. They have slight hormonal and sometimes hormonal blocking properties without being true steroids. Research has shown that phytoestrogens offer limited protection against numerous health conditions including, breast, bowel, prostate, and other cancers, heart disease, poor brain function, alcohol abuse, osteoporosis, and menopausal symptoms.

Over the past three years, soy isoflavones have been the subject of over 1,000 articles published in scientific and medical journals. Two isoflavones found in soy predominately are genistein and daidzein. Research suggests that these isoflavones act in four distinct ways: as estrogens, antiestrogens, cancer enzyme inhibitors and as antioxidants and immune enhancers.

The estrogen and antiestrogen effects of isoflavones have been well researched. Because isoflavones are similar in structure to true estrogen they have shown benefits to women seeking alternatives to estrogen or hormone replacement therapy specifically in situations of hysterectomies and in the prevention of osteoporosis. The interesting effect of being antiestrogenic is being researched in dealing with excess estrogen conditions such as hormonal driven cancers and excess estrogen during PMS. Isoflavones are very weak being only 1/1000th the strength of true estrogen. They have a tendency to bind to estrogen receptor sites thus not allowing for excess estrogen to affect tissues negatively.

The cancer enzyme inhibiting properties of isoflavones are complex but have been well researched. Researchers believe that isoflavones inhibit the cancer enzyme that allows for cancerous tumors to develop blood vessels (angiogenesis) that will allow the tumor to grow and expand.

The antioxidant effect of isoflavones help to reduce free radical damage to the body. Genistein may also increase the production of SOD (Super Oxide Dismutase), a potent antioxidant. In cancer preventive studies genistein has shown to inhibit the ability of cancer causing compounds to become activated.

The immune enhancing properties are related to the isoflavone diadzein and the ability to increase specific white cell activity.

Some of the conditions where isoflavones can prevent or minimize the symptoms are with menopause (hot flashes), bone density, and heart disease. There are numerous studies that have shown positive results for women consuming soy products. Hot flashes and bone loss are estrogen dependent. In one study done at the Bowman Gray School Of Medicine with 51 postmenopausal women, soy lessened menopausal symptoms, lowered blood pressure and resulted in healthier blood lipid profiles. The medical researcher further noted that there were no side effects from the treatment. In relation to osteoporosis, especially in postmenopausal women, synthetic estrogen is often recommended. European research has shown that the isoflavone of ipriflavone can prevent increases in turnover and decreases in bone density. This can be beneficial due to the cancer risks of using synthetic estrogens.

Soy derivatives have been showing response in regards to heart disease by helping to reduce overall cholesterol. Studies show an increase in the beneficial cholesterol of HDL and a reductions in LDL cholesterol with participants using a higher soy based diet.

So how does one begin to get more soy based food into your body? There are many ways to increase the consumption of soy to assure that you are getting these important isoflavones. Yes, it is available in tablet or capsule form, but that is not the best way and it is somewhat expensive. We recommend that you begin to eat soy in your daily diet. There are many good soy products. Soymilk is a good source instead of using milk. It can be used on cereals, in smoothies, used in baking, for sauces and gravies. Soy granules can be cooked with other cereal grains. Begin to use tofu, which is very versatile and absorbs whatever flavors you mix with it. I like the fermented soy tempeh because it is high in vitamin B12 and tastes like chicken. There are soy powders that have higher levels of isoflavones that can be mixed with juice that can help those that do not like the other foods mentioned.

Soybeans by themselves can be hard to digest for some people due to the trypsin-inhibiting enzyme that is usually destroyed in cooking. If this happens to you, be sure to cook it extra long, take extra digestive enzymes, or use the fermented forms mentioned above.

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