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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

December 2018

Severe menstrual pain linked to soy formula feeding during infancy

New research suggests that infant girls fed soy formula are more likely to develop severe menstrual pain as young adults. The finding adds to the growing body of literature that suggests exposure to soy formula during early life may have detrimental effects on the reproductive system. The study was published online in the journal Human Reproduction.

graphic depiction of baby drinking soy and woman lying on bed Research found that African-American infant girls that were fed soy formula were more likely to experience severe menstrual pain as young adults. (Image courtesy of Kristen Upson)

Soy formula

Scientists at NIEHS, along with collaborators from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, examined data from 1,553 African-American women, aged 23-35 years, who participated in the NIEHS Study of Environment, Lifestyle, and Fibroids (SELF).

portrait of Kristen Upson Upson has been involved in SELF research since she started at NIEHS in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The researchers found that women who had ever been fed soy formula as babies were 50 percent more likely to have experienced moderate or severe menstrual discomfort between the ages of 18 and 22 years, and 40 percent more likely to have used hormonal contraception to help alleviate menstrual pain.

NIEHS postdoctoral researcher and lead author Kristen Upson, Ph.D., offered a potential explanation for the association between soy formula and severe menstrual pain. She said that data from previous laboratory animal studies suggested that early-life exposure to genistein, a naturally occurring component in soy formula, interferes with the development of the reproductive system, including factors involved in menstrual pain.

She said these studies have also shown that developmental changes can continue into adulthood.

Other health impacts

Importantly, severe menstrual pain is not the only adverse reproductive health condition that Upson has linked to infant soy formula. She and her collaborators at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle previously linked soy formula feeding to endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside of it.

portrait of Donna Baird As head of the NIEHS Women’s Health Group, Baird studies fertility, early pregnancy, and uterine fibroids. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Using SELF data, Upson and NIEHS senior scientist Donna Baird, Ph.D., have also linked infant soy formula to heavy menstrual bleeding and to larger fibroids among women with fibroids.

Other studies by NIEHS scientists found that girl infants fed soy formula had changes in the cells of the vagina, including differences in how specific genes are turned on and off.

The only other research that evaluated soy formula in relation to menstrual pain was published in 2001 by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and the University of Iowa, Iowa City. That study, which primarily included white young adults who participated in feeding studies when they were infants, also found an association between soy formula feeding and severe menstrual pain in women.

"The results of both studies indicate that the findings may apply to all women, but further research is warranted before any changes are made to soy formula feeding recommendations," said Baird.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) promotes human milk as the ideal source of nutrition for infants. It does not recommend soy formula for babies born prematurely. For full-term infants, the AAP recommends soy formula in rare cases in which the child’s body cannot break down the sugars in milk or if the family prefers a vegetarian diet.

Quality of life

Upson said some estimates put the prevalence of menstrual pain in women of reproductive age at 60 percent. She added that menstrual pain can have a substantial impact on the quality of life, affecting school performance, work productivity, and relationships.

"Given how common menstrual pain is and the impact it can have on women’s lives, the next steps in research should examine exposures, even those that occur earlier in life that may increase a women’s risk of experiencing menstrual pain," said Upson.

Citations:
Adgent MA, Umbach DM, Zemel BS, Kelly A, Schall JI, Ford EG, James K, Darge K, Botelho JC, Vesper HW, Chandler DW, Nakamoto JM, Rogan WJ, Stallings VA. 2018. A longitudinal study of estrogen-responsive tissues and hormone concentrations in infants fed soy formula. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 103(5):1899–1909.

Harlid S, Adgent M, Jefferson WN, Panduri V, Umbach DM, Xu Z, Stallings VA, Williams CJ, Rogan WJ, Taylor JA. 2017. Soy formula and epigenetic modifications: analysis of vaginal epithelial cells from infant girls in the IFED Study. Environ Health Perspect 125(3):447–452.

Strom BL, Schinnar R, Ziegler EE, Barnhart KT, Sammel MD, Macones GA, Stallings VA, Drulis JM, Nelson SE, Hanson SA. 2001. Exposure to soy-based formula in infancy and endocrinological and reproductive outcomes in young adulthood. JAMA 286(7):807–814.

Upson K, Adgent MA, Wegienka G, Baird DD. 2018. Soy-based infant formula feeding and menstrual pain in a cohort of women aged 23-35 years. Hum Reprod; doi: 10.1093/humrep/dey303 [Online 9 November 2018].

Upson K, Harmon QE, Baird DD. 2016. Soy-based infant formula feeding and ultrasound-detected uterine fibroids among young African-American women with no prior clinical diagnosis of fibroids. Environ Health Perspect 124(6):769–775.

Upson K, Harmon QE, Laughlin-Tommaso SK, Umbach DM, Baird DD. 2016. Soy-based infant formula feeding and heavy menstrual bleeding among young African American women. Epidemiology 27(5):716–725.


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