Background Facts: Herbal Therapy and Menopause

Hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings—all dreaded symptoms of menopause. While not all women experience a difficult menopause, for those that do, it can be a nightmare. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the standard treatment and works for many women. However, HRT may not always be a viable or desirable option as supplemental estrogen can pose serious cancer risks. As more women have looked for alternatives the demand for remedies including soy, black cohosh, phytoestrogens, and traditional Chinese medicine has increased dramatically, although few have been extensively studied.

The phytoestrogens contained in soybeans are perhaps the most popularized of natural menopausal treatments and their highly lauded effects are being re-examined by researchers worldwide. Because phytoestrogens mimic true estrogens in the body, scientists theorize soy could be beneficial in reducing annoying aspects of menopause. Unfortunately, studies have yielded contradictory results, meaning phytoestrogens need to be investigated further before definite conclusions on their actions and effects can be drawn.

A less-known herbal, black cohosh has a long history of use among Native Americans, who introduced early European settlers to the herb's medicinal use. During the 19th century, an alcohol extract of the root was one of the main ingredients in a popular female tonic made by Lydia Pinkham. In the 1980s, a German study with more than 800 participants tested black cohosh for menopausal complaints and found the root extract relieved symptoms with little or no toxicity. In 1997, another German study gave black cohosh root extract to more than 150 women and approximately 80 percent reported the herb to be very good in reducing menopausal symptoms with no adverse side effects. However, the German agency that assesses herbal products advises women against taking black cohosh for more than six months because of a lack of long-term safety data, and the herb should be avoided during pregnancy.

Traditional Chinese medicine regards menopause as a redistribution of energy, or chi, and uses complex formulas of herbal remedies, often containing the popular herb dong quai. Whereas it remains unknown exactly how the many different formulas work, three ongoing research projects at Columbia University Medical Center may soon shed light on how this ancient practice can help women through the transition of menopause. Since women experience menopause so differently, the solutions to a problematic menopause vary. Unfortunately no one size fits all. Talk to your doctor and find out what the best course of action is for you and your symptoms.