Photo of herbal tablets for menopause
The majority of women turn to alternative medicine to help them deal with menopausal symptoms

Doctors need to brush up on alternative approaches to menopause

15 January, 2013

Natural Health News — Herbal and complementary medicines can safely be recommended as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for treating postmenopausal symptoms says a new review

The review published in The Obstetrician and Gynaecologist outlines the advantages and limitations of both pharmacological and herbal and complementary treatments for women with postmenopausal symptoms.

The menopause – which ‘officially’ begins when a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 months – is associated with a significant drop in estrogen production and this and can cause an increase in vasomotor symptoms (hot flushes), genitourinary symptoms (vaginal dryness, sexual dysfunction, frequent urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence), and musculoskeletal symptoms (joint pain) as well as sleep and mood disturbance.

One of the most common menopausal symptoms is hot flushes; approximately two-thirds of postmenopausal women will experience them, and 20% of women can experience them for up to 15 years, states the review.

Help for hot flushes

Low estrogen levels can also be linked to longer-term health issues such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis (though this is not by any means the only cause). While conventional drugs are available to treat postmenopausal symptoms, many non-pharmacological treatment options are also available.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can effectively treat hot flushes, improving symptoms in 80-90% of women, says the review. However, the author notes, that there are serious health risks associated with HRT, such as links to breast cancer, blood clots, stroke, and cardiovascular problems.

The seriousness of these risks means that many women seek safer alternatives, many of which can be equally effective, such as behaviour modification and herbal and complimentary medicines, says the author.

According to the author, between 50-75% of postmenopausal women use herbal options to treat hot flushes, and of the complimentary therapies, soya, red clover and black cohosh have been the most investigated.

Soya contains plant estrogens and previous research has shown supplements can reduce hot flush symptoms by around 20-55%. Red clover, a legume also containing phytoestrogens, and black cohosh, a plant originating from the eastern United States and Canada, have also been reported to ease postmenopausal symptoms.

No nasty side effects

The review recommends these herbal treatments as there are no significant adverse side effects associated with them, as long as they are used in women who do not have a personal history of breast cancer, are not at high risk for breast cancer, and are not taking tamoxifen.

Iris Tong, Director of Women’s Primary Care at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative, The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Rhode Island, and author of the review said:

“Up to 75% of women use herbal and complimentary medicines to treat their postmenopausal symptoms. Therefore, it is vitally important for healthcare providers to be aware of and informed about the non-pharmacological therapies available for women who are experiencing postmenopausal symptoms and who are looking for an alternative to HRT.”

The Obstetrician and Gynaecologist‘s Editor -in-Chief, Jason Waugh added:

“Postmenopausal symptoms can be very distressing and it is important to review the advantages and limitations of the non-pharmacological treatments available as well as the pharmacological ones. Even simple behaviour modification can make a difference to postmenopausal symptoms, including keeping the room temperature cool, wearing layered clothing, relaxation techniques and smoking cessation.”