For many women, menopause can introduce new health challenges. In addition to the symptoms that perturb basic quality of life like hot flashes, headaches, night sweats, and irritability, menopause is also associated with higher risk for serious health concerns like osteoporosis, cognitive decline, and metabolic syndrome. This has made the standard treatment for menopause—hormone replacement therapy, or HRT—a multi-billion dollar business.
A few weeks ago, I explored the benefits and risks of HRT. It has its merits certainly, but it’s not for everyone. Today’s post is for those people. Say you’ve waded through the morass of HRT research and would prefer a different route. Or maybe you’ve actually tried conventional or bioidentical HRT and found it just didn’t work for you. Whatever the reason, you’re probably interested in using “natural” products if you can swing it and if it’ll actually help.
Are there herbal alternatives to HRT that actually work?
As a matter of fact, there are.
A medicinal herb native to North America, black cohosh was traditionally used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including rheumatism and other arthritic conditions, colds, fevers, constipation, hives, fatigue, and backache. They used it to help babies get to sleep and soothe kidney troubles. In the mid 20th century, it gained popularity in Europe as a treatment for women’s hormonal issues. Modern clinical research bears out its relevance for menopause:
It’s effective against hot flashes, reducing both severity and frequency.
It improves objective markers of sleep quality (the reduction in hot flashes certainly can’t hurt).
It improves insulin sensitivity, which often degrades during menopause.
It improves early post-menopausal symptoms across the board, leading to a 12.9 point reduction in the Green climacteric score (a basic measure of menopause symptom severity).
In one study, black cohosh was comparable to conventional HRT for reducing most menopausal symptoms and better at reducing anxiety, vaginal bleeding, and breast tenderness.
Here’s a great black cohosh product.
In its native Peru, maca root was traditionally used as a root vegetable (like a turnip or radish), as well as for its pharmacological properties as an aphrodisiac and subtle stimulant. Incan warriors reportedly used it as a preworkout booster before battles. Today, we know it as an adaptogen—a substance that helps your endocrine system adapt to stress, rather than force it in one direction or another.
A 2011 review of the admittedly limited evidence found that maca shows efficacy against menopause. More recently, maca displayed the ability to lower depression and blood pressure in menopausal women. And earlier, maca helped perimenopausal women resist weight gain and menopausal women regain their sexual function and reduce depression and anxiety.
What’s going on here? According to a 2005 study, maca actually lowers follicle-stimulating hormone and increases luteinizing hormone in postmenopausal women, thereby increasing estrogen and progesterone production.
Make sure you buy gelatinized (cooked) maca, as that’s what the studies use.
The red clover blossom is a rich source of isoflavones, estrogen-like compounds that interact with receptors in our bodies and relieve many symptoms of menopause.
Twelve weeks of red clover cuts the Menopause rating score in half (a good thing!).
Red clover also improves vaginal cellular structure and function while (again) improving menopause symptoms and reducing triglycerides.
More exciting, there’s reason to believe that red clover may reduce the risk of breast cancer and improve bone mineral density in menopausal women.
Here’s a potent red clover supplement.
And then there are those herbs and plants with more limited scopes.
Ginseng has limited application in menopause. It improves sexual function, and Korean red ginseng appears to help libido and reduce the total hot flash score, but neither type of ginseng reduces oxidative stress, improves endometrial thickness, or reduces hot flash frequency.
It’s good for hot flashes, and that tends to improve other things like socializing and sex, but that’s about it.
Here’s some cold-pressed primrose oil.
You might remember St. John’s Wort as an herbal treatment for such conditions as depression and anxiety, but it’s also quite effective against certain symptoms of menopause.
In one study, 3 months of daily St. John’s Wort supplementation helped perimenopausal women go from three hot flashes to one hot flash a day, get better sleep, and have a better quality of life. In another, it took 8 weeks of St. John’s Wort for both perimenopausal and postmenopausal women to reduce the frequency and severity of their hot flashes. Researchers also combined it with black cohosh to successfully treat hot flash-related moodiness.
This is a pretty good product.
The yam has been used for hundreds of years for menopause treatment. These days, we know it contains estrogen mimetics known as phytosterols with clinical efficacy in menopausal women.
Try this one.
Before you go fill your Amazon cart with supplements and start chowing down on powders and pills, however, make sure you’re making the right move.
Talk to your doctor about the herbal alternatives mentioned today. Discuss and research potential interactions with medications and even supplements you’re already taking. Be sure to cite the relevant references.
Minimize the variables. Don’t start taking everything from this article. Start with one and evaluate.
Don’t underestimate the power of plants. Just because something is “herbal” or “botanical” doesn’t mean it’s completely benign at all doses.
That’s it for today, folks. Take care, and be sure to write in down below.
Have you ever used any herbs or botanicals to treat menopause symptoms? If so, what worked? What didn’t?
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