A common question from patients is: “Should I take herbs or hormones for menopausal symptoms, and if so, which ones?”
This is a huge topic and the truth is there is no “right answer.”
Treating menopausal symptoms needs to be based on each woman’s unique situation accounting for her personal history, family history, current health goals. Without question, estrogen replacement is the most effective treatment for hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.
While hormone replacement isn’t for everyone, there IS a lot of buzz right now around bioidentical hormones. For you to make an educated decision, it’s important to understand the difference between bioidentical (often compounded) and non-bioidentical hormones (conventional), and when you might consider using them. In my upcoming talk at Blum Center, and further down in this blog, we will review all of this information.
But, not everyone wants to take extra hormones or can’t take hormones for health reasons. Well, hope is not lost! I will review several herbal remedies and lifestyle changes that women can use successfully. This is a meaty topic, so let’s dive in!
“Hot Flashes? No Hormones? No problem!”
Many women come to me seeking strategies to address things like hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep disruption, and mood changes without hormones. In this case we have SO much to offer. Conventional medicine offers several antidepressants that have been found to work for hot flashes: paroxetine and venlafaxine are some examples. Gabapentin is another option. Unfortunately, these drugs do tend to have other unwanted side effects such as sleepiness, headache, nausea, dizziness, and more. Rest assured, this is NOT our approach at Blum Center! You don’t have to take an antidepressant to get you through menopause!
Here are just a few of the options that we can offer you:
St. John’s Wort has been shown in multiple studies to improve women’s sense of wellbeing, decrease hot flashes, improve sexual wellbeing, and reduce overall menopause rating scores (Grube, 1999 and Abdali , 2010). Studies show that improvement was seen after 2-3 months and dose is typically around 300 mg taken three times a day. St. John’s wort is metabolized in the liver and can interfere with the metabolism of many other drugs, so always tell your doctor if you are taking it.
Panax Ginseng has been shown to improve menopausal symptoms of depression and well being, increase energy, decrease insomnia (Wiklund, 1999 and Tode, 1999). The dose is typically a standardized extract of 200mg a day.
Sage has been shown to decrease sweating by up to 64% in women who have hot flashes (Bommer, 2011). If you are using dried leaf in capsule or tea take 1000mg twice a day.
Soy, Red Clover, Kudzu all contain various isoflavones such as daidzein, genistein, and puerarin. These compounds act as weak estrogen receptor modulators. Data on isoflavones for hot flash relief is mixed. Some studies show a benefit, others do not. The tricky thing about some of these compounds, like daidzein, is that it turns out your gut bacteria have to convert it into equol to have the biggest impact. But it is estimated that only 30-50% of humans are “equol producers.” This may account for why soy seems to help some women more than others when it comes to hot flashes.My suggestion is to try it for about a month and if you see no improvement then stop. For soy, I would rather see patients eat whole, organic soy foods such as edamame, tofu, soy milk instead of taking a pill. Food is always better than supplements and foods with whole soy proteins (not soy protein isolate) are better for you. As always, any food or herb that has estrogenic qualities, you must use with caution in the setting of an estrogen-related cancer. Additionally, soy in large quantities (three times a day) can impact your thyroid function, so ask your doctor if you need to limit it. Also, these could interact with platelet/anticoagulant medicines.
Black Cohosh has shown mixed results in studies for menopausal symptoms. Many studies look at Black Cohosh along with a few other herbs. This is common practice in botanical medicine, taking advantage of the synergistic effects that herbs can have when taken together. It does make it more difficult to know if individual ingredients are beneficial. Black Cohosh is generally well tolerated and I mention it because it shows up in a lot of supplements that are geared for women’s health, menopause in particular. It is unclear if Black Cohosh directly interacts with estrogen receptors in humans, but to be on the safe side, I would avoid this one if you are an estrogen receptor positive cancer.
Clinical Hypnosis can decrease hot flashes by 55% compared to 13% in one well designed randomized study of 187 women (Elkins GR, 2013). Hypnosis also helped with improvement in hot flash interference, sleep quality, and treatment satisfaction.
Acupuncture has been shown in multiple studies to improve sleep disruption (Chiu, 2015). Researchers did a summary review of 31 studies involving over 2400 patients and found there was significant improvement in sleep as well as changes in blood hormone levels of estradiol and follicle stimulating hormone. And the larger the hormonal changes, the bigger the improvement on sleep. Data on acupuncture for hot flashes, however, is mixed. It appears that when acupuncture is compared to no acupuncture, there is a significant improvement seen. But when researchers compare real acupuncture with sham acupuncture, they don’t see a difference. This indicates that at least for hot flashes, acupuncture probably has a strong placebo effect. In my opinion, when the placebo effect works in our favor, it is a wonderful thing and I think we should take advantage of it!
Yoga has also been shown to be beneficial for hot flashes and emotional symptoms like stress in multiple studies (Joshi, 2011 and Chattha, 2008). Yoga has so many health benefits that I recommend it to almost all of my patients. In this fast-paced world, the practice of yoga slows down our sympathetic nervous system which is integrally involved with hot flashes. One caveat: I don’t recommend hot yoga as that will most assuredly make hot flashes worse!
“I’m Fine with Hormones – Bring Back the Estrogen!”
There has been a lot of research in the past few decades looking at hormone replacement for menopausal symptoms and the field is constantly growing. As with most medicines, there are risks and benefits to consider when deciding if you want to take hormones and it is important to have that discussion with your healthcare provider, or come and see me to discuss, because your personal and family history influences this decision enormously. In general, we do believe that hormone replacement therapy, especially bioidentical therapy, in low dose for the first few years of menopause is safe for most women.
My approach? I always use bioidentical hormones and aim for the lowest effective dose, and prefer topical or local estrogen to limit unwanted effects.
“Bioidentical, Synthetic, I’m Confused…”
Bioidentical hormones are compounds that exactly mimic the hormones that we have circulating in our bodies. Those bioidentical hormones may be synthetic, in the sense that they were made in a lab, and that is not necessarily bad. Two of the most common hormones prescribed in this country are not bioidentical: conjugated equine estrogens (CEE) and medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA). These compounds act similarly to our own estrogen and progesterone, but nevertheless, have actions in our bodies that are distinct.
Historically, we assumed that CEE and MPA would be equivalent to bioidentical hormones, but as researchers have begun to compare the two in head-to-head studies, we now know there are differences especially in the progestogens (Stanczyk, 2013). Consensus is now building that bioidentical progesterone is probably safer than MPA. Although CEE and MPA are the most commonly prescribed hormone replacement regimens in this country, there are plenty of FDA approved bioidentical options for us to choose from including estradiol pill, patch, or gel form as well as micronized progesterone in pill form.
“So What is Compounding?”
Compounding medicine is the practice of taking one or more individual ingredients and mixing them together in the lab and creating a new compound that isn’t otherwise sold as a brand name product. The new medicine can be specially formulated for an individual patient to avoid allergenic ingredients, create new doses, convert a pill to a cream, combine medicines into one, etc.
Having access to high quality compounding pharmacies is extremely valuable in expanding the range of pharmaceutical offerings to the public. For example, one FDA approved bioidentical progesterone product on the market in the US. contains peanut oil which some women are allergic to. This is a prime example of when compounding progesterone is a life saver!
There are pros and cons to using FDA approved drugs vs compounding drugs. The advantage of using an FDA approved medicine is that the approval process is stringent in terms of demonstrating safety, appropriate dosing, and efficacy. Additionally, the FDA drugs and facilities are highly regulated. Also, since the majority of research has been done using FDA approved drugs, physicians feel more comfortable prescribing them as they have been thoroughly vetted in clinical trials. [A side note: the drug companies are the ones that fund the bulk of research since they can afford to do so. It costs millions of dollars to carry out a large clinical trial and very few entities can fund those studies.] The disadvantage is that sometimes we might want to give a drug in a different form than is available. In terms of compounding, the advantage is the ability to tailor a medicine specific to the needs of an individual patient. The downside is that there is not as much safety and efficacy data on individual formulas, nor as much regulation on the actual compounding pharmacies themselves.
My approach to menopause is to get to know my patient, figure out what her goals are for the menopause transition, determine her risk profile, and come up with the best treatment plan together.
Meet Dr. Fitz: Bronwyn Fitz, M.D. is a board certified Obstetrician Gynecologist who is fellowship trained in Integrative Medicine. In her practice she melds traditional medicine with non-Western approaches, nutrition, botanicals, mind/body therapies and lifestyle interventions to help women address their gynecological and reproductive health concerns. Her interest in mindfulness and meditation led her to pursue a two-year Fellowship at The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, under the leadership of world-renowned Integrative physician, Dr. Andrew Weil.