Hot flashes may be one of the most uncomfortable aspects of menopause. It is embarrassing to suddenly be drenched in sweat during the day. Waking up in the middle of the night frequently interferes with the ability to get a good night’s sleep. The standard medical prescriptions for this problem are estrogen (Estrace, Premarin, Prempro) and antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) or venlafaxine (Effexor). Although such drugs ease hot flashes while you take them, the hot flashes may recur when you discontinue the medications. These drugs all have side effects that may be troubling. For example, estrogen and progestin have been linked to breast cancer. That’s why many women are interested in home remedies.
BLACK COHOSH AND ST. JOHN’S WORT
I know the experts say black cohosh is ineffective for hot flashes, but personally I wouldn’t be without it! I am not one to take supplements without good reason, so periodically I stop taking them to see if they really make a difference. Within 24 hours of ceasing black cohosh, sizzling hot flashes are back with a vengeance! As soon as I restart the capsules, the problem ceases. I wonder if any of the experts have experienced hot flashes themselves. Maybe this would affect their outlook.
One study showed that a standardized black cohosh extract offered no benefit over a placebo for symptoms of menopause.1 Other randomized studies support your observation that black cohosh is helpful to relieve hot flashes.
I have been taking St. John’s wort and black cohosh to relieve symptoms of hot flashes and night sweats associated with menopause. This combination works really well. Are there any negative effects that should concern me?
The combination of St. John’s wort and black cohosh is often used in Europe to treat menopausal symptoms. There are, however, a few potential pitfalls. Black cohosh has been linked to rare cases of elevated liver enzymes. You should ask your doctor to monitor yours. St. John’s wort can interact with many medications. Do not take it with any drugs unless you verify with your pharmacist that there is no interaction. More disconcerting is the possibility of eye damage. St. John’s wort contains hypericin. When this compound is exposed to visible light it becomes activated and creates dangerous chemicals called free radicals. Researchers at Fordham University have found that hypericin can harm lens tissue and might also damage the retina.2 Anyone taking St. John’s wort for depression or menopausal symptoms should avoid sunlight and even bright indoor light. Sunglasses cannot protect the eye adequately against this possible side effect.
BORAGE SEED OIL
You recently had a question from a woman suffering from hot flashes due to menopause. I am a cancer patient, and I avoid soy because it acts like estrogen. I have found that borage seed oil nearly eliminates my hot flashes. The cancer center checked on it before I began and said it’s okay.
You were smart to have the cancer center check your supplement first. Borage seed oil is rich in gamma-linolenic acid, similar to the fat found in evening primrose oil or flaxseed oil. Although the Web has many sites that recommend borage seed oil for hot flashes, we were unable to find a definitive study showing that this dietary supplement can reduce them. Make sure that your supplement has had the pyrrolizidine alkaloids removed, since these can be toxic to the liver.
Help! My menopausal hot flashes are becoming unbearable and debilitating. I have tried many remedies. Some (like cutting down on caffeine) helped a little, but others (like soy) did nothing. I work with liver transplant patients, and specialists say that the herb black cohosh can damage the liver. So I’m afraid to try it. I finally broke down and tried an estrogen patch my doctor prescribed. I had an adverse reaction to it in less than a week. What can you recommend?
Although there are reports of liver problems associated with black cohosh, this appears to be an uncommon complication. One study suggests that a patented pine bark extract can help ease hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. The compound is Pycnogenol, derived from the French maritime pine. The study included 155 women aged 45 to 55. After six months of treatment with Pycnogenol or a placebo, women treated with the pine bark extract had significantly fewer symptoms and lower cholesterol levels than those taking the placebo.3 It may be worth a try.
I was skeptical about Pycnogenol, but after four days of use, my severe hot flashes have completely disappeared. I take 50 milligrams in the morning and 50 milligrams again in the evening. I used to have a couple of hot flashes every hour around the clock. Since I have started taking Pycnogenol, I haven’t had one. It feels like a miracle!
We have seen just one controlled study of the effects of this French pine bark extract on hot flashes.4 It looks promising. We are glad it helped you. It can be found on the Web or in health food stores.
I have a condition (Wegener’s granulomatosis) that made me miserable for years and stumped several doctors. The symptom that troubled me was like hot flashes, but instead of flashing they were almost constant. I finally searched “hot flashes” on www.peoplespharmacy.com. Now they are gone, and I’m telling everyone! Taking 50 milligrams of Pycnogenol twice a day has done the trick. Thank you so much. I haven’t had a flash since the day I started it. My disease is not curable, but the flashes bothered me more, and they are gone.
We are pleased that Pycnogenol worked for you. The study we cited showed it helps reduce hot flashes for menopausal women.5 We did not know that it might work for hot flashes from other causes.
I am 52. At age 49 I began to have menopausal symptoms—irregular periods, hot flashes, night sweats, depression (not wanting to get out
of bed in the morning), fuzzy thinking, and vaginal dryness that made intercourse painful. I have a very healthy lifestyle including a vegan diet, daily exercise, no smoking, and almost no alcohol. I’ve always believed that the right nutrition allows the body to handle anything. But menopause really threw me for a loop. Somewhere I’d heard that yams could help support hormones. So I began baking yams and eating some every day. I was certainly a skeptic. However, after only five days of eating yams (one-half per day, depending on size), I stopped having hot flashes and night sweats altogether! Within days I realized that the vaginal dryness problem was gone. My thinking had cleared, and my depression began to lift. In addition, my breasts have increased in size and feel full instead of saggy and droopy. My normal menstrual periods have returned. What surprising results I’ve gotten from a simple (and delicious) food. The key is to eat them daily.
Research suggests there does appear to be an estrogenic effect from regular yam consumption.6 Taiwanese investigators fed postmenopausal women yams (Dioscorea alata) for 30 days and noted improvements in hormone and cholesterol levels. Control subjects were fed sweet potatoes and did not get similar benefits. Investigators concluded that changes brought about by consumption of yams “might reduce the risk of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women.” In the United States, sweet potatoes and yams are often confused, but they are completely different plants.
Joe Graedon & Terry Graedon, The People’s Pharmacy: Quick & Handy Home Remedies, published by National Geographic