Menopause, or the “change of life,” is a transitional phase that marks the end of a woman’s reproductive years. The change is usually gradual, and generally occurs around 50 years of age. Menopause is often accompanied by a handful of symptoms, which vary in intensity and duration from woman to woman, but ordinarily include hot flashes and irritability, insomnia, vaginal dryness, and even depression. These symptoms are related to the dramatic decline—and unpredictable oscillations—in the production of natural estrogens that occurs during menopause.
Most natural remedies for menopause prominently feature plant-based compounds called phytoestrogens. These estrogen-like chemicals help relieve the symptoms of menopause by binding with estrogen receptors on tissues located throughout the body, exerting “weak estrogenic effects.” For centuries, various traditional medical systems have employed certain herbs and supplements to help relieve these symptoms. Although these botanicals have been handed down to us from Native American herbal lore, traditional Asian medicine, and Indian Ayurveda, modern scientists have investigated their safety and effectiveness. At least some evidence of safety and effectiveness been established for the following supplements.
Soy is a fundamental component of the Asian diet, and its prominence may help explain why Asian women report fewer complaints related to menopause than their Western counterparts. Diet probably also plays a role in Asian women’s lower rates of breast cancer and osteoporosis compared with Western women. Large studies have shown that women with the highest consumption of soy have reduced cases of osteoporosis of the spine. Osteoporosis is a potentially serious condition that affects many menopausal and post-menopausal women; as bones lose mineral content, they become more brittle, increasing the likelihood of breakage.
Soy contains phytoestrogen compounds called isoflavones. The two major soy isoflavones are genistein and daidzein. These and other soy components have been credited with helping reduce the risk of certain cancers, reducing blood lipid levels (which may lead to a reduced risk of heart disease), preventing post-menopausal osteoporosis, reducing the frequency and severity of hot flashes, and even helping prevent weight gain after menopause.
Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated in 2001 that this Native American botanical remedy may be helpful in the short term (six months or less) for controlling hot flashes. Numerous studies have been published, but the use of black cohosh remains controversial among some physicians. Experts agree, however, that preliminary evidence is encouraging.
A large controlled study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, should settle the issue once the results of the study are released. It is unclear how this buttercup-family plant works to relieve hot flashes, but it may exert weak estrogenic activity, much like soy compounds, helping alleviate the wild swings and sudden drop-off in natural estrogen production.
Lignans are a class of compounds obtained through the diet from fiber-rich food sources, such as flaxseed and sesame. Like soy compounds, lignans are phytoestrogens. They become active in the body after they are converted in the digestive tract to an active compound called enterolactone. Higher levels of enterolactone have been associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer in women.
One particularly beneficial lignan, called 7-hydroxymatairesinol (HMR) lignan, is extracted from Norway spruce trees for sale as a nutritional supplement. In addition to significant breast cancer protection, HMR lignans may help improve blood lipid profiles in menopausal and post-menopausal women.
Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus)
Some premenopausal women experience symptoms more commonly associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). One of the most troubling of these symptoms is breast tenderness. For centuries, folk medicine practitioners have used the berry of the chaste tree to treat such symptoms. Scientific evidence suggests that chasteberry or its extract may indeed help relieve this symptom of perimenopause.
A number of other dietary supplements may be useful to relieve certain symptoms of menopause. Depression, for example, is not uncommon during menopause. Studies have shown that people with a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids (most readily obtained from fish oil) are less likely to become depressed. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, and in cases where antidepressant medication has been prescribed to treat clinical depression, they have been shown to improve the effectiveness of pharmaceutical therapy. They may also alleviate mood-related symptoms, such as irritability and anxiety. Similarly, the natural compound S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), is available in supplement form. Studies have linked its use to lower rates of depression, and faster onset of effectiveness when taken with prescription antidepressants.