My first hot flash struck in the grocery store. Juggling an armload of items while trying to guide my toddler son toward the checkout with my other hand, I suddenly felt a fever rise from within.
This was more than just the flush of frustration. My skin felt aflame and sweat poured down my neck and back, pooling in my bra.
I didn’t anticipate being menopausal at age 38. But after a breast cancer diagnosis the year before, I discovered I carry the BRCA2 gene mutation. This not only caused my cancer, but it put me at greater risk for ovarian cancer as well.
To reduce that risk, I opted to undergo a preventive oophorectomy, the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes. This operation sent me headlong into menopause.
I couldn’t receive hormone therapy or many of the standard treatments for menopause because estrogen and progesterone could fuel my breast cancer.
After that first hot flash, those symptoms ramped up. Along with getting sweaty and overheated without warning, I also struggled with mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue.
For people like me who can’t or don’t want to receive hormone therapy treatments for menopause symptoms, alternative medicine like acupuncture can be a viable option for relief.
As my symptoms (like hot flashes and anxiety) became more intense, a co-worker recommended her acupuncturist. She swore by his methods in helping her deal with similar symptoms. Trusting her judgment, I decided to give it a try.
I liked that he worked in a traditional medical office. I’m open to alternative practices, but I also believe in Western medicine. Right away, he put me at ease by spending time getting to know me and understand my specific concerns before suggesting treatment.
In my case, acupuncture helped lessen some of my menopause symptoms and improved my overall mood.
A small 2019 study found that 5 weeks of acupuncture reduced hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and sleep disruptions in women dealing with menopause symptoms.
While the researchers couldn’t rule out the placebo effect in their study, they also concluded acupuncture was “a safe, cost-effective and simple procedure, with very few side-effects reported.”
Amy Mager, DACM, is a licensed acupuncturist and a member of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine, who specializes in acupuncture for women’s health at The Wellness House in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“Acupuncture affects fascia, it affects our connective tissue,” says Mager. “And in real time, under fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), the insertion of the acupuncture needle changes which parts of our brain light up — so, it’s changing the way our brain reacts.”
There are several symptoms of menopause that acupuncture may help with, including:
Hot flashes and night sweats
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is rooted in yin and yang theory, the idea that all things are composed of two opposite forces. When those forces are in balance, says TCM, the body is healthy.
“Whenever a woman has hot flashes, one of the things we’re assessing is what is the relationship of the yin and yang in her kidneys, and how can we support that,” says Mager. “We want the kidneys to be well-nourished.”
Mager says that acupuncture can help treat the hormonal imbalance causing heat to rise in the body. Along with acupuncture, she advises patients to eat a healthy diet and stay hydrated.
During my treatment, my acupuncturist helped me identify things in my diet, such as soy, that could contribute to hormonal fluctuations in my body.
The American College of Physicians recommends acupuncture for those managing lower back pain. Using acupuncture needles at pressure points in the body can stimulate the central nervous system, causing it to release pain-relieving chemicals, such endorphins. These can help alleviate aches associated with menopause.
Mood swings and anxiety
“It’s very easy to feel incredibly crabby or like our brains are not firing on all pistons when our hormones are out of balance,” says Mager.
Researchers in a
Acupuncture gave me the peace and relaxation I’d struggled to find. During my sessions, my muscles relaxed and my thoughts stopped racing.
By the end of each session, I’d feel as though I’d awakened from a really good nap: relaxed, refreshed, and just slightly dazed.
The three yin intersection, a pressure point just above the inner ankle, plays an important role. In addition to receiving needle treatment at this spot, Mager says, soaking your feet at home can help improve sleep.
“There are small things that can make a big change, and a simple thing we can do is soaking feet in hot water with Epsom salt up to the three yin intersection,” she says. “When you relax your Achilles tendon, you’re automatically relaxing your neck and cervical spine. I have [people] do it before bed so they have better sleep.”
Acupuncture may help increase blood flow and lower blood pressure in your body, which can reduce fatigue-inducing stress on muscles like the heart.
A 2017 study found that acupuncture was effective at reducing cancer-related fatigue, and
Hormonal imbalances during menopause can reduce the natural fluid production in the vagina, leading to dryness and pain during sex.
According to Mager, needles inserted in acupuncture points can sometimes help stimulate the release of neurochemicals that can counteract imbalances.
“We use acupuncture to help bring balance into the system,” says Mager. “Shifting those patterns shifts hormonal imbalances, and [people] who tend to have dry vaginas from menopause notice they’re feeling more fluid in their body and sex isn’t painful.”
Mager advises people to first be sure any acupuncturist they work with is licensed and board certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Two important questions to ask include:
- How often do you treat menopause-related concerns?
- What results have you seen in your practice treating symptoms similar to mine?
“It’s really important that you feel comfortable asking any question to feel safe… working with this person,” says Mager.
If you don’t?
“Find another acupuncturist,” she says.
Mager says that just as you would with any other medical professional, you want to build a relationship of trust and support that can last as long as you need treatment.
“You want someone who resonates with you,” she says. “It’s not a one-and-done procedure, and you want to make sure you’re finding someone you can build a rapport with.”
That was a key component to my positive experience with acupuncture.
My practitioner took the time to get to know me, and he tailored the session to my personal needs. My comfort was his number one priority, and he made me feel seen and respected.
While acupuncture wasn’t a magic bullet to relieve all my menopause symptoms, the practice gave me another tool to address the changes in my body.
Finding a practitioner who focused not only on my physical symptoms but my mental and emotional state as well helped me navigate an otherwise difficult life transition.
Jennifer Bringle has written for Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Parents, among other outlets. She’s working on a memoir about her post-cancer experience. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.