Herbal Products for Menopause
During menopause, a woman's body produces less estrogen. This can cause changes that occur slowly over time. Some women find these changes uncomfortable.
Treatment with hormone therapy (HT) may relieve some symptoms of menopause, but also poses some health risks. Women also may use herbal products. Some herbal products may be helpful in the short-term treatment of symptoms, whereas others are not. Still others may cause harm.
This pamphlet will explain:
What Is Herbal Medicine?
Healers have been using herbs as medicine for thousands of years. Many drugs we use today come from plants. Some drugs that are now manmade first came from plants. Herbal treatments also come from plants and can be given in many forms (see box).
Some doctors may suggest herbal treatments in addition to conventional treatments or drugs prescribed. Herbal treatments also may be used by other professions:
Herbal products may interact with drugs prescribed by your doctor and cause problems. It also can be hard to know how safe a product is because herbs are not tested the same way as drugs are tested. Because of these factors, women who use herbal products for relief of menopause symptoms should consult their doctors.
Menopause is different for everyone. Some women do not notice much change in their bodies or moods. Others may find it hard to cope with their symptoms. Symptoms of menopause can include:
Herbal products can help relieve some symptoms of menopause for some women. There are many different types of products that vary widely. Because of this wide variety, it is hard to set a standard dose. What works for some women may not work for others. For many of these products there are limited facts available.
Some soy products contain high amounts of isoflavone. Isoflavone is a phytoestrogen, also known as plant estrogen. Plant estrogens act like a weak form of the hormone estrogen in the body.
Isoflavone is found in foods, such as flaxseed, legumes (peas, beans, peanuts), and whole grains (oats, wheat, corn). However, when soy is processed into a food product it can lose some of its benefits. Soy also can be taken in the form of supplements.
If taken for a long time in large amounts, soy products may help protect against osteoporosis. They also may help relieve some symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Because soy products may have some estrogen-like qualities they may have some risks.
Black cohosh is a North American plant. Some women use it to treat symptoms such as:
St. John's Wort
St. John's wort is an extract of the flower Hypericum perforatum. It has been used for hundreds of years to treat mild to moderate depression. Side effects may include:
Wild yam (and Mexican yam) is available in extracts, tablets, and creams. There is no proof that yams can relieve symptoms of menopause. Although there is a hormone-like substance found in some yams, a woman would have to eat a large amount of raw yam to reach a level that would relieve symptoms.
Dong quai is the root of the plant Angelica sinesis. It is the most commonly prescribed Chinese herbal medicine for problems that affect the female reproductive system.
Dong quai is given to make menstrual cycles more regular. It is said to help with vaginal dryness and pain during sex. It also is said to reduce hot flashes. This is only if it is used with certain other herbs. Dong quai may cause some women to be sensitive to sunlight. It also may affect the time it takes for your blood to clot.
Studies have only looked at the use of dong quai by itself. When used in Chinese medicine, it is prescribed with other herbs. When used alone, it does not seem to be effective.
Evening primrose is a North American wildflower. Oil is expressed from the plant's seeds. This oil is used by some women to treat hot flashes. There is no proof that it works.
Valerian root comes from the garden plant heliotrope. It is used mostly to treat sleep problems. Studies do not show valerian root to be a useful treatment. It may cause muscle spasms or eye problems.
There are many types of ginseng: Siberian, Korean, American, white, and red. Ginseng often is promoted as an "adaptogen." This means it helps one cope with stress and it boosts immunity to diseases.
For menopausal women, ginseng is said to increase a woman's desire to have sex, but there is no proof that it does. It also has not been shown to reduce hot flashes.
Chasteberry, or vitex, is the dried ripe fruit of the chaste tree. It is said to reduce the desire in men to have sex, but increase it in women. Some think that it helps to reduce vaginal dryness and depression at menopause. There is not enough proof that it works to recommend it.
A concern about herbal products is that they are not approved by the federal government (see box). The herbal industry promotes its own standards for making herbal products. Some manufacturers have signed agreements to conform to these standards.
The U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) has a program to help inform and protect consumers who use dietary supplements, including herbal products. In this program, the USP makes sure that a product meets the following strict standards:
Before You Try Herbal Products
Before you start taking herbal products for meno-pause symptoms, talk with your doctor. Herbs can interact with other drugs that you are taking already or that your doctor might prescribe.
Be sure to tell your doctor about all herbs and supplements you are taking. They all have an effect on your body. In order to be helpful, your doctor needs to know what you are taking. He or she also can help you decide what is safe.
For some women, using herbs can help relieve symptoms of menopause. Some women may use herbs along with other forms of treatment. Others may find that HT alone meets their needs. Your doctor can help you decide what is best for you.
If you are thinking about taking herbal products, it is a good idea to let your doctor know. Even products that seem safe can be harmful.
Cataracts: Cloudy areas in the lens of the eye.
Estrogen: A female hormone produced in the ovaries that stimulates the growth of the lining of the uterus.
Hormone Therapy (HT): Treatment in which estrogen, and often progestin, is taken to help relieve some of the symptoms caused by the low levels of hormones produced by the body.
Menopause: The process in a woman's life when ovaries stop functioning and menstruation stops.
Osteoporosis: A condition in which the bones become so fragile that they break more easily.