Dr. Randy Martin: Fear about the potential risk of hormone replacement therapy has led many women to seek natural remedies to treat their menopausal symptoms. A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that one of the most popular methods has no effect on menopause symptoms. I met with Dr. Barbara Croft, a gynecologist at Piedmont Hospital, to learn more about this study and which treatment methods are most effective for treating menopause symptoms.
According to Barbara Croft, M.D., a gynecologist at Piedmont Hospital, menopause is defined as the time when a woman stops having menstrual periods. When menopause begins, periods become irregular; hot flashes can occur, which can lead to sleep disturbance and even mood changes. Dr. Croft says that menopause is a long process and can last for months or even years.
“The average age that women stop menstruating is 51,” says Dr. Croft. “Women will have many symptoms, the worst of which is hot flashes. However, some women have no symptoms and feel better when they stop menstruating. It’s a variable response.”
Approximately 80 percent of women undergoing menopause will experience hot flashes and night sweats and 20 percent will experience sufficient discomfort to seek treatment. During menopause, bone mass loss accelerates to approximately 2 percent per year, leading to an increased risk of fractures and osteoporosis later in life.
Menopause Treatment Options
Standard symptom treatments include medications, like hormone replacement therapy (HRT), low-dose antidepressants, and biphosphonate bone density pills, like Boniva and Actonel. Alternative, “natural” treatments include soy, vitamin E and black cohosh supplements, and yoga.
In 2002, a Women’s Health Initiative study found that HRT led to an increased risk of breast cancer. HRT involves taking the hormones estrogen and progesterone. While HRT can be effective at relieving moderate to severe menopausal symptoms and preventing bone loss, it increases the risk of blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer and gall bladder disease.
This study scared many women away from hormone replacement therapy, leading them to look for “natural” replacement therapy. Soy, used in foods like tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and soy nuts, has emerged as one of the most popular alternative treatments.
Can a soy-rich diet decrease hot flashes and bone loss?
In a University of Miami study, researchers examined the effects of a soy-rich diet on menopausal women. “This study is a good one because it’s a prospective, randomized trial,” says Dr. Croft.
Researchers put half of the women in a treatment group and half in a placebo group. Participants in the soy group took 200 milligrams of soy isoflavones each day, while the other group took placebo pills. After two years of study, researchers concluded that women in both groups experienced the same amount of bone loss. In fact, more women in the soy group experienced hot flashes than the placebo group.
Natural menopause treatments
Instead of soy products, Dr. Croft says that she recommends that all of her patients maintain their ideal body weight. “There was some recent research that showed that a woman’s perception of her hot flashes was a lot worse if she was overweight or obese,” she says. “Regular exercise also helps regulate some of the symptoms.”
There is no easy answer when it comes to treating menopause symptoms, says Dr. Croft. “Menopause is complicated, everyone is different and we cannot predict how long it will last for each individual woman.” She says HRT is an effective treatment for many of her patients, but advises women who choose the medication to take the lowest dose possible over the shortest amount of time.
To avoid hot flashes in the first place:
- Avoid common triggers, like alcohol, spicy foods, caffeine, stress or places with high temperatures.
- Wear layers and remove outer layers if a hot flash occurs.
- Take slow, deep breaths during a hot flash onset.
- Keep a fan on your work desk and at home to cool down during a hot flash.
- Doctors sometimes prescribe medication for other conditions (such as depression, high blood pressure, epilepsy and low-dose birth control) to treat hot flashes.
Dr. Randy Martin: When it comes to treating your menopause symptoms, soy is not the most effective treatment option. If you are experiencing menopause symptoms, talk to your gynecologist about the best treatment options for you.