The Cold Truth About Hot Flashes

It may be winter, but menopausal women across the country are still sweating, flashing and disrobing. You would think that by now someone would have come up with something better than a portable fan to fix this problem.

For those who plan on getting along without therapies to alleviate symptoms, be aware that the average woman can expect to experience moderate to severe hot flashes for about five years -- or even longer (like forever).

So what's a woman to do, beyond layering one's clothing and stripping down to shorts and a T-shirt during board meetings?

There Are Ways to Alleviate Symptoms

Estrogen can relieve menopausal symptoms and works well in even very small doses, but many women can't -- or chose not to -- take estrogen.

It doesn't help that every time you open a newspaper, there is more alarming information about the potential dangers of estrogen replacements. The reassuring information that doctors might learn about estrogen never seems to make it to the front page.

In the 1870s, Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was a popular cure-all for virtually every gynecologic ailment, including menstrual and menopausal distress. The ads claimed the compound was a "Positive Cure for all those Painful Complaints and Weaknesses so common to our best female population and is particularly adapted to the change of life."

No doubt, the 18 percent alcohol content had something to do with the compound's efficacy -- even proper ladies could remain happily inebriated while dealing with difficult menopausal symptoms if they kept the compound handy.

Another key ingredient in Pinkham's remedy was none other than black cohosh, an extract of dried underground roots derived from a plant used by native North American Indians. Today black cohosh is one of the most widely used alternative therapies for treatment of hot flashes -- despite recent research suggesting its ineffectiveness.

New Research Throws Cloud on Black Cohosh

Researchers looked at 351 women between the ages of 45 to 55 who suffered from hot flashes and night sweats over the course of one year and found that those taking black cohosh got about the same amount of relief as those who took a placebo. And those groups experienced nothing close to the improvement that women taking hormones experienced. The study was published in a recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

This new data, though perhaps disappointing, is important. Few researchers have carried out scientific, well-designed studies on alternative treatments for hot flashes -- in part because such studies are extremely expensive and difficult to do since they require many patients and a lot of time.

Another hurdle to the study of hot-flash remedies is the high placebo effect from the products used to treat hot flashes. Whether you give women soy, Chinese herbs or broccoli, at least 30 percent will experience fewer flashes for at least a few weeks.

Keep in mind that the companies that produce alternatives to estrogen are just as profit motivated as pharmaceutical companies. A multimillion dollar industry has evolved to promote so-called natural products to a vulnerable population of women who are suffering and seeking safe, effective options.

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