Are Those Herbs Working?
While some women have no trouble using standard hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopause symptoms, a lot of other women are still leery about using hormones because they are concerned about the risks they pose or because they prefer a more natural approach. However, according to the January issue of the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB), there is just no proof that herbal remedies are effective.
Somewhere between 30% and 70% of all women in westernized countries will suffer from some form of vasomotor symptoms during menopause, including night sweats and hot flashes. The symptoms are known to be caused by falling estrogen levels. The symptoms tend to be self-limiting and persist for four years or so, however, in one out of every 10 women, the symptoms last longer than 12 years.
Common herbal remedies used for the relief of menopause symptoms include: ginseng, evening primrose oil, dong quai, red clover, and black cohosh. Some less common candidates include kava kava, sage leaf, hops, chaste tree, and wild yam extract. The public assumes that since these preparations are natural, they are gentle. However, not only is there no hard data on how efficacious these herbal medicines really are, there is also no firm proof that they are safe in combination with your regular prescription medications.
DTB has discovered that this erroneous assumption has carried over into the medical research sphere where few studies have been performed with a focus on the safety of these herbal remedies. This apparent lack of interest in researching this topic suggests that the wool has been pulled over the eyes of the experts, yet there is no logic in the idea that because a preparation is herbal it is either safe, effective, or gentle.
According to DTB, the studies that have been published are of poor design, have too small a pool of participants, or are not lengthy enough to provide any significant data. In addition, the herbal preparations may differ in strength and chemical composition, which can confuse the clinical picture when comparing trial results.
In one case, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) gave its Traditional Herbal Registration to a commercial herbal menopause remedy containing black cohosh. This act was meant to encourage the public to view herbal products as safe. Yet, the data from clinical trials on black cohosh are anything but clear in terms of both its effectiveness and safety. Some trials suggest the remedy is effective, while other studies say just the opposite is true. Also, black cohosh carries the serious potential side effect of liver toxicity.
DTB says that there is "no convincing evidence" that red clover extract alleviates symptoms. Furthermore, there is no proof either way that dong quai, wild yam, chasteberry, sage, hops, or evening primrose oil do anything at all to help menopausal symptoms.