Popular Alternative Therapies for Menopause
Some of the more popular alternative therapies include:
- Progesterone Creams
- Caution for Women on HRT
- Wild Yam Creams
- Herbal Medicines
- Estrogen Medications
- Estrogen Side Effects
Menopause & Alternative Therapies
Menopause occurs when a woman stops ovulating, the ovaries no longer produce oestrogen (the female reproductive hormone) and her monthly period (menstruation) ceases. It is a natural event that marks the end of the reproductive years, just as the first menstrual period during puberty marked the start. Many women are troubled by menopausal symptoms that occur with the loss of oestrogens. These include vaginal dryness, hot flushes and night sweats, and many psychological symptoms. The long term risk of disorders such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease is also increased after menopause. Some women use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) - a combination of hormones - to ease menopausal symptoms and reduce the risk of associated disorders. However, some women prefer to try alternative therapies to manage their menopause.
Alternative therapies are controversial The 1995 South Australian Health Omnibus Survey found that menopausal women are high users of alternative therapies. Alternative therapies for the management of menopausal symptoms remain controversial. Many of these therapies have not been subjected to clinical trials, so their efficacy is unclear. Some make claims that have yet to be medically confirmed. To date, no alternative therapy has managed to reduce a menopausal woman's risk of osteoporosis. Another concern is that these products may not be prepared to the same strict manufacturing standards as pharmaceutical products.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that are similar in chemical makeup to the female reproductive hormone oestrogen, but with much lower potency. They act at the oestrogen receptor sites in a woman's body. This can moderate menopausal symptoms. The three types of phytoestrogens and their dietary sources include:
- Isoflavones - good sources include soy products and beans (such as lima and lentil).
- Lignans - good sources include fruit, vegetables and grains, and oilseeds such as linseed.
- Coumestans - good sources include sprouting seeds such as alfalfa.
Progesterone is a female reproductive hormone that also declines after menopause. Medical science accepts that menopausal symptoms are due to falling oestrogen levels, but some people believe that an incorrect ratio of progesterone to oestrogen is the culprit. To date, there is no medical evidence to support the theory that supplementing the body's progesterone levels with progesterone creams, pessaries or suppositories can ease menopause symptoms or reduce the risk of osteoporosis. The main use of progesterone is to protect the lining of the uterus in women using oestrogen. Progesterone products are now available on prescription only. [Progestrone Risks by Dr. Mercola]
Caution for Women on Hormone Replacement Therapy
Some women who use combined HRT (oestrogen + progesterone) substitute progesterone creams for the progestogen component of their HRT. This can increase the risk of cancer in the uterine lining (endometrium), because not enough progesterone is absorbed through the skin from these creams. A study published in The Lancet found that progesterone creams applied to the skin don't increase the amount of progesterone levels in the blood to any significant degree and do not protect the endometrium.
Wild Yam Cream
Any over-the-counter cream or preparation that claims to contain progesterone should be avoided as a waste of money, since all products containing progesterone are only available on prescription. The compound diosgenin (an oestrogen-like compound) is found in wild yams. The progesterone in creams, pessaries, suppositories and the contraceptive pill is synthesised from diosgenin. Oestrogens and testosterone can also be synthesised from diosgenin. However, this doesn't mean that wild yam creams have a progesterone-boosting effect, as diosgenin has to be chemically changed in the laboratory to produce progesterone, and the human body doesn't have the enzymes to do this. There is no medical evidence to support the claims that wild yam creams can ease menopausal symptoms.
Some herbs (such as ginseng and false unicorn) are said to ease menopause symptoms in the same way as phytoestrogens - by acting at oestrogen receptor sites. After menopause, the adrenal glands become the main manufacturers of oestrogen, so herbs such as liquorice and sarsaparilla are used to boost the adrenal glands. Research is needed on the efficacy of herbal preparations in the management of menopause. Studies undertaken so far on evening primrose oil have found that, contrary to popular belief, it has no effect on menopause symptoms. Herbs can act on the body as powerfully as pharmaceutical drugs and should be treated with respect and caution. Always inform your doctor of any herbs you are taking. A registered practitioner should prescribe herbal medicines - self-medicating is not advised. Traditionally, herbs are prescribed short term and not for continuous use.
Things to remember
Alternative therapies for the management of menopausal symptoms remain controversial.
Many of these therapies have not been subjected to clinical trials, so their efficacy is in doubt. *Popular therapies include phytoestrogens, progesterone creams, wild yam creams and herbal medicine.
It is best to see a registered naturopath or herbalist if you prefer to use alternative therapies.
According to the compounding pharmacy, Community Drug , bioidentical medications may contain one or a combination of the following natural estrogens: Estriol, Estradiol and Estrone. These are identical to the homones which are produced in significant quantities in the human body, primarily by the ovaries pre-menopausally and by the fat, skin and muscle cells and adrenal glands post-menopausally. Estrogens are resonsible for the development and maintenance of the female reproductive system, secondary reproductive characteriscs, favorable effects on blood cholestoral and lipid profiles, and slowing the progression of osteoporosis, as well as causing proliferation of the endometrium.
Natural estrogens are used for replacement therapy in perimenopausal, menopausal, and post-menopausal women for the treatment of symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats, irregular menses, mood swings, and vaginal dryness, burning, and itching. Estrogens are also used in the treatment of a variety of other conditions associated with a deficiency of estrogen hormones, including female hypogonadism, ovarian failure, or ovariectomy (removal of ovary). Other uses include preventing osteoporosis, improving blood lipid profile, and maintaining bladder and urinary tract function. Topical estrogen therapy has been used for reduction of wrinkles and skin softening effects.
Estrogen Side Effects
Side effects of estrogen therapy include:
- Stomach upset
These effects may be temporary and self-limiting.
Other adverse reactions may include breakthrough bleeding, breast-swelling, breast pain, fluid retention, weight gain, mood swings, depression, decreased libido, increased risk of gallbladder disease, increased risk of thromboembolic disorder and increase risk of breast or uterine cancer. Do not use natural estrogen during pregnancy.
Bioidentical Hormone Replacement Therapy - Frequenty Asked Questions
BioIdentical Hormones by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Progesterone Cream Side Effects
Comments by Joesph Mercola, MD
If one has not read Dr. Lees books on "What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause" and " What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause," I would highly recommend them. These books are classics and should be in everyones natural medicine library. Progesterone cream has been one of the most important supplements I have ever used in my practice.
I have come to a recent realization regarding the use of these creams. Most women in our culture are estrogen dominant, so using the progesterone goes a long way towards balancing hormones which usually decreases a womans risk for breast cancer, improves her PMS and breast tenderness and normalizes her cycle. Like most good things in life if one uses too much of the hormone cream, complications can develop in disruption in ones hormone balance.
Dr. Lee is fond of using the lower dose creams to avoid this. But this complication can still occur with the low-dose creams. I always attempt to provide the most cost effective solution in my practice so I use prescription strength 10% cream. Theoretically, there is no problem with this if one uses it as directed. There is a huge cost savings as this concentration is able to get the cost down to $3 per month. However, if one uses more than 1/16 of a teaspoon, complications appear to be inevitable.
Progesterone Disrupts Adrenal Hormones
The problem relates to the fact that progesterone is highly fat soluble and once applied to the skin will store itself in a womans fat tissue. When one first uses the cream, there is no problem here as the fat stores are very low. But as time goes on, the cream accumulates and contributes to disruptions in the adrenal hormones such as DHEA, cortisol, and testosterone. I have learned that although progesterone cream is an enormously useful tool, it needs to be used very cautiously.
I have also learned that it is FAR MORE IMPORTANT to work to normalize the adrenal hormones first. Once the adrenal hormones are balanced, the progesterone levels will frequently normalize and one will not require any cream. The wonderful thing about adrenal normalization is that it usually only takes 3-6 months to balance these hormones. Once they are balanced, one usually does not require any hormone supplements to keep them balanced.
The balancing process involves lifestyle changes first. If you havent already guessed it by now, the diet at Read This First on my home page www.mercola.com is the first step. Secondly, one needs to get to bed by 10 PM. This is an essential part of the process. If one is routinely going to bed after 10, then ones biorhythms will be disrupted. Addressing emotional stress in ones life is the other huge component. I believe that the therapy we are now offering in with Applied Psychoneurobiology, APN, (see the article section on my web site) is one of the most effective tools for this. APN clearly is not the only way to address this and there are many other wonderful approaches out there. Journaling is one of the better and least expensive ones, but there are many other approaches also.
Once the lifestyle issues are addressed, then one would ideally evaluate the adrenal and female hormones. One of the better ways to do this is though measuring salivary hormone concentrations. I had been using Aeron Labs, and they do good work. Dr. Zava used to run it and now he runs his own company, which is also a fine lab. However, I have recently been introduced to BioHealth Diagnostics (800-570-2000) and I am hugely impressed with their services. They hold regular seminars and are even having one this weekend in San Diego. I would have loved to attend, but I am still catching up from my earlier learning tour. They also hold weekly phone seminars for health care professionals, which are excellent.
I really believe they have a huge jump on the other labs as they run multiple samples to make these measurements. One can certainly perform the same test at other labs, but the bill for all the samples would literally by two to three times as expensive. The other labs also do not have an educational component. They have a wonderful clinician, Dr. Dan Bivens, who walks the health care professional through proper evaluation of the test results.
Once the results are in, the hormonal manipulation generally involves using sublingual hormones such as DHEA and pregnenolone or cortisol improving agents such as licorice root extract. The exact dosage, timing and use are determined by the results of the test. The absolutely incredible aspect of this testing and treatment strategy is that it recalibrates the brain and helps the body to start making the hormones by themselves so one is not stuck on hormone treatment for the rest of their life.
Getting back to progesterone cream, I have been finding that many of the women who were on the cream have terribly elevated levels of this hormone. This is not good. Progesterone is normally a cyclical hormone and the body really needs to see a change in the concentration to affect a proper physiological response. If the level is constantly above the concentration that it recognizes as "off" or low, this is not possible. Fortunately, this is repairable. But it may involve going off the cream for as long as two years to wash the progesterone out of the system.
I am still in an evaluation stage and learning about how common this is in my own practice as I have just started using this system for the past month. At this point, I am relatively convinced that this is a big part of the picture for hormone replacement.
Progesterone Cream Recommendations
If you are a health care professional and dispensing or recommending progesterone cream, I would recommend you contact BioHealth Diagnostics for an information kit. If you are not one of my patients, you can contact them for a health care professional in your area. If you are one of my patients, there will be a huge shift in the way that we are administering the dispensing of progesterone cream in our office. We will not dispense any cream at this point without a proper evaluation of ones adrenal and female hormones. This will be done through salivary hormone testing. This test is usually covered by ones health insurance. This will allow me to normalize and restore the finely tuned hormone balance that ones body is designed to have, rather than blindly slapping on progesterone cream without any appreciation of the potential complication or hormone disruptions.
Natural progesterone is the exact same hormone that is produced by a woman's ovary. It is made from naturally occurring plant steroids found in the wild yam. It is NOT the synthetic version that is commonly purchased as tablets with a prescription such as Provera. The synthetic progesterone can produce severe side effects including increased risk of cancer, abnormal menstrual flow, fluid retention, nausea, and depression. Side effects are extremely rare with natural progesterone. The only one of concern is that it might slightly alter the timing of the menstrual cycle.
Reasons Why Natural Progesterone Made by Your Body Is Good
Natural progesterone is very useful to balance excess estrogen. Natural progesterone is also different from estrogen in that your body can use it as a precursor or starting material to make other hormones such as adrenal hormones. It can even convert it into estrogen or testosterone if your body needs it. The table on the next page lists the properties of estrogen relative to progesterone. Some of the reasons that estrogen is frequently in excess in many women are:
1. Over production of estrogen. Ovarian cysts or tumors can lead to excess estrogen production. Stress also increases production, but probably the most common cause is obesity. All body fat has an enzyme which converts adrenal steroids to estrogen, so the more fat you have, the more estrogen is present.
2. Inability to breakdown estrogen. Excess estrogen is generally removed by the liver. Diseases of the liver like cirrhosis or decreased enzyme activity can lead to increased estrogen levels. Vitamin B6 and magnesium are necessary for the liver to neutralize estrogen. Increased sugar intake will also excrete magnesium and interfere with its ability to breakdown estrogen.
3. Exposure to pesticides in foods. Most of us eat foods that have pesticides on them. These and many other unnatural chemicals share a common structure with estrogen and serve as "false" estrogens which further stimulates the body's estrogen receptors.
4. Estrogen supplementation. Clearly any additional estrogen given by prescription will increase the level unless it is properly balanced with natural progesterone.
5. Decreased production of progesterone. Progesterone is necessary to counterbalance estrogen. If women do not ovulate during their cycle they will not produce any progesterone that cycle. This happens commonly and worsens the already disturbed progesterone/estrogen balance.
For More Detailed Information on Natural Progesterone: You can purchase What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause by Dr. John Lee. It is paperback book for $13 and was published in May of 1996 and the newer version What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Pre Menopause published in 1999 with a blue cover.
Comment author Joesph Mecola is a board certified medical doctor.
Review author Wendy Wells is a licensed naturopathic medical doctor.
The above article (appearing Better Health Channel), is a great explanation as to why women tend to have higher levels of estrogen and need progesterone balancing. Also we need to always address the underlying issue of adrenal fatigue. Supporting and correcting the adrenals takes lifestyle changes and supplementation. Results can take up to 6 months. Once the adrenals are balanced, then the female hormone deficiencies will have changed and can still be supplemented with herbs or creams if needed. The environmental factor cannot be ignored here. If a woman is willing to undergo detoxification, the imbalance can be corrected further. In my practice I help women all over the country balance their hormones naturally working step by step with plant or bio-identical hormones, if needed.