Patricia Gordon was having three or four hot flashes a day. "They would come on at any time. I could be in a meeting and my face would turn red, my scalp was hot, I'd be perspiring. My sweater would come off and then on again. It's embarrassing. You feel like you're on fire."
Ms. Gordon, a 51-year-old Torontonian who works in property management, was experiencing a very common rite of passage: It's estimated that between 60 per cent and 75 per cent of women experience hot flashes as menopause approaches.
Hot flashes are usually accompanied by an array of party-pooping symptoms, including night sweats, fuzzy brain, decreased libido, vaginal dryness, mild depression, and insomnia. In Ms. Gordon's case, a shoulder injury added to the witches' brew and "it was very difficult for me to cope with even the smallest things."
Her antidote was to seek natural therapies. With the help of Toronto naturopath Barb Weiss, she gradually made lifestyle changes that would ultimately curb her symptoms. "You don't just knock on your doctor's door and say, 'Give me a pill.' You have to be prepared to change your lifestyle. It's a lifetime commitment," says Ms. Gordon.
Dr. Weiss guided Ms. Gordon through a program involving acupuncture, herbal remedies, eating more whole foods and less take-out food, moderating alcohol and red meat, adding regular exercise, eliminating caffeine, and consuming more flax and soy. She reduced her hot flashes from three or four a day plus two at night, down to "almost zero."
"There are a lot of options beyond HRT," says Dr. Weiss. "Many women are able to deal with symptoms of menopause using natural therapeutics such as herbs, acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine and homeopathy," she adds. Indeed, new scientific evidence bolsters claims that natural therapies can be successful in treating hot flashes.
A recent Turkish study enrolled 53 middle-aged women and divided them into two groups. Twenty-seven of the women received traditional Chinese acupuncture twice a week for 10 weeks, and the rest were given sham acupuncture. The women who received real acupuncture showed a more marked decrease in hot flashes. The study was published recently in the journal Acupuncture in Medicine.
Another small study, involving 29 women from California, showed that seven weeks of acupuncture was helpful in decreasing nocturnal hot flashes. The study, conducted at Stanford and Harvard Universities, was published in Fertility and Sterility in 2006. A larger Norwegian study, with 267 women enrolled, found that acupuncture plus self-care can alleviate hot flashes better than self-care alone. The study was published in the journal Menopause in 2009.
Other natural therapies, such as mindfulness practice and hypnotherapy, are gaining ground as remedies for hot flashes. A study of 110 women in Worcester, Mass., found that mindfulness-based stress reduction was an important and potentially successful therapy for women with hot flashes. The study was published recently in the journal Menopause.
And a small study of 51 breast cancer survivors at Baylor University has found that picturing a cool place during hypnotherapy helped decrease hot flashes. The study appeared recently in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.
"Western society likes to treat menopause as a disease," says Toronto acupuncturist Gosia Pacyna. "In Traditional Chinese Medicine we call menopause the second spring." Ms. Pacyna has had great success reducing hot flashes through acupuncture. "This is what we do with needles, herbs and lifestyle changes. We smooth this transition."
Special to The Globe and Mail