Lots of women reach for alternatives to help them with menopausal symptoms. But what exactly are complementary and alternative therapies – and can they really help?
What are complementary and alternative therapies?
There’s no single official definition and the terms are often used interchangeably. But as a rule of thumb, these are non-mainstream, non-medical therapies such as herbal medicine, aromatherapy, nutritional therapy and acupuncture.
Complementary therapies are so-called because they can be used alongside conventional treatment. An example might be taking nutritional supplements to support your diet, or having massages for back pain alongside medication from your doctor. Some people use the term ‘alternative therapies’ to refer to treatments used instead of conventional medicine. But it isn’t always safe to reject medical treatment for other therapies, and you should always let your doctor know if you’re using any complementary or alternative treatments, especially if you’re already taking other medicines (including HRT and contraception) or you have a long-term condition.
How can these alternative therapies help with menopausal symptoms?
Lots of women swear by complementary therapies but in most cases there’s little scientific evidence behind them. However, if you’ve spoken to your doctor, done your research and checked a therapy is safe for you, there’s usually no harm in trying it. Many women like the idea of managing menopause symptoms naturally, without taking hormones or other medicines – for some, HRT isn’t suitable, so it can be necessary to find alternatives. And it can be empowering finding your own solutions, with or without HRT and other medicines. Live Better With Menopause community member Jenwebber says the herb black cohosh, along with acupuncture and yoga, have helped her get on top of symptoms.
Some of the therapies that may help your menopause symptoms
Here are some of the therapies other women find helpful during menopause:
There’s limited scientific and some anecdotal evidence that some herbal remedies can help with symptoms of menopause. Black cohosh has traditionally been used for hot flushes and night sweats, and sage may also help with hot flushes, as Floss recommends on our forum. Red clover is a good source of plant oestrogens, a weak form of oestrogen that may contribute to hormone balance and easing some symptoms. St John’s wort, found in KarmaMood, is known for its mood-regulating effects and may help ease anxiety and low mood. Some evidence has also suggested it may help with hot flushes and night sweats. Community member Eve raves about St John’s wort for improving her mood symptoms. ‘I wish I’d tried it earlier in my life. So I think it’s probably great if you’ve always been a stressy person and need to relax.’ Eve also takes evening primrose oil for emotional symptoms and sore breasts. You can take herbs as a prepared concoction from a practitioner, tailored to you. Or you can buy them in the form of tablets or a tincture from a health food store, or drink in tea form (Donsonia12 on our forum loves camomile tea for soothing anxiety). A note of caution, though – it’s very important to check with your doctor before you try any herbal supplements as some many not be suitable for women with certain medical conditions, and herbs can cause interactions with medicines you might be taking.
Everyone agrees a healthy, balanced diet is a must to support your overall wellbeing. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you with advice on following a balanced diet at this time. As the risk of cardiovascular disease rises after menopause, when you lose the protective effects of oestrogen, it becomes especially important to keep to a healthy weight, to eat heart-healthy foods such as oily fish, high-fibre fruit, veg and whole grains, and to reduce saturated fat, salt, sugar and alcohol. And to help protect your bones after menopause, it’s important to ensure you’re eating foods rich in calcium – like dairy, dried figs, sesame seeds and green leafy veg – and vitamin D, including oily fish and eggs.
But some nutrition practitioners go further and believe certain nutrients are particularly helpful for easing symptoms during menopause because they help to gently balance hormones. These include foods rich in phytoestrogens – plant hormones – such as soy products, beans, pulses and flax seeds. The evidence is fairly limited but some women are big fans of these foods for easing symptoms. There are nutritional supplements designed for menopause that contain a spread of vitamins and minerals and also isoflavones to help you get what you need the easy way.
Many women swear by this therapy, which involves inserting fine needles into specific points on the body. It’s a part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and practitioners claim inserting needles into the points helps clear blockages and allow ‘chi’ – energy – to flow freely, balancing your body and any symptoms you may be experiencing. There is some evidence to suggest acupuncture helps, although Western doctors have different theories on why it may be useful.
A treatment that involves the massage of key points on your feet, said to correspond to different organs of the body. Some women find it super-relaxing so it can be helpful with symptoms relating to stress or anxiety. Joyjoy67 has found it helpful for her insomnia, which was leaving her struggling to cope with daily life. ‘I started having reflexology once a month and it seems to be helping,’ she says.
The use of essential oils in different ways – in a massage oil, a diffuser, as an inhalation or added to a bath, for example. Different essential oils have specific properties thought to help with certain symptoms. Lavender, for example, is noted for its calming properties. ‘I love lavender oil in a diffuser – I find it very soothing,’ says community member Kaz. Try Cotswold Lavender Slumber Spray to help you nod off at night.
We’ve rounded up the most popular treatments here but there are many others out there and you may want to try different things, whether it’s massage, hypnosis or osteopathy.
Your key guidelines
When it comes to using complementary or alternative therapies, here’s what to bear in mind:
- Always see your doctor first – diagnosing yourself and trying to treat symptoms on your own may delay you getting the help you really need. It can also end up costing you a lot of money.
- See a complementary practitioner alongside your doctor – not instead.
- Always talk to your doctor or pharmacist before you start using any complementary or alternative treatment, to make sure it’s safe and suitable for you.
- Give it time – if you decide to try a complementary or alternative therapy, bear in mind most of these treatments aren’t designed to work straight away. It can take time to notice a difference.