For years, Venita has been in perimenopause, which is the timeframe between having consistent periods and having no periods at all. Venita put up with the hot flashes, but when she found herself asleep in the winter with the ceiling fan on, one leg outside of the covers and a fan by her face, she knew it was time to find help.
“I was just miserable,” Venita said. She scheduled an appointment with certified menopausal provider Cindy Hansel, MD, UC Health gynecologist and assistant professor for obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “I told her that I was almost in bad enough shape where I was ready to ask for a pill for menopause,” she said.
Uncovering Natural Remedies for Menopause Symptoms
She talked with Dr. Hansel about her health history and current symptoms, which Venita says was like sitting at the dining room table with a friend who is truly listening. When she asked about a prescription for the pill, Dr. Hansel made sure Venita knew she had options.
When Venita was 40, doctors surgically removed cancerous cells, and two years ago, she experienced cardiac arrest. Because of these unrelated health conditions, it was important for Venita to take something natural.
Dr. Hansel states that many patients feel the same as Venita, and don’t want to rely on medicine. For those patients, many remedies are available.
“It's a normal life transition,” Dr. Hansel explained, “If you don't need anything managed because you're doing OK, you don't need anything from me— but if you're having problems, I can fix it.”
Dr. Hansel compares menopause to childbirth because women discuss both in a similar way—people who have easy labors, you don’t hear about it, but people who have hard, difficult times, you hear about it. Menopause is not something to fear, but a natural process that has a wide range of treatments to make it tolerable.
The Overwhelming Symptoms of Menopause Explained
From the time that a woman starts missing a period, to the time she is completely done menstruating, can last from three to 10 years, with the average age of women reaching menopause being 51. Women will notice that in the months they miss their period, they may experience hot flashes.
“It’s a really cool, complicated pathway in the brain,” Dr. Hansel explained. “Basically, your hypothalamus, one of the regulatory systems in your brain, essentially yells at your ovaries to ovulate, and your ovaries yell back, ‘I’ve got nothing!’” The brain is still looking for that estrogen release from the ovaries, and when it doesn’t get it, it floods the body with heat, often at nighttime.
“You're sound asleep and everything is fine, until suddenly you are overwhelmingly hot, which makes you feel like you are being smothered. You throw the covers off because you’re sweating, then the sweat evaporates and you’re chilled,” Dr. Hansel described. “Sometimes, you can’t go back to sleep, or maybe you get back to sleep, and you have another hot flash. Sleep becomes very disrupted.”
It’s that lack of sleep, ongoing for three to 10 years, that causes mood swings, irritability and forgetfulness. The cognitive, memory and mood concerns all stem from the sleep deprivation.
“The most important tip about all menopausal symptoms is to know that if it bugs you, I probably have something that can help,” Dr. Hansel assured. “You don’t need to suffer in silence.”
Natural and Home Remedies for Easing Menopause Symptoms
Home remedies include keeping a fan nearby, wearing natural fibers like silk, cotton, bamboo and linen, avoiding fleece and wool, sticking a foot out of the blanket, avoiding red wine and sleeping with a cooling pillow. Herbal remedies include black cohosh, red clover and soy.
“Soy is actually very helpful,” Dr. Hansel said, “and sometimes it is as simple as drinking a glass of soy milk before you go to bed— it comes in five delicious flavors.”
Supplements should be taken under the guidance of your doctor, and Dr. Hansel says they can really make a difference.
“If you have five hot flashes a day, and taking these things make them reduce to three times, then life is better,” Dr. Hansel explained. “If you are having 40 hot flashes a day, we need to do something more.” Dr. Hansel said, by far, the most effective treatment is hormone replacement therapy.
“Your brain is screaming for estrogen,” she reminded. “We put back just a small amount of what the brain is missing.”
Patients won’t need to take the hormones forever, just until menopause is reached. While a large dose of estrogen is needed to prevent pregnancy, only a tiny dose of estrogen is needed to stop the hot flashes.
Dr. Hansel also prescribes five non-hormonal medications to stop hot flashes, depending on the person and their medical history. Of those five, Dr. Hansel is confident she will be able to find at least one that works for everybody.
How Birth Control Mitigates Menopause Symptoms
Women who are already on birth control medication will experience perimenopause differently. Women with an intrauterine device (IUD) will not notice a change in blood flow, because the IUD typically eliminates menstruation altogether, but may still experience perimenopausal symptoms. IUDs release progesterone, so the body is still demanding estrogen. Women who take oral contraceptives will not notice much of anything.
“Your birth control is providing the estrogen feedback to the brain, so the brain is not unhappy, and you don’t experience hot flashes. Your body still produces periods, so you basically skip the whole thing,” Dr. Hansel said. “Your friends have to have all of those nasty symptoms, but you don’t.”
While it may sound tempting to switch to an oral contraceptive, Dr. Hansel recommends sticking with the birth control method that has worked for you thus far.
No magic formula exists to know when you will enter the perimenopausal phase. There is no correlation between when you started menstruating and when you will end, but one of the best indicators is to ask your mother when she started hers. Dr. Hansel assures that there are remedies for the uncomfortable symptoms, and if one thing hasn’t alleviated symptoms, don’t give up. What might have worked for your friend won’t necessarily work for you.
After discussing her symptoms with Dr. Hansel, Venita takes supplements, and has noticed vast improvements.
“Just the relief I’ve gotten so far has made everything much easier,” she said.
To receive the name of an OB/GYN at the UC Health West Chester Campus, please call 513-298-DOCS (3627).