Relieving menopause symptoms on your own

Photo of a sports group (PantherMedia / Robert Kneschke)

A lot of women try to manage their menopause symptoms themselves. Some make changes to their diet, do sports, or try out yoga or relaxation techniques. Others turn to herbal products or “alternative” approaches. These often promise more than they can deliver, though.

Women don't always need treatment for menopause symptoms, and it isn't always a good idea. Menopause is not an illness. Hot flashes and sweats usually lessen over time even without any treatment, and then go away completely by themselves. Knowing this can help you to get through the unpleasant phases.

One option is to make adjustments to your lifestyle – for example by changing your diet or getting more exercise – to improve your general wellbeing. This can help some women cope better with the time leading up to the menopause.

Many women try herbal products or other approaches that are often considered to be “alternative.” But most of these remedies aren't as effective as commonly believed. Others have side effects that are sometimes underestimated.

Diet

Women who are going through menopause are often advised to eat or avoid certain foods. Most of this advice isn't based on reliable scientific proof, though. For instance, some experts recommend eating nuts, nut oils and various vegetable oils. But there's a lack of good research on their effect on menopause symptoms. The same is true for herbal teas, wheat, grapefruits and many other foods.

It's also not clear whether it's worth avoiding strong coffee, black tea, alcohol, chocolate, salt and hot spices like curry to try to relieve menopause symptoms. Women react differently to possible triggers too. You can tell whether certain foods play a role by seeing whether you react to them.

Many specialists recommend eating a lot of soya-based foods, or dietary supplements that contain certain substances found in soybeans (see below). There have been a number of studies on soy. These studies have led to the conclusion that it's not clear whether or not soy will reduce hot flashes and other symptoms.

Sports and exercise

There are only few studies about the influence of physical activity on menopause symptoms, and those studies are also small. They haven't shown that physical activity can relieve typical symptoms like hot flashes.

Activities such as brisk walking and low-intensity muscle training do have a number of other positive effects, though, such as improving muscle strength and mobility, or strengthening bones. Doing sports also helps many people to relax and lift their mood.

Getting regular physical exercise can help you to keep a healthy body weight too – or lose weight if you're overweight. And it can have a positive influence on blood pressure.

Relaxation techniques, yoga and tai chi

There's not enough good scientific evidence to say whether relaxation, breathing techniques, meditation, yoga or tai chi can help to relieve menopause symptoms. But many women find that relaxation and meditative physical exercise help them to cope better with the stress of everyday life, feel better about their body and stay mobile.

Other treatments

There's now a large market for alternative approaches to relieving menopause-related problems. Various herbal and homeopathic products are claimed to help here. Acupuncture, chiropractic treatments and reflexology massages are also offered. There's currently no convincing proof that any of these products or approaches are actually effective in the treatment of menopause symptoms. They can also have side effects.

But these treatments are still very popular among women because they are thought of as “natural,” and are therefore considered to be safe. Surveys have found that 15 to 17 out of 100 women in Germany use over-the-counter herbal products for menopause symptoms, particularly mild symptoms. Before taking these products, it's important to see a doctor to rule out any intolerances or prevent interactions with other medicines.

At least some research has been done on the products described below:

Soy isoflavones

Soy-based products are the best studied herbal products for the treatment of menopause symptoms. They contain substances called isoflavones, which are plant-based estrogens (“phytoestrogens”).

There is weak evidence that soy isoflavones can somewhat reduce the frequency and intensity of hot flashes. Higher-strength products had a greater effect than lower-strength products in the studies.

When taking these products for a long time and at higher doses, though, side effects can be expected. In studies, stomach and bowel problems were more common in women who took phytoestrogens than in those who did not. However, taking isoflavones for a short time probably won't cause any health problems.

Red clover

The evidence on red clover (Trifolium pratense) is patchy. Red clover contains substances that have a similar effect to estrogens. It also has isoflavones in it, but these are different to those found in soy-based products. There's no proof that dietary supplements containing red clover can help relieve symptoms like hot flashes. There's not enough research on the possible side effects of red clover.

Black cohosh

Some herbal medicines containing black cohosh extracts (Cimicifuga racemosa or Actaea racemosa) are licensed for use in Germany. But there's no proof that these products can relieve menopause symptoms.

About 5 out of 100 women who take black cohosh products report side effects like stomach and bowel problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea and skin redness. These side effects usually go away when women stop taking them.

The active ingredient in black cohosh can have serious side effects too, such as liver damage. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) therefore recommends that people immediately stop taking these preparations and go to see a doctor if they develop signs of possible liver damage. These include tiredness, loss of appetite, yellowing of the skin or eyes, darker urine, upper stomach pain and nausea. Women are also advised not to take black cohosh together with estrogen. Black cohosh is also not suitable for women who have breast cancer.

Other herbal options

A variety of other herbal substances are used to try to relieve the symptoms of menopause, including rhapontic rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum), ginseng (Panax ginseng), dong quai (Angelica sinensis), evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis), kava (Piper methysticum), maca (Lepidium meyenii, a plant native to the Andes) and chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus).

There's currently no reliable proof that they can relieve menopause symptoms, either. But some of them can have side effects, or cause problems if they're taken with other medicines. For example, ginseng can cause bleeding if taken at the same time as evening primrose oil or an anti-clotting drug (like heparin or acetylsalicylic acid).

In Germany and other countries, regulatory authorities have taken products containing kava off the market. Kava can cause allergic reactions and skin problems. It might also lead to liver damage or affect the nervous system.