by Mary Vincent, L.Ac.
At Beach Community Acupuncture we frequently treat symptoms related to menopause, as most women are affected with some level of discomfort during this transitional phase. Several recent studies have shown acupuncture to be a viable option, especially in the treatment of hot flashes (by far the most prominent symptom we treat in menopausal women). Depending on the severity of one’s symptoms, we typically recommend treatment 1-3 times week for 1-2 months to start. Some women require regular, follow up treatments to keep symptoms at bay, while others may only need an occasional treatment (or none at all if symptoms do not return).
Menopause occurs when a woman’s ovaries stop functioning due to age and is defined by the absence of menstruation for a full 12 months. It typically begins between the ages of 45 and 50, but can occur anywhere from 30 to 60. It is usually a gradual process, known as perimenopause, the length of which can be months to years. Menopause can also occur immediately after hysterectomy, or due to chemotherapy or radiation.
Symptoms and severity vary for woman to woman, most of which are due to declining estrogen levels. They can include:
▪ Irregular menstrual cycles: Ovulation becomes intermittent leading up to menopause, and most women will experience shorter or longer cycles during this transitional phase. When ovulation does not occur, progesterone will not be produced and estrogen levels may continue, causing a think buildup of uterine lining and a heavy flow for that cycle. As one gets close to true menopause, both progesterone and estrogen levels decline, causing less and less frequent periods with light flow. We often suggest herbs that help with heavy cycles.
▪ Hot flashes: Up to 2/3 of women will experience some form of hot flashes at this time, typically occurring 1-5 years before menstruation ceases. They are more common at night, and can last anywhere from seconds to a hour. A woman may feel a surge of heat and may begin to sweat, often followed by a cold chill. Severity varies between women.
▪ Mood changes: Fluctuating hormones can cause symptoms such as irritability, aggressiveness, anxiety, depression. Women who experienced these issues before menopause may find them exacerbated.
▪ Difficulty sleeping: Insomnia is a common complaint among menopausal women. Hot flashes and night sweat may also interrupt ones sleep.
▪ Vaginal dryness: Thinning and dryness of the vaginal lining often leading to painful intercourse.
▪ Urinary leakage: Due to weakening of the urethral sphincter, which holds urine within the bladder.
▪ Increased cholesterol levels
▪ Loss of bone density
▪ Thinning hair and dryness of skin
▪ Slower metabolism and weight gain
Menopause is a natural part of a woman’s life and does not require medical treatment, though many seek help for relief of the uncomfortable symptoms, particularly if they are severe or interfere in one’s quality of life. Common treatments include hormone replacement therapies, external estrogen cream for vaginal dryness, low-dose antidepressants, and antianxiety medications.
Hormone replacement therapy is the most effective form of treatment for hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and may prevent bone loss. However, long term studies have shown hormone replacement therapy carries increased risk of stroke, heart attack, breast cancer, and endometrial cancer. Due to these unwanted side effects, particularly when the risks outweigh the benefits, many women seek alternative therapies to help aid in decreasing their symptoms.
Evidence for Acupuncture
In February 2015, a meta-analysis of 104 randomized, controlled studies was published in The Journal of the North American Menopause Society, and concluded that “acupuncture improves hot flash frequency and severity, menopause-related symptoms, and quality of life (in the vasomotor domain) in women experiencing natural menopause.” Furthermore, it showed to be of benefit in reducing the severity and frequency of hot flashes for up to 3 months. Researchers have speculated that the decrease in hot flashes could be due to acupuncture’s ability to release endorphin which could help stabilize the body temperature.
Most recently, a study related to treating hot flashes in breast cancer survivors has been receiving a lot of press. A study just published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology concluded that acupuncture was more effective than a common medication (Gabapentin) used to treat hot flashes, though a larger, randomized study needs to be conducted to confirm these preliminary findings.