Sex Week: Help for Hot Flashes?

I have tried herb after herb and I still can’t find the right combination to get rid of my hot flashes. I’m desperate. Can you help?

It’s interesting how medicine has transformed a natural phase in the cycle of women’s bodies into a disorder. For many years, it was considered impolite to even mention the word (that’s when menopause was referred to as “the change”). Then menopause became one in a long list of imbalances attributed to women’s reproductive systems, with proper intervention mandated. Advertisements and gynecologists bombard women with the same message: Menopause is a time of unhappiness, bringing moodiness, hot flashes, osteoporosis, and loss of youthful attractiveness. The “life change” is actually a deficiency disease, the theory goes, and so only estrogen replacement therapy can restore vibrancy to women’s bodies.

I’d recommend looking at this time of life in a new way. Instead of a symbol of aging and the loss of childbearing ability, menopause can become a time to discover new energy, a freer self, and deeper wisdom within. Yes, there are discomforts associated with the changes in your body during this time. But these are signs of an opportunity to discover and claim the power of the second half of life.

During menopause, your body is adjusting to a change in hormone production. The ovaries stop releasing eggs, and it’s no longer possible to get pregnant. The pituitary hormones, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH), which normally cycle during the month, begin to flow continuously at high levels. The ovaries slow down their output of estrogen, progesterone, and androgens. At the same time, other sites, such as the adrenal gland, the skin, and the brain, may take over production. The ease of the transition depends greatly on a woman’s stress level, emotional health, and nutritional status.

We rarely hear about women who have few problems with menopause, even though there are certainly plenty. In many non-Western cultures, menopause is considered a time of strengthening and health for women. So first of all, it’s important not to buy into the negative images and attitudes surrounding us today about menopause.

Around 85 percent of American women experience the hot flashes you mention during menopause. Not long ago, Jane Fonda described her first hot flash this way in Living Fit: “When Ted and I were courting at a sound-and-light show in Athens, Greece, I had my first hot flash. It was dramatic and kind of exciting.” You may feel a great heat around your head and neck, sweat profusely, then feel chilled. Some women go through these for a few months, some for years. Hot flashes have been linked to blocked energy and unused sexual pleasure, and so women who fear they will lose their sex drive with menopause are more susceptible to these losses. One tactic is to work to free your sexual energy and overcome the messages you are getting about an expected loss of sex drive.

I personally recommend a menopausal formula that works well for hot flashes for most women. Buy tinctures or capsules of these herbs at a health-food store: dong quai, made from the root of Angelica sinensis, a female tonic; chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), which is a regulator of the female reproductive system; and damiana (Turnera diffusa), a plant that has a reputation as a tonic and female aphrodisiac.

Another herb widely used for menopausal discomforts, including hot flashes, is black cohosh (Cimifiuga racemosa), now available in a commercial product called Remifemin. Its effectiveness is supported by good scientific data.

Many women also find ginseng to be very helpful for hot flashes, especially in combination with vitamin E (800 IUs a day of the natural form). Nutrition is also very important. Soy products contain estrogenlike substances that may account for the low incidence of menopausal symptoms in Japanese women. Researchers have found that deep, slow breathing can reduce hot flashes to half, probably by calming the central nervous system.

Finally, there are Chinese herbs that help to relieve hot flashes; I’d visit a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.