Managing Hot Flashes with Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Bill Reddy, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac.

The etiology (causal factors) and mechanism of hot flashes are not completely understood,1 however Traditional Chinese Medicine has been managing menopausal symptoms for centuries. Information today pertaining to the treatment of hot flashes, although voluminous, is widely varying and often contradictory. Is it safe to use soy? Is there a connection between estrogenic plant compounds and the incidence of breast cancer? What are the implications of hormone replacement therapy (HRT)? Recent research has demonstrated that long-term use of estrogen--either alone or in combination with progestin--results in more risks than benefits.2 (One study found increases in breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and blood clots in the participants and terminated the investigation.) This article is going to address one of the more distracting and irritating symptoms of menopause.

What exactly IS menopause?

It's a period of time in a woman's life when her ovaries stop producing eggs. Her menstrual activity decreases and eventually stops, and the production of progesterone and estrogen (female hormones) declines as well. This usually occurs between the ages of 40 and 55 and can take months or years to complete. About 75% of menopausal women experience hot flashes.

What are some of the symptoms associated with menopause?

Common symptoms of menopause include memory loss, missed periods/irregular bleeding, mood changes, vaginal dryness, hot flashes, urinary incontinence, sleep disturbances, and reduced libido.

Hot flashes can be severe. One 52-year-old patient complained of waking up dripping in sweat several nights per week. Having her sleep disturbed like that for weeks on end impacted her quality of life. She had problems at work with concentration and felt fatigued most of the time. A friend of hers referred her to me and within 3 weeks of acupuncture therapy she was sleeping through the night.

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Time and again I hear people say "herbs are natural, so they're safe…" I beg to differ. Herbs can interact with certain western medications and are contraindicated for patients with various conditions ranging from high blood pressure to hemophilia. It's critically important to understand that, like western pharmaceuticals, herbs can potentially have serious side effects as well. In high doses, Black Cohosh (a commonly used herb to relieve menopausal symptoms) may cause vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. Mild gastric complaints are the most common side effect at therapeutic dosages. In my practice, about one patient in 100 complains of some side effect of the herbs I prescribe, and the symptom is not pronounced (gas/belching, etc.). With that said, Chinese herbal medicine is very effective at managing hot flashes. Acupuncture is also very effective at reducing the intensity and duration of hot flashes with no documented side effects. Although the mechanism of acupuncture is not well understood, scientists speculate that acupuncture triggers the "hypothalamus/pituitary/ovarian axis" to regulate and balance hormones such as estrogen and progesterone in addition to increasing central opioid activity. When these hormones are balanced, deeper sleep results as well as a reduction in many of the other symptoms associated with menopause. The North American Menopause society recommends acupuncture as an adjunctive treatment for hot flashes3. If you are looking for a natural alternative to HRT, go to http://www.acusova.com which is the Acupuncture Society of Virginia website and click on "Find a Practitioner" to consult. They are listed by zip code and are all board certified by the Virginia State Board of Medicine.

  1. Miller, H,G., Li, R.M., Measuring Hot Flashes: Summary of a National Institutes of Health Workshop. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2004 Jun; 79(6): 777-81
  2. Alternative Therapies for Managing Menopausal Symptoms., Consumer Advisory May 11, 2004, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
  3. Wyon, Y., Lindgren, R., Lundeberg, T., Hammar, M., Effects of Acupuncture on Climacteric Vasomotor Symptoms, Quality of Life, and Urinary Excretion of Neuropeptides among Postmenopausal Women, Journal of the North American Menopause Society, Vol 2, No 1, pp. 3-12, 1995.

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