Freud once asked, “What do women want?” Well, for one thing, those of us in our middle years want to know if there’s anything we can do about drenching, mood-destroying and hideously embarrassing hot flashes, short of sticking our heads in the freezer.
There used to be an answer to this problem: Take hormones. But ten years ago a government-funded study, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), came out with the shocking finding that hormone therapy raised the risk of breast cancer and heart disease. Water pressure dropped across the country as women flushed their pills down the toilet. And a few years later, breast cancer rates dropped, too.
Now, to mark the ten-year anniversary of the Women’s Health Initiative, 15 major organizations have released a joint statement telling women it’s safe to consider hormones again.
Truth is, the WHI study left women unnecessarily frightened, says Sharecare expert Robin Miller, MD, who counsels plenty of midlife women in her integrative medicine practice in Medford, Oregon. “I think the WHI did women a huge disservice,” says Dr. Miller, author of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife and Beyond. “When it came out, I had women hot-flashing all over the place, not sleeping—just miserable. But they were so scared of hormones they wouldn’t even consider them.”
But for short-term use to help with menopause symptoms, hormones aren’t the devil in disguise.
Studies before and after the WHI have shown that the risk of hormones varies tremendously depending on what type of hormones you take and when you take them. Estrogen in pill form raises your risk of blood clots—but estrogen in a skin patch or in a melt-away under-the-tongue form doesn’t. Hormones taken right when you’re going through menopause are easy on your heart; hormones taken years later increase your risk of heart disease.
What’s more, the risks and benefits of hormones add up very differently depending on what’s in your family history. Your mother and sister had early breast cancer? You should almost certainly steer clear, says Miller. But HRT reduces the risk of fractures, so if osteoporosis runs in your family, it may be something to consider. HRT also cuts the risk of colon cancer.
“Everybody’s different,” says Miller. “What I’d like is for every woman to be considered as an individual, and for her to find a doctor who can be a partner and help her consider the risks and benefits of hormone therapy for her.”
Along the way, it can’t hurt to try some no-risk remedies for hot flashes. One study showed that eating a cup of soy nuts every day can cut hot flashes by 50 percent. Grab a handful a few times throughout the day, Miller suggests. Eating frequent small meals instead of fewer big ones can help, too. So can moderate exercise. And no, walking to the freezer to stick your head in it doesn’t count. But with a combination of approaches, hopefully you won’t need to.
Have you found a way to cope with hot flashes? Use the comment box below to let us in your secret.
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