It might be a relief not to have a monthly period anymore, but that doesn’t mean you’re rolling out the red carpet to welcome the start of menopause.
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This stage in life, defined as 12 consecutive months without a period, can bring a slew of undesirable symptoms of its own. From hot flashes to hair loss and vaginal dryness to difficulty sleeping, menopause (and the lead-up to it, called perimenopause) may present a mixed bag of new issues.
The internet is full of rumored remedies for menopause. How do you decide what’s right for you? Menopause specialist Pelin Batur, MD, weighs in on which ones to try, what to skip and when to see a healthcare provider.
Do natural remedies work?
When it comes to menopause, the word “remedies” is a bit of a misnomer. It insinuates that menopause is a condition that can be cured — which simply isn’t the case. This is a natural stage of life, and everyone with ovaries will, at some point, go through it. But there are some things you can do to lessen its impact, especially if you’re facing just one or two relatively mild symptoms.
“If your symptoms aren’t too bothersome, you may be able to make do with lifestyle changes like getting better sleep,” Dr. Batur says.
She shares a few more tips that can help you regain a sense of control over menopause’s impact on your body and your life.
1. Change your diet to bring about balance
- Calcium is critical in keeping your bones strong and healthy, especially as you lose estrogen.
- Vegetables, especially leafy greens, are good for weight management and bone health.
- Lean protein helps with weight management and can help you increase bone strength and muscle mass.
- Soy may help alleviate your hot flashes, but it’s best to get it from food (like edamame, soy milk and tofu), not supplements.
You should also cut back on:
- Processed sugar and fats.
- Spicy foods.
- Simple carbohydrates.
If you’re not sure what to start, try the Mediterranean diet, a heart-healthy, all-in-one meal plan that focuses on lean proteins, whole grains and plant-based foods. One study showed that people who followed this diet were 20% less likely to experience hot flashes and night sweats than those who didn’t.
2. Use a moisturizer or lubricant for vaginal dryness
Like other aspects of menopause, vaginal dryness is caused by a decrease in hormone levels. It can make sex uncomfortable or even painful — but over-the-counter products like vaginal lubricants can help. You apply them before sex to decrease friction and chafing.
“More people use lubricants during sex than not, and we should normalize that,” Dr. Batur says. Try a water-based lubricant, which is unlikely to cause irritation or, for a longer-lasting effect, you might prefer a silicone-based lubricant.
Vaginal moisturizers can also help. You apply them regularly to your vagina, just like you put moisturizer on your face every day, to treat and prevent dryness.
When to talk to your doctor: If you can’t solve vaginal dryness on your own, your doctor can prescribe a vaginal hormonal cream, vaginal ring or suppository to help. Treatments taken by mouth are also available. “You don’t need to suffer,” Dr. Batur says.
3. Take measures to minimize night sweats
Night sweats are vasomotor symptoms that occur at night — essentially hot flashes that happen while you’re asleep, often waking you up from your slumber in a pool of sweat. “They can be incredibly disruptive to the sleep cycle,” Dr. Batur confirms.
To deal with night sweats:
- Keep your bedroom cool at night.
- Pick pajamas made of breathable fabrics, like cotton and linen.
- Try pillows and mattress covers made with cooling gels.
- Avoid triggers, like spicy foods and caffeine.
When to talk to your doctor: Night sweats can be a symptom of other health issues, so it’s important to ask your doctor to weigh in. “There are more than 50 hormones in our body, and symptoms like night sweats aren’t always related to menopause,” Dr. Batur says.
4. Focus on stress reduction for overall wellness
Stress plays a role in menopause symptoms like hot flashes, sleeplessness and weight gain. And one study found that premenopausal people who struggle with anxiety were up to five times more likely to have hot flashes than their counterparts who learn to manage anxiety.
It stands to reason, then, that getting a handle on stress may help with your hot flashes.
When to talk to your doctor: Even if you know you should relieve stress, it’s not always easy to do — especially if you’re dealing with depression or anxiety, to boot.
“Studies show that even people with no history of PMS, postpartum depression or hormonal sensitivity can develop anxiety and depression during menopause,” Dr. Batur says. So if you’re struggling to get a handle on your mental health, talk to your healthcare provider to figure out the best course of action.
They may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, a structured form of psychotherapy that targets stress and anxiety and has been shown to relieve vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes.
5. Change your hair routine to prevent thinning
It’s normal to lose thickness, shine and volume as you age. And estrogen loss can also cause hair loss and thinning, further diminishing the thick mane you once had.
Though hormone therapy may treat tress troubles, it’s not the only way. “You don’t necessarily have to be on hormone therapy for hair loss,” Dr. Batur says, “You can fight it with other topical over-the-counter products.”
Rework your regular routine to be sure you’re taking the best care of your aging hair:
- Don’t shampoo too often, as it can make hair dry and brittle.
- Use conditioner and volumizers to strengthen your strands.
- Forego daily heat styling, which can accelerate hair loss.
When to talk to your doctor: If your hair thinning is severe, ask your doctor if it’s OK for you to take biotin or iron supplements, or to massage 5% minoxidil (Rogaine®) into your scalp once a day. They may also want to check your thyroid, iron and vitamin D levels to be sure it’s really menopause at the root of your mane issues.
6. Eat foods rich in calcium and vitamin D to combat bone loss
You can’t see this symptom in action, but it’s a big one: Menopause has a negative effect on your bones.
“Estrogen is very important for bone development and maintenance of bone density,” Dr. Batur explains. “After estrogen loss, there’s a pretty rapid drop in bone density, especially within the first five years.”
To help boost your bone health, incorporate calcium-rich foods (think Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and tofu with added calcium sulfate) and foods rich in vitamin D (like salmon and canned tuna) into your diet. But don’t start any supplements without the all-clear from your healthcare provider.
When to talk to your doctor: You can’t remedy bone loss on your own. If you’re in menopause or suspect you’re approaching it, speak with your doctor about when a bone density test will be needed.
Is it the placebo effect?
The placebo effect suggests that in some cases, your mind can be as powerful as treatment itself. And when it comes to menopause, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For example, data shows that acupuncture does not consistently improve menopause symptoms — but if you feel like you’re benefitting, it can’t hurt, either.
“The placebo effect for menopausal symptoms is quite high, around 40%,” Dr. Batur says. “It makes sense. If negative energy going to your brain can drive hot flashes, why can’t positive energy and the power of positive thinking help relieve them?”
Just be careful about supplements that claim to relieve menopause symptoms. They’re not regulated or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may cause serious health problems. Speak with your doctor about any supplements you’re considering, especially with respect to medication interactions and liver safety.
When natural remedies aren’t enough
If your menopause symptoms become severe and start interfering with your everyday well-being — say, you regularly wake up drenched from night sweats or your mood swings are unbearably miserable — it’s time to check in with your healthcare provider.
“When you’re dealing with hormones, it’s important to be sure you’re doing things safely,” Dr. Batur says. “If you’re suffering, don’t try to tackle things on your own. You really have to be an advocate for your health.”
To learn more on this topic from Dr. Batur, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “What to Expect in Menopause.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.