Menopause mystery – can plants help?

Whether we are full of energy, sleep wonderfully and have youthful, firm skin during menopause depends not only on our lifestyle and genes. Hormones also play an important role. The messenger substances have us firmly in their grip; they are the directors of life.

Hormones are chemical transmission substances that are involved in all metabolic functions of the body. Even a small deficiency or a slight overproduction – not only during menopause – can upset the entire organism. Consequences include frequent infections, sleep disturbances, mood swings, obesity or hot flashes. “Some women are restricted in their quality of life during menopause, even to the point of being unable to work,” explains Professor Marietta Kaszkin-Bettag biologist and pharmacologist who worked for many years at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.

The key substances for fitness and well-being are produced in the body’s various endocrine, or secretion-secreting, glands. These include the thyroid, ovaries, adrenal, thymus, pancreas, and pituitary glands. The hormones reach the organs via the bloodstream, where they have a stimulating or inhibiting effect. The building materials for hormones are mainly amino acids, i.e. proteins from food. In the past, it was assumed that 200 of these substances circulated through the body, but today it is known that there are more than 1000. However, many of them are no longer produced in such large quantities after midlife and menopause as they were in youth.

Menopausal hormones as a miracle cure?

After millions of women have taken hormones during menopause as a miracle cure for age-related ailments, there are also cautionary voices. The discussion was triggered about ten years ago by the largest hormone therapy study ever conducted by the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) with more than 16,000 participants. Until then, it was assumed, for example, that the relative risk of heart attacks would be reduced by hormone replacement; according to the study, the opposite is true. According to the study, the risk for healthy women increases by 29 percent, and that for stroke by as much as 41 percent. Although the long-term study is not uncontroversial among scientists, there are classic contraindications to hormone replacement therapy. These are primarily breast cancer (mammary carcinoma) or suspected mammary carcinoma, liver disease and the risk of thrombosis.

Gentle alternative against complaints

Around ten million women in Germany are currently going through menopause – that’s 50 to 85 percent of all women between the ages of 46 and 65. Many of them are looking for gentle alternatives to conventional hormone replacement therapy. What to do?

“In general, all products for menopausal symptoms should be taken only as long as necessary. Products made from red clover or soy are on the market as dietary supplements, but their efficacy has not yet been sufficiently proven in clinical trials,” explains Professor Kaszkin-Bettag. “In contrast, there are two placebo-controlled clinical trials with an extract from the root of Siberian rhubarb, which shows a significant decrease in typical menopausal symptoms, especially hot flashes, sweating, and psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression.” And what about side effects or the safety of the plant extract? This question is especially important for women with breast cancer, uterine cancer or at risk of breast cancer. “Studies have shown that the extract does not stimulate the estrogen receptor, which is responsible for increased cell division in breast cancer and uterine cancer cells,” says the pharmacologist.

Photo: Gts/