Menopausal symptoms vary from woman to woman but the most common include hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, depression, itchy or crawling skin, memory lapses, headaches, gastrointestinal changes, feelings of dread, vaginal dryness, loss of libido, weight gain, increased facial hair, dizziness, and breast tenderness. This is not by any means an all-inclusive list, but it gives a clear indication of the enormous effect of declining hormone levels in both peri-menopausal and menopausal women. Small wonder that so many women experience problems at this crucial time of their lives.
Black cohosh is a small herb resembling a buttercup and is native to the North American continent. It has been used traditionally by North American Indians to treat a variety of ailments, but its principal use has been for female reproductive problems. Black cohosh is particularly useful in the treatment of menopausal symptoms due to its potential estrogenic effect on the body.
Although a thorough understanding of the mechanism by which black cohosh affects the female reproductive system is yet to be fully determined, researchers attribute several active ingredients in both the root and the rhizome of the plant to be responsible for its many therapeutic effects. In particular, scientists have isolated two compounds, actein and cimifugoside, which are believed to play an active role as natural estrogen-like substances in the body. In addition, numerous alkaloids, flavonoids, and tannins present in the rhizome are thought to contribute to the overall beneficial effects of the herb.
As far back as 1982, a study on over 600 patients found that within six to eight weeks of taking a black cohosh preparation, menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, sweating, headache, and heart palpitations were found to be significantly improved, and in some cases, alleviated completely. Furthermore, common emotional problems such as teariness, irritability, anxiety, and depression were also found to respond favorably to black cohosh supplementation.
Later studies by the same research team in 1987 compared the performance of black cohosh against both estrogen therapy and a placebo in a group of 80 volunteers. Once again, black cohosh was found to effectively relieve menopausal symptoms as measured on the Kupperman Menopausal Index and the Hamilton Anxiety Scale. The herb outperformed the placebo with minimal or no side effects. The dosage of estrogen required to replicate the “no side effects” equivalency of black cohosh was not sufficient to obtain therapeutic effects, therefore a comparison between the efficacies of estrogen and black cohosh was, in this particular study, indeterminable.
A similar study involving 55 menopausal women produced encouraging results regarding the efficacy of black cohosh in relieving symptoms of decreasing estrogen levels. This 12-week study concluded that black cohosh produced favorable results as measured by the Kupperman Menopausal Index, together with depression and anxiety measurement scales.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has recommended the use of black cohosh for the relief of menopausal symptoms such as sleep disturbances, mood swings, and hot flushes. Results from trials conducted to determine the efficacy of black cohosh in reversing vaginal dryness have proved inconclusive. Some studies have shown little or no effect on the epithelium cells lining the vagina wall, while one placebo-controlled, double blind trial found changes in vaginal wall cells consistent with increased estrogen levels. Further research is continuing to clarify the effect of black cohosh on the vagina.
Black cohosh has also been found to be of benefit to women who have undergone surgically-induced menopause. The effect of black cohosh supplementation was found in several German trials to be comparable to that of three conventional pharmaceutical medica