Hot flashes are the most common symptom of the menopause transition and until 2002, women routinely took estrogen and progestin to lessen the severity and frequency of those awful waves of heat that make you want to rip off your clothes and jump in a cold shower. That year, a major federal study found that the risk of hormones outweighed the benefits for many women. So what else works?
For several years now, researchers have been intrigued by studies showing that certain anti-depressants can help. In the most recent study, to be published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine tested the effectiveness of escitalopram, sold as Lexapro.
Just over 200 women were studied for eight weeks. Half received the medication and the other half received a placebo. At the start of the study, the women had an average of nearly 10 hot flashes a day. The women who took escitalopram showed a substantial reduction to about five a day while the women on the placebo also had fewer – about 6.5. The women who took the drug also said the severity of their hot flashes was reduced.
You might wonder why the women on the placebo had fewer hot flashes. This could be the placebo effect, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. But the researchers point out that the women on escitalopram experienced an increase in hot flashes after the drug stopped while the women on the placebo did not – which indicates that the drug was doing something.
This is just one study and it's certainly not a miracle cure for hot flashes. Anti-depressants have their own side effects and you need to have a thorough conversation with your doctor before taking any prescription drug. There are also non-drug ways to fight hot flashes that have no negative side effects: lose weight, stop smoking, and lower your stress.
But the study does show that researchers are taking women's health concerns seriously. Hot flashes may seem like a big joke – until you get your first one. Then you'll do anything for relief.