Safe Alternatives to the 8 Most Common Women's Health Problems
What exactly is going on with women’s health these days? First, a scandal breaks out when research reveals that hormone replacement therapy might actually increase the risk of cancer and heart attack. Then more and more sources come out against mammograms, saying they don’t actually help increase breast cancer survival rates— and they may actually cause cancer cells to spread. And, of course, there’s the ongoing “milk for strong bones” debate, leaving women who are at risk for osteoporosis not only confused but downright frustrated. It seems like health authorities are taking options away from women by the minute. And no one’s bothering to replace them with other, safer alternatives. But those alternatives DO exist, and we’ve taken some of the most effective ones, for some of the most common female health concerns, and outlined exactly what you need to know about each one in the following post.
Handling hot flashes
For many women, hot flashes are the No. 1 complaint of menopause. Sometimes they can be so severe that the effects actually resemble heart attack symptoms. Add to that the typical dizziness, sweating, nausea, and general anxiety, and you have an idea of just how debilitating a hot flash experience can be. A recent analysis from Columbia University and George Washington University examined the results of 29 independent studies on alternative treatments for symptoms of menopause. The Columbia and GWU teams concluded that, overall, only one complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapy was shown to be effective in treating menopausal symptoms, and especially hot flashes: black cohosh. Black cohosh was first used centuries ago by Native Americans. Among other names, they called it “squaw root” because they found it to be useful in treating women’s health problems. Today black cohosh is very common, and can be found in just about any health food store, as well as many drug stores.
HRT without the risks
European and Japanese women have never used estrogen and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as we understand it here in the U.S. Instead of horse estrogen—the type used in Premarin, the version of HRT most commonly prescribed in the U.S.—these women use estriol, an estrogen the body naturally produces. In one Japanese study, 53 postmenopausal women took 2 milligrams of estriol daily for 12 months. Not only did 85 percent of the women find relief from their menopause symptoms, but at the end of the study, researchers performed ultrasound breast examinations on all of the women, and the results for all 53 women were completely normal. The researchers concluded that estriol is a safe way to combat those nagging problems menopause symptoms usually brings. It’s important to note, though, that estriol is just one part of a complete natural-hormone replacement therapy, so it’s important to talk to a doctor who can help you flesh out a comprehensive program that will best suit your individual needs. Your best bet is to work with a naturopathic doctor who will be more open to prescribing natural hormones. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (www.naturopathic.org) can help you find one in your area.
Prevent cancer with natural estrogen
Measuring your levels of various estrogens is a simple technique to help predict if you’re at higher risk for certain types of cancer—especially breast and uterine. Then, once you have that information, supplementing with the right kind of estrogen (along with some other supplements and a diet rich in certain foods) can reduce your risk of ever getting those cancers—or possibly even help treat existing cases. Early estrogen research focused mostly on three estrogen metabolites: estrone (also labeled E1), estradiol (E2), and estriol (E3). Although it’s only present in small quantities in the body, estradiol is the most “potent” estrogen, responsible for most of the feminizing changes of puberty. Unfortunately, estradiol and its nearby metabolite estrone were both found to be carcinogenic. Researchers found that the body treats these two hormones with extreme care, rapidly converting them to estriol. As far as anyone could tell, estriol didn’t have any carcinogenic tendencies. With all of this in mind, one doctor, Henry Lemon, M.D. (a women’s cancer specialist), came up with an equation that can estimate a woman’s risk of breast cancer. He called this idea the estrogen quotient, or EQ. It’s the amount of estriol divided by the sum of the amounts of estrone and estradiol. In mathematical terms, it looks something like this: EQ = E3 / (E1 + E2).
If a woman’s EQ is low, her risk of breast cancer is higher. Basically, the higher the EQ, the better. In 34 women with no signs of breast cancer, Dr. Lemon found the EQ to be a median of 1.3 before menopause and 1.2 afterward. The picture was quite different in 26 women with breast cancer. Their median EQ was 0.5 before menopause and 0.8 afterward.
Dr. Lemon used all of the information he’d gathered to study estriol’s potential for treating breast cancer. He asked a small group of women with untreatable breast cancer to take large dose of estriol. By the end of the study, an astounding 40 percent of these women had their cancers go into remission. Some other facts to consider regarding estriol:
- • In one study of 150 close relatives (sisters and daughters) of breast cancer patients, researchers found that the majority had lower levels of estriol and higher levels of estrone and estradiol than women without a family history of the disease.
- • American women (who have higher levels of breast cancer) have lower levels of estriol than Asian women (who have lower levels of breast cancer). Asian women living in Hawaii had levels of estriol midway between American women and Asian women living in Asia...and their levels of breast cancer were also midway between American and Asian women.
- • Estriol enhances the ability of white blood cells to consume viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells.
- • Women who have had children have significantly lower risk of breast cancer than women who have never had a child. During pregnancy, estriol levels climb enormously—by 1,000 times or more. Even after childbirth, estriol levels usually remain higher than they were before pregnancy. To find a doctor who can help you with determining your own EQ, and helping you supplement with estriol should you need it, contact the American College for Advancement in Medicine at (800)532-3688.
Green tea lowers risk of breast cancer
For extra protection against breast cancer, try drinking more tea—green tea, to be exact.
The concept of drinking green tea as a benefit to health has only become popular in the West over the past decade. But for more than 30 years, Western researchers have known that the frequency of solid tumor cancers is far lower in countries where populations consume large amounts of this beverage. Solid tumor cancers include lung, gastrointestinal, and breast cancers. About one third of the dry weight of green tea leaves is made up of a flavonoid called catechin. And the most abundant of the four types of green tea catechins is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which also happens to be the component of green tea that has been shown to inhibit tumor cell growth. A team of researchers from the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California interviewed almost 1,100 Asian American women (aged 25 to 74) living in Los Angeles: 501 of the women had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and 594 were cancer-free. Results showed that women in the non-cancer group were much more likely to be regular green tea drinkers. In fact, on average, those who drank at least 8.5 milliliters (less than half a cup) of green tea each day, had a reduced breast cancer risk of nearly 30 percent. Those who consumed more than 8.5 milliliters reduced their risk even more.
Prostate supplement for women?
Lycopene is the phytochemical that gives tomatoes their red color. It’s widely known for it’s well-documented protective effect against prostate cancer in men. But as a powerful antioxidant, research indicates that it also has numerous other health applications. And that’s an important point that women need to know too because an impressive new study has confirmed the growing evidence that a lycopene-rich diet may be a key nutritional tool in preventing heart disease, which is now the confirmed No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.
Using data collected on more than 28,000 women in the Women’s Health Study, researchers found that when the subjects were divided into quartiles—ranging from those with the lowest lycopene level to those with the highest—the women in the upper three quartiles had a 50 percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with women in the lowest quartile. This outcome confirms a 2002 study that also demonstrated how lycopene intake may offer significant protection against heart disease in women. Another study, from Firat University in Turkey, (in association with the University of Maryland and Detroit’s Karmanos Cancer institute) indicates that lycopene intake may provide another preventive benefit for women: The Firat researchers used Japanese quails to assess the effects of lycopene on the development of benign tumors of the uterus called fibroid tumors. The quails were used in the trial because fibroid tumors occur naturally in this species. The results showed that the birds that received higher doses of lycopene had significantly fewer tumors than the birds that received less of the supplement. In addition, researchers report that the blood serum concentrations of vitamins A, C, and E were higher among the lycopene quails, while homocysteine levels were lower. The best source of lycopene is tomatoes—but not just ones straight from the vine. While they do contain this valuable nutrient, research has shown that tomato products like spaghetti sauce and even ketchup contain higher concentrations.
Get rid of morning sickness
The combination of vitamin K and vitamin C may be the one of the safest, most effective remedies for morning sickness. Proof that this approach works dates back to the 1950s, but it still seems to be a rather well-kept “secret.” But now that the cat’s out of the bag, you can put this combo to work for you or fill in anyone you know who’s currently pregnant or thinking about having a baby. In the original study, researchers instructed women to take very small doses of each vitamin—just 5 mg of vitamin K and 25 mg of vitamin C. But even the small doses provided morning sickness relief for 91 percent of the women. Such small doses are sometimes hard to find, but the good news is there is no increased risk with higher doses. Vitamin B6 has also been shown to relieve morning sickness at an intake of 10-25 mg. two to three times a day. Just keep it under 50 mg. a day total while you’re pregnant or lactating. And for a quick-fix there’s always the age-old nausea remedy, ginger. Researchers conducting a recent double-blind study gave women 125 mg. of ginger extract four times per day for four days. The women reported a significant reduction in nausea and vomiting associated with morning sickness.
End urinary infections
You can’t ignore a urinary tract infection (UTI)—even if you tried. And once you’ve had one, your chances of getting another skyrocket. But luckily, there are some natural, preventative measures that make a recurrence less likely. Take lactobacilli, for example.This is a class of bacteria used in the production of yogurt that’s also found among the normal bacterial flora of the urinary tract and vaginal tissues. Lactobacilli are considered friendly organisms, since they compete with or inhibit disease-causing bacteria. In one study, 41 women with acute urinary-tract infections were given either lactobacillus intra-vaginal suppositories or a placebo beginning on the last day of antibiotic treatment twice a week for two weeks, followed by once a month for two months. Results showed that UTIs recurred in 47 percent of the patients given the placebo compared to only 21 percent of those give the lactobacillus suppositories. If you want to try lactobacilli in the form of yogurt, be sure to look for a brand with no sugar or artificial chemicals, sweeteners, or additives. Another effective natural remedy for UTI is vitamin C. When taken at a dose of 1,000 mg, four times a day, vitamin C helps suppress the growth of E. coli bacteria, the most frequent cause of UTIs.
Help end painful breast cysts
Many doctors refer to fibrocystic breasts as the “un-disease,” because even though the lumps can be hard to live with, they won’t kill you, or even make you sick. But they can cause a lot of discomfort. Some women have cysts so painful they can’t lie on their stomachs or even be hugged without pain. An easy recommendation that’s proven successful for many patients is cutting ALL caffeine from the diet, and supplementing with vitamin E. In fact, in one study, women with chronic fibrocystic breast disease took 200 or 400 milligrams of vitamin E (which equals roughly 444 and 888 IU, respectively) per day for three months. According to the doctor’s examination, 13 of the women showed marked improvement. Similar effects were seen in another group of women who took 600 IU of vitamin E per day.
The miracle vitamin for MS
In the January 2004 issue of the medical journal Neurology, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reported that women who had the highest intake of supplemental vitamin D had a 40 percent reduced risk of developing MS compared with women who used no supplements at all. With adequate sun exposure, the body produces vitamin Don its own. But the fact of the matter is that most people just aren’t getting the amount of sunshine they need to supply their body with adequate levels of this nutrient. That’s why many health authorities recommended taking 2,000-3,000 IU of vitamin D in supplement form every day.If these levels sound high, they are—at least by previous standards. But within the past few years, research has shown that even up to 10,000 IU daily is a safe amount. In short: It’s hard to get too much of this good thing.
Michele Cagan is an alternative health researcher and reporter. Ms. Cagan authored the alternative health book, Act 50 Think 40 Feel 30 - The Doctor's Secrets to Living Younger Everyday (Agora Health Books), with Allan Spreen, M.D. In her online health column, the Health e-Living Letter, Ms. Cagan has published scores of articles on the benefits of natural remedies. Read more at www.agorahealthbooks.com.
About the author
Michele Cagan is an alternative health researcher and reporter. Ms. Cagan authored the alternative health book, Act 50 Think 40 Feel 30 - The Doctor's Secrets to Living Younger Everyday (Agora Health Books), with Allan Spreen, M.D.
Ms. Cagan is also a contributing writer and researcher for Health Science Institute.