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Can Black Cohosh Relieve Menopausal Symptoms?

By: Sarah Knowles BA, MA - Updated: 25 Apr 2012 | comments*Discuss
Supplements Herbal Supplements Herb

It's been touted as a natural alternative to HRT, or hormone replacement therapy. But although some women swear that taking herbal supplements of black cohosh can help relieve symptoms of menopause, including moodiness, hot flushes and night sweats, it's still unclear whether this perennial plant is really safe to take.

Black Cohosh Facts

A member of the buttercup family, Black cohosh is a herb native to North America. With its deep green leaves and white blossoms, it originally was used by Native Americans to help control problems associated with menopause, such as cramps, bloating, and moodiness, and also to soothe symptoms of arthritis, cough and sore throat. It was also considered to be a natural painkiller thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. Today it is primarily used as a herbal supplement by women with menopausal symptoms.

Black cohosh also goes by many other odd-sounding names such as bugwort, bugbane and rattleroot. The reason for this is that insects tend to avoid it. To make herbal supplements the plant's fresh or dried roots are usually made into a tea, capsule, tablet or powder, and the dried stems of the plant are also often used. It is rich in nutrients, including vitamins B5 and A, iron, calcium and phosphorous, among others.

In clinical trials researchers found that black cohosh can relieve symptoms of menopause, including vaginal dryness, moodiness, night sweats, heart palpitations and hot flushes. That's because it contains chemicals that affect women's reproductive tracts, and also can stimulate the production of oestrogen. Thanks to such trials, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists announced in 2001 that black cohosh has proved effective to help relieve hot flushes for up to six months.

Recent tests, however, concluded that the herb had no real value when it comes to controlling either hot flushes or night sweats, although not a significant number of women were tested. So the jury is still out about its efficacy, although many women continue to use it to good effect.

Safety Issues

Whether black cohosh is effective as a herbal supplement for menopausal symptoms is one question. More important is the discussion surrounding the safety of this plant. The three main safety issues are:

  • Liver damage. There may be a link between taking black cohosh and liver damage. The link between the two is at the moment tenuous at best, but there were several reports of people taking this herbal remedy who then experienced damage of the liver. Use of other medications may have contributed to this, but people with any liver problems are advised to stay well away.
  • Cancer. Anyone with a hormone-sensitive condition is advised not to use black cohosh until more is known about these herbal supplements. These include cancer of the breast, prostate, ovaries, or uterus. Women with fibroids or endometriosis should also avoid supplements of black cohosh.
  • Miscarriage. Black cohosh has been used to induce labour, so pregnant women should avoid taking such supplements to avoid the risk of premature contractions resulting in miscarriage.

Side Effects

Along with safety concerns, black cohosh does have several side effects. Most common side effects include headaches, weight gain, nausea, indigestion, excessive sweating, low blood pressure, vomiting and heaviness in the legs.

Excessive use of black cohosh, however, can have more serious consequences, such as seizures, slow heartbeat, or even visual disturbances. People with allergies to aspirin or similar drugs should avoid it, as well as people with a history of stroke, blood clots or seizures. It can also interfere with HRT, some chemotherapy medications and some oral contraceptives.

People who choose to take black cohosh should not exceed the usual dosage of one milligram taken twice daily, and should only use this herbal supplement under the supervision of a medical professional, as with all herbal supplements. Only you will know if it is effective for you, but while you are taking it make sure to play it safe.

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