For women going through the menopausal transition, there’s no better discovery than a safe, natural, nonhormonal treatment for hot flashes that really works.
So a study just presented at the annual scientific meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists caught our eye. It focused on an over-the-counter botanical extract derived from pollen. Could such a simple remedy really improve symptoms and quality of life?
To learn more, we spoke with the study’s author, James A. Simon, MD, an ob-gyn in private practice in Washington, DC, and professor at The George Washington University School of Medicine and former president of the North American Menopause Society.
A BEEKEEPER’S DISCOVERY
Relizen, the brand name in the US of the botanical extract, was developed after an accidental discovery—a Swedish beekeeper noticed that when bees feasted on the pollen of a particular flower, they seemed more energetic. So he wondered if giving that pollen to men and women would make them more energetic, too.
“It didn’t work,” said Dr. Simon. “But menopausal women who took it said that their hot flashes were better.” So the extract was developed using just the cytoplasm (material inside the cell) of the pollen—according to the manufacturer, that removes the pollen allergens. It’s actually been available in Europe under different names for about 15 years, and it is backed up by peer-reviewed research. In a 2005 double-blind placebo-controlled study of 64 menopausal women, 65% of those who took it had fewer hot flashes—compared with 38% of those who took a placebo. It’s been used by more than a million women in Europe.
In the new study, 324 women going through the menopausal transition took Relizen daily for three months. To get into the study, the women had to be having hot flashes—and be bothered by them.
Results: 86% had fewer hot flashes, and for 91%, their hot flashes were less severe. What the new study adds is an emphasis on self-assessed quality of life—fatigue, irritability, sleep quality. These all got better, says Dr. Simon, who has no financial stake in the company that makes Relizen. “Their sense of well-being improved,” he said. The mechanism—how this extract works—isn’t well understood. Side effects, such as stomach upset, were rare and tended to go away after a week or two.
AN ADDITIONAL BENEFIT FOR BREAST CANCER SURVIVORS
Because research has confirmed that it doesn’t affect hormones, Relizen may have a particular role to play for women who have survived breast cancer who have been told that hormonal treatments aren’t safe for them. Currently, the only nonhormonal FDA-approved prescription for relief of menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes is the antidepressant paroxetine (Brisdelle, which has the same active ingredient as the antidepressant Paxil). But this antidepressant not only has side effects such as headaches, nausea, weight changes, reduced sex drive and interference with the ability to have an orgasm—it may also interfere with the action of Tamoxifen, the drug that is often prescribed after breast cancer treatment to prevent recurrence. Relizen, according to a recent study in Menopause, doesn’t affect the action of Tamoxifen.
SHOULD YOU TRY IT?
If you want relief from hot flashes and night sweats, Relizen is one of many options, said Dr. Simon. Hormone therapy, such as estrogen, is certainly the most effective for symptomatic relief, but many women want to avoid taking systemic hormones based on safety concerns. (We’ll revisit this controversial issue in an upcoming article.)
Plant-based supplements that have estrogenic effects can help, and Dr. Simon occasionally recommends Remifemin, an over-the-counter product that contains the estrogenic herb black cohosh. “I double the dose on the package insert to achieve the best results,” he said. Purified soy phytoestrogens also work for some patients, he notes. If you decide to pursue either option, he recommends that you work with a health-care professional, as there are safety questions for some women in taking estrogenic compounds, especially women with or at high risk of developing breast cancer.
Among nondrug approaches, he’s seen success with hypnosis. Even acupuncture, which hasn’t been shown in studies to be effective for hot flashes, appears to work for some people, said Dr. Simon.
What he likes about Relizen is that it’s so safe—for any woman, including those with a history of hormone-sensitive breast cancer—that it’s fine to try on your own. “A patient can acquire it by herself and see if it’s beneficial—before seeing her practitioner,” said Dr. Simon. “If it doesn’t work after two or three months, she can see her health-care professional for other options.” (Note: Relizen is currently available through the manufacturer’s website.)