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Study: Few herbs help menopause

Except for an herbal remedy developed by American Indians, most of the exotic berries, teas, herbs and oils frequently taken by women to ease menopause symptoms have been ineffective in clinical trials, a study shows.

Alternative treatments for hot flashes, vaginal dryness and other menopause symptoms have gotten additional attention since July, when researchers found evidence linking estrogen-progestin hormone supplements with breast cancer and heart disease.

Researchers at Columbia University and George Washington University examined the results of 29 independent studies on alternative treatments for hot flashes and found that only the herb black cohosh appeared to work.

Three of four trials found the herb had a benefit, according to the review in today's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Black cohosh, a member of the buttercup family, is among the most popular of alternative treatments for menopause. Most clinical studies involved a concentrated brand called Remifemin, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. The herb, native to North America, was used by Indians for a variety of ailments.

Other popular herbal treatments, including ginseng, red clover, dong quai and oil of evening primrose, were found to have no discernible effect on such symptoms as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleeplessness and other ills blamed on menopause. Researchers said studies also have found few documented benefits from acupuncture, vitamin E, relaxation techniques and progesterone creams.

The study said a few alternative treatments showed promise. Women who ate soybean dietary supplements reported hot flashes that were less intense, though in many cases the benefits disappeared after a few weeks.

Study authors Fredi Kronenberg and Adriane Fugh-Berman noted, however, that most of the trials examining the benefits of alternative treatments were small and inconclusive. Few looked at the benefits or harm of using herbal remedies for many months or years.

"Product advertising hype far exceeds scientific knowledge," they wrote.

Dr. Margery Gass, director of the University Hospital Menopause and Osteoporosis Center in Cincinnati and president of the North American Menopause Society, said the review points to a need for further study.

"We're seeing pharmaceutical companies get interested in these products. We are seeing the government get interested," she said. "It would be wonderful if we could see some bigger clinical trials before people start spending millions of dollars on nontraditional therapies."