Hot Flashes, Politicians, and Other Downward Dogs

I have never had a hot flash, although at 38 years old I’m far from out of the woods.  In fact, I haven’t even entered the menopausal woods, but I see them in the distance and I fear there is no way around them.   When I was 9 months pregnant, menopausal women were my favorite people to hang around with because their hot flashes made them the only other people who didn’t mind opening the windows on a 30 degree day.  We joke about hot flashes, but they are no laughing matter.  Women who experience hot flashes during menopause are at increased risk for heart disease. Hot flashes are associated with thickening of the carotid arteries, elevated cholesterol, and ultimately risk for heart attack, atherosclerosis, and stroke.  Did I mention that they can last for years and cause rapid heartbeat, sweating, flushing, weakness, fatigue, and even faintness?  Hot flashes can happen several times a day or week and last as long as 30 minutes.  There is an effective treatment for hot flashes:  hormone therapy.  The bad news is that hormone therapy ceased being standard practice when the landmark Women’s Health Initiative study showed that it significantly increased risk for heart disease and breast cancer.  Why would women still use hormone therapy at all?  Well, it’s the only thing that gets rid of those hot flashes.  A significant public health issue is that women with hot flashes are already at increased risk for heart disease, and hormone therapy will only make that risk even higher, but no other effective treatments are available.   A healthier alternative to hormone therapy would not only be great for women who have these symptoms but also have significant implications for women’s risk for heart disease.

One natural and promising treatment for hot flashes may be yoga.  Yoga was once thought to be the craft of gurus and fanatics who amazed us all by tangling their bodies into pretzels.  But yoga has actually accrued a very respectable amount of research evidence for its medicinal effects.  Did you know that studies have found yoga to be as effective at treating depression as some antidepressant medications?  Other studies have shown promising effects for treating pain, stress-related illnesses, cancer fatigue, arthritis, among many other conditions.  Yoga’s effects are likely both psychological and physiological, as yoga has been shown to impact outcomes such as mood, stress, stress hormones (cortisol), and heart rate variability, the latter two of which would affect vasomotor symptoms such as hot flashes.  If yoga reduced hot flashes, it would provide a treatment option that could discourage women from gambling with their heart disease risk with hormone therapy, as well as achieving the many other health benefits listed above.  Sounds good, eh?

Unfortunately, the idea of yoga treating hot flashes sounds “silly” to House Oversight Committee Chairman, Republican representative of California, Darrell Issa, who submitted a series of Amendments a few months ago demanding that funding be revoked from government-funded studies that had “silly” sounding names.  His concern is that the government wastes dollars on studies that have no value.  A small pilot study that aims to explore the effect of yoga on hot flashes was specifically targeted.  I agree with Issa, yoga does sound silly as a treatment for hot flashes.  And maybe we kid too much about hot flashes, because it makes them seem like they aren’t really a sign of risk for deadly disease.  You know what else sounds silly?  Using blue mold to treat infection.  But thank goodness for penicillin and the science of antibiotics that ensued after its accidental discovery by Alexander Fleming in 1928.  I wonder if Fleming was reliant on government funds for his research?

Government funding for research on these topics is actually very important.  Yoga is not a pharmaceutical so there is no big pharma company standing behind it with millions of dollars to study it, in their eagerness to market it.  If the government does not fund research for non-pharmaceutical interventions we may never have drug alternative treatments.  This would be a shame given the high potential for many non-drug treatments and the lower cost associated with these treatments.  Imagine if yoga were effective for menopausal symptoms?  How much money would the health care system save if women switched from hormone therapy to yoga?   The cost of hormone therapy alone is substantial and the cost of the increased health risks associated with hormone therapy even more substantial.  Yoga is cheap.  It’s sounding less silly by the minute.

As a researcher who is primarily funded by the government, I can tell you the government does not just hand out research grants.  The process is extremely competitive, the science needs to be spot on, and the potential impact of your work needs to be quite high.  Our ideas are rejected far more than accepted.  My colleagues and I frequently lament the challenge of it all, asking ourselves, why do we subject ourselves to such rejection?  I guess we just believe in science.

I’m happy to report that in the end, science ruled the day.  The House of Representatives voted down this amendment.  The yoga study will go on, and hopefully many others that will help improve our health and well-being and help to reduce the enormous cost of healthcare in our country.

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  1. Susan Bakke says:

    Sherry, I luckily went through menopause without a hitch and because I was working on the Women’s Health Initiative study for 10 years during that time they stopped the hormone trial, it was my personal decision to not use homones after menopause. There are many options for women to offset some of these symptoms. From my personal experience, I have lost weight and continue to exericse
    regularly and that has really made a difference. As far as “silly sounding research”, we need to educate these lawmakers as to the complexity and depth of what we do..We are truly educating the public and giving them opportunities to become a part of something so significant and meaningful that it will change the face of how we treat disease…I’m hopeful that our research will continue with reckless abandon and I’m thankful that the House of Representatives saw the light and voted down the “silly sounding research” amendment..

  2. ss says:

    Sherry, kudos to you for pursuing your belief in the sciences and that there truly are alternatives over pharmaceuticals that work effectively. Keep going and, when the time arrives for clinical trials to prove that the alternatives are indeed effective, I, along with hundreds of thousands of other women will be there to watch your back!!

  3. Barb,RN says:

    There are many other symptoms of perimenopause besides hot flashes. Among these are anxiety, depression, lack of concentration,mood swings,irritability, forgetfulness and insomnia. I’m sure I might have missed a few. I wasn’t bothered much with hot flashes but I suffered with some of these other symptoms which made life a chore. Plus since the menstrual periods became irregular, it wasn’t unusual for PMS to last for weeks on end.Menopause occurs after periods have ceased for 12 months. To get me through, I tried everything and finally found a very understanding, knowledgeable gynecologist who put me on hormones:Premarin and natural Progesterone (not Prempro) whch helped immensely and put an end to periods. I tried to get a lot of exercise but I hadn’t heard about yoga. So if there’s a chance it might help women through a difficult time then “you go girl”. Anything is worth a shot.
    Some women glided through to menopause without problems. I hated them. It wasn’t fair! But every woman has her own symptoms and needs to get help as needed.You have to try what works best for you.

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