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New research shows that HRT triples risk of Breast Cancer

Women who use combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to control menopausal symptoms are almost 3 times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who don’t, according to a new study by the Institute of Cancer Research in London. It is estimated that one in ten women in their 50s currently take HRT to control menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes, depression, sleeplessness, exhaustion, and a whole host of other debilitating symptoms.
Concerns about the safety of HRT are not new. In 2002, it was discovered that HRT significantly increases the risk of developing breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke, which led to a 50% reduction in the number of women using HRT. It was initially thought that using HRT for a short period of time would minimize the risks, however, further research published in the Lancet last year showed that using HRT, even for a short period of time, is also associated with a significantly increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

In spite of this, in November last year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) attempted to reassure women about the safety of HRT for the treatment of menopausal symptoms. However, the new study suggests that the risks associated with HRT have been vastly underestimated.

Fortunately there is an alternative which is both safe and effective: herbal medicine has been used around the world for centuries to ease women through the change of life, and combined with an appropriate diet, it can make all the difference during this challenging time.

The first line of treatment is to use herbs which help to reduce the impact of declining natural hormones.  These herbs contain substances that are similar to oestrogen, but also act in other ways to reduce menopausal symptoms.  Perhaps the most well known of these is black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) which has been shown to be effective in reducing hot flushes, vaginal dryness and mood changes. Two or more of these herbs may be chosen depending on their other effects.  For example, black cohosh is very useful for joint stiffness, while wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) reduces cramping pains.

Other natural substances that affect hormone levels are the isoflavones, which are found in Red clover (Trifolium pratens). They are also present in linseeds and soya products.  These foods may be incorporated into the diet, together with foods containing essential fatty acids (such as oily fish), which are important in healthy hormone functioning. Contrary to some reports, herbs and foods which contain phytoestrogens do not increase the risk of developing cancer, in fact they have been shown to significantly reduce the risks, and are perfectly safe for use in women who have a history of oestrogen-dependent cancer, provided they are not taking other hormonal medications, such as tamoxifen.

The second task of herbal treatment is to address the symptoms.  The most common of these is hot flushing and night sweats.  Herbs such as sage (Salvia officinalis) can dramatically reduce sweating, while hops (Humulus lupulus) is useful for insomnia due to night sweats.  It is important to avoid the foods that can trigger this symptom such as caffeine, spices, and alcohol.  Anxiety also triggers hot flushes so try to reduce stress levels if possible.

Following an in-depth consultation with a medical herbalist, several herbs are selected on the basis of each woman’s unique symptom picture and blended in an individual prescription. Medical Herbalists generally use herbal preparations which are stronger than those which are available over the counter, and are therefore more appropriate for moderate to severe symptoms.

Rather than waiting until symptoms appear, it is advisable for any woman in her forties to begin to incorporate helpful strategies into her diet and lifestyle.  This will ensure measures are in place to reduce symptoms when hormone levels start to decline.  It is also important to eat a healthy diet, to get enough exercise, and to have your cholesterol and blood pressure checked on a regular basis. These simple measures will help to prevent heart disease and osteoporosis.  For those considering coming off HRT, it is preferable to reduce the dose very slowly.  Herbal treatment should be commenced six to eight weeks before starting to reduce dose of HRT