Benefits Of Black Cohosh For Menopause: A Godsend Or A Placebo?

By: Dr. Christine Horner

More than two centuries ago, deep in the shaded woods of the eastern United States, Native Americans discovered the root of a plant with the ability to improve a variety of conditions, including fever, arthritis, snake bites, menstrual cramps and menopausal symptoms. The rhizome-like root of black cohosh scientifically named Cimicifuga racemosa and a member of the buttercup family has been extensively studied in this country and in Europe primarily as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms.

Also called black snakeroot, bugbane, bugwort, squawroot and rattle root, it has been approved in Germany for menstrual discomfort , as well as the physical and psychological symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, vaginal dryness and sleep disturbances.

What Makes Black Cohosh Great

Scientists have identified numerous active compounds in black cohosh, including triterpene glycosides (actein and cimicifugocide), saponins, cinnamic acid esters, and cycloartane glycosides (2007 Gaube). These biologically active ingredients have many health benefits, including balancing estrogen by mimicking; however, they are not "estrogenic." In other words, they don't bind to the estrogen receptor.

Rather, they work through a different pathway . Therefore, black cohosh has no adverse effects in the breast (2007 Hirschberg) or uterus (2006 Raus), and is safe to use in breast cancer patients, as we'll detail below.

Myth or Reality?

Numerous clinical trials studying the effects of black cohosh on menopausal symptoms have mixed results: Some studies show excellent improvements, while others show it is no better than placebo.

Yes to Black Cohosh

On the plus side, in the majority of black cohosh studies, thousands of women have experienced significant improvements in hot flashes, mood swings, depression, anxiety and vaginal atrophy and dryness (2006 Wuttke). A big plus of this herb is that, unlike conventional therapies, such as hormonal drugs and antidepressants which can increase the risk of uterine or breast cancer , black cohosh does not.

In looking at the research, a placebo-controlled study of 244 Chinese women showed significant improvement in symptoms with black cohosh, according to two evaluation tools used for measuring the severity of menopausal symptoms: the Kupperman Index and the Menopause Rating Scale (2007 Bai). Another study conducted by the College of Nursing at Drexel University in Philadelphia concluded that black cohosh is a safe and effective alternative to pharmaceutical hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Yet in another study of 304 postmenopausal women, black cohosh was found to have good efficacy and tolerability particularly for hot flashes (2012 Ross).
Italian researchers point out that black cohosh may take up to three months to work. So don't get discouraged if your symptoms don't go away immediately. Be patient.

Because of positive results found by these types of studies, even the conservative Western medical association the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recognizes that black cohosh has value for menopausal symptoms.

Questionable Results

On the less than effective side, a number of clinical trials, including the 2006 "Herbal Alternatives for Menopause Trial" (HALT) sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), showed conflicting results. However, reviewers point out that these studies are plagued with design flaws, including lack of uniformity of the herbal preparation and dosing, inconsistencies in pre-evaluation and outcome measures, and the absence of placebo groups (2005 Low Dog). They also did not report many of the beneficial side effects.

My View

Beyond Menopause

Studies show that black cohosh has numerous benefits beyond alleviating menopause symptoms. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it is beneficial for arthritis. Using a variety of mechanisms, it helps to improve and preserve bone density, and therefore lowers the risk of osteoporosis (Seidlova-Wittke 2012; 2007 Sethi and Aggarwal; 2006 Wuttke).

Plus, black cohosh also appears to help with mood swings and anxiety. It does this by attaching to opiate receptors in the central nervous system (2008 Reame). Activation of these receptors is known to soothe emotions, relieve pain, lower core temperature and balance sex hormones. Black cohosh also turns on receptors for the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine both of which have antidepressant effects (Kanadys 2008).

Safe and Effective for Breast Cancer Patients

When it comes to breast cancer, don't fear. Not only is black cohosh safe for breast cancer patients, it actually has protective effects against their disease. Spanish researchers documented that black cohosh has anti-estrogenic effects and inhibits the growth of tumors (2006 Garita-Hernandez). In fact, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Cancer in 2007 found that this herb relieves menopausal symptoms in breast cancer patients without estrogenic effects in the body or breast.

In other studies, black cohosh was found to enhance the tumor-killing effects of the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen (2007 Al-Akoum) while relieving many of its side effects, including hot flashes, sweating, sleep problems and anxiety

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