A natural remedy for hot flashes ...
Take a walk down the field
Could a common meadow plant be a natural remedy for hot flashes? Everyone seems to be talking about red clover these days - is it just a load of hype or could there be something in it? Red clover is that common clover that many of us recognise from country rambles across the fields. It's been used for many years as a traditional remedy and farmers report that grazing animals eating clover exclusively may develop fertility problems.
The reason red clover is the focus of so much attention as a possible natural remedy for hot flashes is because it contains isoflavones.
You may have heard about these molecules because they belong to a group of compounds known as phytoestrogens - the oestrogenic compounds found in plants.
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Isoflavones occur in legumes like lentils, chickpeas, soy and red clover and come in various forms. Soy contains two different types (daidzein and genistein) but red clover contains four types - the same two as soy, plus two others known as biochanin A and formononetin. It's those extra two isoflavones that are causing all the interest because they seem to be more potent than the ones in soy.
The deal with isoflavones is that their chemical structure is similar to oestrogen. This means that they stimulate the same receptors in the body's tissues as oestrogen - although not as strongly.
The other important quality of isoflavones is that they seem to be choosy: they show a preference for stimulating the kind of oestrogen receptors (beta group) that are found in the vagina, bones, blood vessels and brain, rather than the other group (alpha receptors), that are found in the breasts and the uterus.
So isoflavones could potentially have positive effects on some parts of the body, while not causing harm to the breast and uterus - which is always the worry with oestrogen.
If you're thinking of taking red clover supplements as a natural menopause remedy, there are two questions that you need to think about:
Is it safe and does it work?
We must answer these questions in that order, because if it isn't safe then there's obviously no point in going any further.
Is it safe?
Safety of red clover as a natural remedy for hot flashes
Some people make the assumption that because a remedy comes from a plant and can be considered "natural", then it must therefore be safe. But this is a very dangerous way to think.
Many of the most powerful medicines used today come from plants: digoxin, the heart drug comes from digitalis - the foxglove, morphine comes from poppies and aspirin from willow bark. These are all good drugs but they are potentially dangerous too if not prescribed carefully by a qualified doctor.
So a natural origin is by no means a guarantee of safety. In fact if a treatment does have an active beneficial effect on the body it's because it contains a particular molecule or chemical. If that molecule works for benefit, then it's especially important to consider what other effects that molecule may have on the body. Active benefits may also mean active side effects too.
The good news for red clover is that, on the basis of the evidence available to date, it seems to be safe (1). Red clover has been sold over the counter for at least 12 years and no serious side effects have so far been reported.
But there are provisos: Red clover is classified as a food supplement and as such it doesn't have to undergo the same degree of rigorous safety testing as a medicine or drug. Other complementary medicines such as black cohosh have been shown to have unwanted effects at high doses and may rarely even cause liver damage. It's only by testing medicines in a very large number of people over a very large length of time that doctors can say for certain that a treatment is safe.
As far as breast cancer risk is concerned, there's a growing body of expert opinion that red clover is probably safe - but no-one can say for certain, because the data simply aren’t available (2).
The other big worry with oestrogens is the cardiovascular system. Again - there are no hard facts, and although the available studies are encouraging, more research has to be done before firm conclusions can be drawn.
But physicians are coming off the fence and are increasingly happy to recommend red clover as a natural remedy for hot flashes. Red clover seems a good alternative to conventional HRT for women who either don't want to take hormones or who are at a higher risk of side effects (1).
Does it work?
So is red clover an effective natural remedy for hot flashes?
Now comes the really controversial bit.
The big problem is that although lots of studies have been done they haven't reached any united, common conclusion.
Some say red clover works. Some say it doesn't. So who's right?
Like many controversies, it seems possible that both parties are right. What has happened is that the studies have so many variables that it''s impossible to compare one with another.
Here are some of the variables that have been different in the studies looking at the effectiveness of isoflavones in general (soy as well as red clover), as a natural remedy for hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms:
One of the techniques researchers use to try and overcome these problems is to pool data from different studies - this is called a meta-analysis. But this technique is difficult if there are too many basic differences between the compound tested and the women who participated.
It's also an unfortunate reality of medical research today that much of it is not reported well, uses bad study designs and may be influenced by conflicting interests of the researchers.
Here's the bright side:
A recent study found that women who took red clover had a significant reduction in hot flashes compared with when they took a placebo (3). The women also reported that their hair and skin felt better too when taking red clover (4). This is all pretty exciting stuff but it needs confirming with more extensive and definitive research.
But if you're considering a natural remedy for hot flashes and you're aware of the safety provisos, red clover may well be worth a try. Just take a trip down to your local health food store and you'll find it there on the shelves.
- Panay N. Taking an integrated approach: managing women with phytoestrogens. Climacteric 2011;14 (Suppl 2): 2-7.
- Powles TJ, Howell A, Evans DG et al. Red clover isoflavones are safe and well-tolerated in women with a family history of breast cancer. Menopause Int 2008;14:6-12.
- Lipovac M et al. The effect of red clover isoflavone supplementation over vasomotor and menopausal symptoms in postmenopausal women. Gynecol Endorinol 2012;28(3)203-7.
- Lipovac M et al. Effect of red clover isoflavones over skin, appendages, and mucosal status in postmenopausal women. Obstet Gynecol Int. 2011;2011:949302. Epub 2011 Nov 1.
"Natural Remedy for Hot Flashes" Published May 9th 2012
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