Q: I’m taking the drug Tamoxifen, and I’m having bad hot flashes. What does natural medicine have to offer for this?
There is good news for women who suffer from hot flashes due to taking Tamoxifen or similar drugs: acupuncture can be effective at relieving your symptoms. Although this has long been known to practitioners of alternative medicine, it has not always been acknowledged by the conventional medical establishment. However, a study reported in December 2009 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology has confirmed acupuncture to be a “safe, effective, and durable treatment for vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes) secondary to long-term antiestrogen hormone therapy (i.e., caused by drugs like Tamoxifen) in breast cancer patients.” This is an exciting development, because it indicates a willingness on the part of conventional oncology to accept the validity of the ancient Chinese system of stimulating Qi, or the vital force, for health benefits. The acupuncture points chosen for the study are commonly used to treat hot flashes in menopausal women.
Hot flashes are an uncomfortable side effect for many women who take medications like Tamoxifen or Arimidex for treating and preventing breast cancer. Often the hot flashes are much worse for women on these medications than for women going through menopause naturally. Some women discontinue their medications because the side effects drastically lower the quality of their lives. Considering the large number of women prescribed Tamoxifen or Arimidex for at least five years, an effective non-toxic alternative for treating their side effects can be highly beneficial.
The study was a randomized controlled trial that compared acupuncture with standard pharmaceutical drug treatment for hot flashes in breast cancer patients. The women chosen to participate had 14 or more hot flashes per week. One group received acupuncture treatments twice weekly; the other group received Effexor (also known as venlafaxine) for their hot flashes. The study found that acupuncture was just as effective as Effexor in relieving hot flashes, and that acupuncture had added benefits that the drug did not: it boosted libido, improved mental clarity, increased energy, and enhanced well-being. It also found that acupuncture did not result in any adverse effects—but the authors noted that those who took Effexor reported side effects that included nausea, headaches, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping. In addition, those who received acupuncture had reduced hot flashes for longer periods of time than those who took the drug.
Other studies are now underway to see if acupuncture could also help men who have hot flashes and pain associated with prostate cancer therapies.
Dr. Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu, as well as author of the new book Natural Choices for Women’s Health, published by Random House. You can reach her and read her past columns (which first appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser) at www.DrSteelsmith.com. This column is for information only. Consult your health provider for medical advice.