Related Topics: Features, Hormones, Menopause, Research

Research and What It Means For You – Reading between the lines: Part 1

There is research, and there are statistics, but what do the latest findings really mean for you?

Dr Tony Coope

In an earlier post on this site on knowing who to believe in researching health and treatments – you can read it here to learn more – I looked at the difficulties we may experience in discerning the ‘truth’ among the seemingly infinite quantities of information out there related to health and well-being.  It seems as if much of it is contradictory, some of it distorted or inaccurate, and not a little of it directly (and deliberately?) misleading.

Even to reveal truth in this field is a constant work in progress, as is the development of enough personal discernment and discrimination to allow its discovery.  It is not just a matter of reading all the studies and ‘weighing up the balance of the evidence’, but also of taking into account what is not included, perhaps intentionally omitted, and what hidden agendas can be sensed there. Not only that but we also need to  pay close attention to the quality of the conclusions made from each study, which may well be very limited by the mind-set and beliefs of the researchers themselves. Not infrequently, one of the conclusions is that “more research is needed!”

However, the word ‘research’ itself means ‘to look again’, and here it should really also be about re-visiting the existing information from a new perspective. Then, perhaps, our two dimensional view may suddenly transform itself into 3-D when we alter our focus and look beyond what is on the surface.

Let’s see if applying this approach to a couple of recent studies on the subject of menopausal symptoms produces any interesting results.

Study 1 on Menopausal Symptoms.

The first of these, a study published in winter 2011 in BJOG: an International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, looked at the incidence of menopausal symptoms in a group of 10,418 postmenopausal women aged between 54 and 65 years of age, 89% of whom had at some time experienced night sweats and hot flashes.

Surprisingly, given that it is generally assumed that these usually last only for 2 to 5 years, it was found that over half (54%) of the women were still having them at an average frequency of 5 times a day, fairly evenly across the age range.  Many were still experiencing symptoms 10 years after their last menstrual period, leading to a call from one of the study’s co-authors to emphasize the need for effective non-hormonal treatments for older women suffering these problems.

Study 2 on Breast Cancer Risk and Menopause Symptoms.

The second study in 2010 of 1437 women by researchers at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Centre in Seattle USA, found an astonishing 40-60% reduction in the risk of the two most common types of breast cancer in those women who experienced hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms, with the greatest degree of protection to be found in those women with the most severe and most frequent symptoms.

The assumption was made, unsurprisingly, that the lower the estrogen levels, the higher would be the symptoms of menopause, and the lower the risk of cancer, with estrogen playing an important role in the development of cancer of the breast and other cancers possessing estrogen receptors.  This belief is consistent with the most widely accepted theory that hot flashes are the result of a deficiency in circulating estrogen as a result of declining ovarian function.

This however does not by any means provide a full explanation, as studies have also shown that up to 83% of women experience degrees of relief of symptoms with the use of transdermal progesterone, and of various herbal and nutritional supplements, and up to 30% by the use of placebos. From this we can say that hot flashes are a complex phenomenon affected by many factors, including thoughts and emotions.

The Emotional Factors in Menopause Symptoms

It is, I believe, the psychological and emotional factors in menopausal symptoms that are most neglected, and often ignored, by the medical profession.  Consider this description by Scilla Elworthy (founder of the Oxford Research Group, a consultant to Unesco and the author of Power and Sex) of her hot flushes: “I became very interested in them.  I was able to discover, for me at any rate, that a hot flush always came up with a strong emotion behind it.  It wasn’t usually evident on the surface; I didn’t think I was afraid, or angry or lonely, but if I looked down deep I always found there was something going on.  And what was even more intriguing, I didn’t know about these powerful emotions until I got the flush.  So the flush was like a marker flag, saying ‘listen here, attend to this’, and bringing the emotion up.”

She found that her flushes often occurred when she was berating herself for something, and that they made her sharply aware of the times when she was being self-critical.  She goes on “Then I began to wonder whether the whole of menopause may be a cleansing process, getting rid of the negative emotions by becoming aware of them, ‘flushing them out of the system’, as it were.

So What Do The Studies Actually Mean?

So here we have a study that reveals that menopausal symptoms are much longer lasting than can be explained by currently accepted theory; another that shows that the more frequent and severe the symptoms, the less likelihood a woman has of developing breast cancer, a finding also not satisfactorily explained by mainstream thought; and a short but perceptive piece of self-observation of her own symptoms by one woman which opens up new areas of discussion for all.

Next time, in Part 2, I’ll explore alternative explanations for these findings, the vital implications for the health of women everywhere, and what they can do in this regard for the benefit of their own health and well-being.

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