1. Turn down the heat with therapy

    It's one of the Holy Grails of the drug industry: A pill to end hot flashes.

    Think that's a big market? You bet it is! Up to 80 percent of all women battle hot flashes during menopause, making a would-be treatment a billion-dollar dream for the drug industry.

    But for women, that dream is more like a nightmare as they play guinea pig. Instead of being given safe, natural, and proven treatments for their hot flashes, they're given unproven antidepressants, risky anti-seizure drugs, and even blood pressure meds... and almost all of them are being used off-label.

    It's a massive public health experiment that's hurt far more women than it's ever helped.

    But you don't need to swallow those pills, or face side effects, to get some relief, because the latest research points to a pair of easy, drug-free solutions: ordinary group therapy and self-help.

    Researchers recruited 140 women who reported hot flashes and night sweats at least 10 times a week and assigned them to either group therapy, self-help, or no treatment at all.

    The groups met four times a month, while those who got self-help had one meeting and a phone call with a shrink, but after that relied on a book and CD.

    Six weeks later, 73 percent of the women who got self-help reported meaningful improvements, compared to 65 percent of those in group therapy, and 21 percent of those who got no treatment at all.

    And six months later, those improvements held.

    Of course, therapy didn't quite work for everyone. But therapy isn't your only option here, either, because there are other proven natural ways to get safe drug-free relief from the worst symptoms of menopause.

    One recent study found that aerobic exercise can slash the number of hot flashes -- and a recent follow-up finds that getting sweaty four days a week can beat the other signs of "the change" as well, including night sweats, mood swings, irritability, and more.

    Other safe options backed by science include acupuncture -- which beat sham acupuncture in one study on hot flashes -- as well as a combination of St. John's wort and black cohosh. And, of course, many women get through menopause with the help of custom-made bio-identical hormones.

    An experienced naturopathic physician can help find which option is best for you.

  2. A fistful of pills brings a bucket full of trouble

    I was struck by a recent article in Prevention magazine, which looked in-depth at how people's lives are being adversely affected not by their illnesses, but by all the pills they are being forced to swallow to deal with those illnesses.

    And it turns out, there's a growing feeling among patients and even doctors that many of these pills are simply unnecessary and making lives worse, not better.

    Now, I've been labeled an outsider for sharing that viewpoint. But it's nice to see the rest of the establishment finally coming around.

    The author, Siri Carpenter, was compelled to write after watching her mother's once- sharp mind decay in a cloud of pharmaceuticals. The poor woman was taking 32 pills, spread out over five times a day. She had so many meds she needed a toolbox to keep them in.

    When she started to drop many of the pills that it turned out she didn't need, she began to improve considerably.

    And she's certainly not alone. Too many people, especially seniors, take pills for their conditions, and then another set of pills for the side effects brought on by the first round. New conditions appear, new pills are prescribed. New side effects appear, more pills are prescribed. Eventually, many doctors just throw up their hands and conclude that the patient is simply getting worse as they age.

    It's a vicious cycle, and it's out of control.

    Nearly a fifth of all seniors take more than 10 meds per week. Every year, there are at least 1.5 million adverse drug events, according to the Institute of Medicine.

    We have less than a million people living here in Montana, and we're not even the smallest state, population-wise. In other words, there were enough med-related incidents that we could give one to each resident here, and still have enough left over for nearly everyone next door in North Dakota.

    And yet I can't think of anything more avoidable.

    We need to get away from the endless cycle of medications, especially those that don't cure but simply manage a condition perpetually. And we definitely need to stop using meds that require extra drugs just for the side effects.

    And we can.

    First and foremost, doctors need to order better and more accurate diagnostic testing. For example, 24-hour urine tests can tell us definitively what critical hormones patients are lacking.

    Then, instead of prescribing new meds, we can correct those deficiencies. Once that happens, you can put away that toolbox full of drugs for good.

    And even better, there will be only one side effect: You get to feel like yourself again.

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