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[6 min read] Complementary medicines to support women’s health
Complementary medicines and alternative therapies have long been used alongside traditional medicine to tackle women’s health issues, including menopause, urinary tract infections, mental health issues, sexual problems, cyclical mastalgia, and to support women before and during pregnancy.
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Complementary medicines, also known as alternative or holistic therapies, are becoming increasingly popular among women who wish to avoid taking medications or who wish to engage in more “natural” management strategies. While there is often little scientific evidence behind many complementary medicines, women should be supported to seek and utilise these in a safe, risk-aware manner if they desire.
Up to two-thirds of Australians use complementary therapies; they are often readily available and marketed as “natural” and “safe”. However, most complementary medicines contain active products, which can have serious side effects when used incorrectly, for example, if they interact with traditional medications. Examples of complementary medicines include cranberry products, herbal extracts and soy. Some products, for example, the use of cranberry supplements to reduce the risk of recurrent urinary tract infection (UTI) in women, have limited evidence in some studies. However, it is important to educate patients that consuming complementary products is not a recommended treatment for medical problems such as UTI and to seek advice from a healthcare practitioner if symptoms occur.
Menopause is perhaps one of the women’s health issues most associated with complementary therapies. Most women reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 60. The most common symptoms include vasomotor symptoms (hot flushes, sweating at night), cognitive impairment and mood disorders (such as anxiety, mood changes, irritability, sleep disturbance and reduced concentration and memory) and genitourinary symptoms (such as vaginal dryness, dyspareunia and urinary tract infections).
For women suffering from menopausal symptoms, it is essential to rule out underlying conditions and discuss the benefits and risks of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Some women, for example, those with certain cancers or cardiovascular risks, are unsuitable for HRT, and many choose not to take HRT for other reasons. One of the alternatives to HRT is complementary therapies. Some women gain relief from vasomotor symptoms with natural products such as black cohosh, soy and red clover. However, it is important to educate women that the evidence for the effectiveness of complementary therapies is often based on anecdotal reports rather than scientific literature.
Aside from dietary supplements, complementary medicine such as acupuncture, homoeopathy, mindfulness and activities such as yoga have been shown to improve symptoms of menopause, sexual problems and mental health issues. These therapies are generally considered low-risk. As a primary care practitioner, any patient presenting with a medical problem must be adequately assessed, investigated and managed, with complementary medicines only forming an adjunct to traditional, evidence-based medicine. Patients should be supported to find reputable complementary medicine practitioners.
In conclusion, complementary medicines may offer benefits to certain women presenting to primary care with a variety of problems and can be used alongside traditional medicine in a patient-centred manner.
Dr Samantha Miller, MBChB
Read another article like this one: Managing pelvic organ prolapse in primary care
- Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. HRT and alternatives. https://www.rcog.org.uk/for-the-public/menopause-and-later-life/hrt-and-alternatives/
- British Menopause Society: Women’s Health Concern (2022). Complementary & Alternative Therapies. https://www.womens-health-concern.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/03-WHC-FACTSHEET-Complementary-And-Alternative-Therapies-NOV2022-A.pdf
- NHS (2022). Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/
- National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (2021). Women’s Health and Complementary Approaches. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/womens-health-and-complementary-approaches
- The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2019). Antenatal Care during Pregnancy. https://ranzcog.edu.au/womens-health/patient-information-resources/antenatal-care-during-pregnancy
- National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (2022). Red Clover https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/red-clover
- National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (2022). Cranberry. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cranberry
- Department of Health, State Government of Victoria, Australia (2021). Complementary therapies. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/complementary-therapies
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