A remedy of all ailments, black cohosh has saturated the shaman scene for centuries. Native Americans swore by its medicinal powers, using it on everything from sore throats to depression. Menopause however, was a more recent addition to this mile-long differential.
Citing its estrogenic properties, supporters of black cohosh claim that the plant will cure hot flashes and night sweats associated with menopause. But more recent research, including a new double-blinded randomized control trial in the journal, Menopause, states that this simply isn't true.
The study looked at 90 women with vasomotor symptoms from menopause, including both hot flashes and night sweats, and randomized them to receive treatment with either black cohosh, red clover, placebo pills, or hormone replacement therapy.
Surprisingly (or not surprisingly, depending on which camp you're in), the placebo pills worked 60-percent of the time. Black cohosh had a 34-percent reduction of symptoms and red clover had a 57-percent reduction. What that means is that using the gold standard of testing symptoms, researchers found that black cohosh and red clover were no better than fake sugar pills in treating hot flashes and night sweats.
Hormone therapy on the other hand (using a combination of conjugated equine estrogens and medroxyprogesterone acetate) had a 94-percent reduction.
The research is pretty convincing, but many women may still look at these numbers and say, well, it worked for me. In those cases, and given that placebo pills actually worked better than either plant supplement, it's more likely that their symptoms were relieved by something else (exercise, changes in diet or alcohol consumption, etc.).
The good news however, is that it doesn't appear that either plant product is harming anyone, at least over 12 months, which was the duration of the study. But there aren't any longer-term studies looking at the safety of black cohosh use in humans, so it's worth keeping that in mind if you plan to use the supplement for several years.
Finally, there's the argument of establishment. Black cohosh is an age-old remedy, one that healers have used for centuries. That, in and of itself, validates its efficacy, right? Before jumping into that justification (for any treatment that's not well-researched, not just this one), first remember the practice of leaching. Everyone thought that was a great idea, too. Black coshoh may, in the years ahead, prove to be a great option for menopause, but its longevity doesn't prove its efficacy.
As always, if you're interested in this topic, please read the study yourself, talk with your primary care provider or OB/GYN, and encourage critical discussion of this and other medical news.