A cool counter to hot flashes

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Sherry Jacobson / The Dallas Morning News

By her own account, Sharon "Missy" Peay was a 51-year-old woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown three years ago.

After suffering through endless nights interrupted by hot flashes, the California nursing assistant opened her freezer one night, grabbed a box of frozen peas and applied it to the back of her neck.

After a few minutes, she felt better, she says. The sweating subsided, the panic was gone, and she went back to bed. "It only took about five minutes," Mrs. Peay recalls. "There was no more perspiration. No more clamminess. No more nothing."

But she hopes it will be more than a middle-of-the-night remedy.

Mrs. Peay and her husband, Joseph, have used her experiment with frozen peas to develop a product they claim offers quick relief from hot flashes. They call it Hot Stop, a cold flexible gel pack that is being sold on their Internet site (myhotstop.com) for $19.95, plus shipping costs.

While the Peays have conducted no scientific research to prove the effectiveness of using a cold compress for hot flashes, they believe there is a niche for their product in the nation's fast-growing menopausal market.

"I don't have a medical background," concedes Mr. Peay, who is retired from the fast-food industry. "But doctors don't have the answers either. At least, we're offering some relief."

The market for menopause products is growing as Baby Boomers age. Nearly 20million American women are within the age range – 45 to 55 – when menopause typically occurs, according to the North American Menopause Society. Although menopause is a natural process in which the menstrual cycle becomes irregular and eventually disappears, women increasingly are seeking relief from its most discomforting side effect.

"My patients are telling me that they're sitting in meetings and suddenly they turned beet red and are sweating so profusely that they have to go home and change their clothes," says Dr. David Fein, a Dallas gynecologist. "Maybe women were willing to put up with that 10 or 20 years ago, but not today."

Typically, hormone replacement therapy, usually estrogen and progesterone, has been the primary treatment for relieving menopausal discomforts. However, the side effects of estrogen treatment, including irregular bleeding that lasts from several months to several years, has discouraged some women from using it as they go through menopause.

That growing reluctance has broadened the market for alternative therapies, including the Peay's reusable Hot Stop collar, which has attracted a dozen buyers in the few weeks it has been on the market. (Users are warned not to leave the pack on their necks longer than 30 minutes or risk the possibility of frostbite.)

Dr. Fein, who has practiced in Dallas for 14 years, says he readily offers his patients information on herbal therapies and even mentions the use of black cohosh, a folk medicine made from a shrub root.

"I try to read the patient and see what she might be interested in," he says. "About a third of my patients are asking intelligent questions about hormone replacement or have done their own research on the alternatives."

Alternative therapies, while largely unproven for their effectiveness, may be attracting users because so little is known about hot flashes. In fact, it was only recently that hot flashes became the focus of serious medical consideration.

No one can explain, for example, why hot flashes occur in some women and not others.

"The field of hot flashes is one that's really suddenly exploding," notes Dr. Kishan Pandya, a University of Rochester cancer researcher in a recent report. "There's a lot of interest in finding newer and better agents for this very disturbing symptom."

Medical researchers are studying a variety of already proven drugs that might have some beneficial effect on hot flashes.

A study by Dr. Pandya, reported last month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, targeted patients whose hot flashes were induced by tamoxifen, the widely prescribed treatment for drug cancer. His study showed that clonidine, a hypertension medicine, relieved hot flashes in more than a third of his patients.

Certain antidepressant drugs, including Effexor, Paxil and Prozac, also have been shown to alleviate hot flashes in certain groups of cancer patients. A report in June showed that an anti-seizure drug, Neurontin, relieved hot-flash symptoms in six patients.

But the medical establishment also has been taking a serious look at alternative therapies, partly out of concern that they have not been adequately studied.

"We see advertisements that tout the wonders of soy, and many people are turning to this and a variety of herbal and natural remedies without any real study of whether it does what they say," says Susan Quella, a Mayo Clinic nurse and chief investigator of a recent study of "natural estrogens."

The study found that women who took soy-based pills made from soybeans, chickpeas and other legumes did not experience noticeable changes in their hot flashes compared to a group that took a placebo. The results have led Ms. Quella and others to warn women to be skeptical of claims being made about so-called natural remedies for hot flashes.

"That's why we're studying them now. We think we owe it to the public to see if they work."