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May 30, 2014 04:42 PM EDT

Antidepressant May Effectively Treat Menopause Symptoms

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A low-dose antidepressant could effectively treat menopausal hot flashes, night sweats, and the sleepless nights that come with them, according to a recent study Counsel and Heal reported.

Researchers led by Dr. Hadine Joffe from the department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that the antidepressant venlafaxine hydrochloride (Effexor) is nearly as effective as hormone therapy at treating menopause symptoms --  without causing the increased breast cancer risks associated with hormone use.

Menopause occurs when a woman's menstrual period stops permanently. This natural process involves symptoms such as hot flashes, mood changes and loss of energy. 

"Estrogen therapy is still the gold standard for alleviating hot flashes and night sweats, but it's nice to see that alternative treatments can work nearly as well," Joffe, study leader and director of the Women's Hormone and Aging Research Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told the Boston Globe.

For the study, researchers recruited more than 300 menopausal women who had an average of eight episodes per day of hot flashes or night sweats. The participants were randomly assigned to receive estrogen therapy, the generic antidepressant, or a placebo for eight weeks.

Researchers found that the participants who took a pill in the study had relief from their symptoms -- including those on the placebo. The women who took estrogen had 3.9 hot flashes or night sweats a day compared to 4.4 episodes in the antidepressant group, and 5.5 in the group that took placebos.

Nearly 70 percent of the estrogen users reported being satisfied with their treatment compared to 51 percent of the venlafaxine users and 38 percent of the placebo takers.

Although more women in the estrogen therapy group were satisfied with their treatment, doctors, however, frequently don't want to prescribe the hormones for more than a few years due to concerns about blood clots, breast cancer, and stroke risks.

"It's very reassuring for women who can't take estrogen or don't want to stay on hormones for very long to have antidepressants as a treatment option," Joffe said.

The findings were recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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