Menopausal or postmenopausal women may benefit from taking an antidepressant — not because they’re depressed, but because the drug could help reduce the often insufferable hot flashes that characterize menopause, according to new research.
According to the study of 205 women who were just beginning menopause or were postmenopausal, those who took the antidepressant Lexapro (escitalopram), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), had significantly fewer and less severe hot flashes than women who got a placebo pill. (More on Time.com: Study: More Evidence for the Harms of Hormone Replacement Therapy)
Many women currently have no effective long-term treatment for hot flashes — the sudden feeling of intolerable heat that flares up without notice. Doctors had long prescribed hormone therapy as the go-to treatment for menopausal symptoms, but largely stopped doing so in 2002, when the results of the large, federally funded Women’s Health Initiative showed that the risks of hormone treatment — including heart disease and breast cancer risk — outstripped its benefits.
Last year, further results from the same trial showed that women who took hormone therapy were not only more likely to develop breast cancer than women who didn’t take hormones, but were also more likely to die from the disease.
For the new study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers lead by Dr. Ellen W. Freeman of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine gave 10 to 20 mg/d doses of Lexapro or placebo to healthy women in an eight-week clinical trial. The women were asked to record the frequency and severity of their hot flashes in daily diaries, which researchers evaluated at weeks 4 and 8. (More on Time.com: Why Obesity May Not Raise Breast Cancer Risk in Mexican Americans)
On average, women reported suffering 9.8 hot flashes per day at the beginning of the study. By week 8, the group taking Lexapro reported having 5.26 hot flashes per day — a 47% reduction, compared with the start of the study. Women in the placebo group had reduced their hot flashes by 33%, to an average 6.43 per day. The Lexapro group also reported less severe hot flashes compared with the placebo group.
The difference in hot-flash frequency between the two groups was modest — and the overall benefit of Lexapro was small, when compared with the 80% or so reduction in hot flashes seen in trials of hormone therapy — but the study’s authors say that it was still meaningful for study participants.
“Our findings suggest that among healthy women, 10 to 20 mg/d of escitalopram provides a nonhormonal, off-label option that is effective and well-tolerated in the management of menopausal hot flashes,” wrote the authors. “Further studies are needed to directly compare the relative efficacy of SSRIs and SNRIs [serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors] with hormone therapy in the treatment of menopause-related hot flashes.” (More on Time.com: Are You Fertile? Don’t Rely on a Drug-Store Fertility Test to Tell You)
For more, check out the video, below, produced by JAMA on the study: