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Hot flashes, mood swings, breakouts, vaginal dryness, night sweats, weight gain, sleep issues—the list of symptoms associated with menopause is a lengthy one. (File under "the unique joys of being a woman.") While there's—obviously—nothing you can do to stop Mother Nature from doing her thing, and the hormonal changes associated with menopause are unavoidable, there are at least various ways of managing symptoms, if not alleviating them fully. There are, of course, medications and things such as hormone replacement therapy, but for those seeking a more natural alternative, evening primrose oil offers a great solution. Ahead, Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, AP, DOM, Doctor of Chinese & Integrative Medicine, and Julie Levin, medical herbalist and founder of Leaf People, explain what evening primrose oil is, how it works, and how to best use it to combat menopause symptoms.
What Is Evening Primrose Oil?
"Evening primrose oil is derived from the evening primrose, a plant native to North and South America. It's known for its unique profile of essential fatty acids, especially a high content of gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA, which is found only in a few other plants such as borage, black currant, and hemp," explains Levin, who adds that evening primrose oil is made up of 7% to 14% GLA. It's this potent concentration of essential fatty acids, GLA specifically, that makes evening primrose oil beneficial for addressing several common menopause symptoms. Also noteworthy is the fact that it can be either taken orally as a supplement or applied topically.
Benefits of Evening Primrose Oil for Menopause
Evening primrose oil is unique compared with many other natural and herbal remedies in that there's a fair bit of science that proves its effects. (It's also worth noting that science has also shown it to be an effective option for treating PMS symptoms.) As it pertains to menopause, however, evening primrose oil is particularly beneficial for the following symptoms:
- Hot flashes: "While it doesn't make them go away completely, evening primrose oil can help reduce the severity, frequency, and duration of hot flashes," says Dr. Trattner. A 2013 study of 56 menopausal women found that taking oral evening primrose oil daily helped decrease the intensity of hot flashes, as well as how much hot flashes interfered with the participants' daily lives. "I suggest evening primrose oil for patients who are having a very difficult time with hot flashes during menopause, or if a woman in perimenopause is having hot flashes and knows her family history with women having hot flashes," she says.
- Mental health: Dr. Trattner cites a recent study that found evening primrose oil could be beneficial in alleviating some of the psychological symptoms associated with menopause. While it didn't specify exactly what psychological aspects were improved, she says the study is promising. (It's worth pointing out that the study showing that the oil can be helpful in combatting PMS did find that it improved mental health symptoms in that case as well.)
- Skin and vaginal dryness: Because of its high content of GLA, evening primrose oil is a great anti-inflammatory and lubricant for soft tissues, a benefit that can be achieved whether it's used topically or taken orally, points out Levin. Estrogen levels plummet rapidly during menopause (and this starts even during perimenopause, before menstruation fully stops). The hormone acts on the dermal matrix and helps play a role in collagen production, which is why skin becomes thinner, dryer, and more wrinkled. One study found that in postmenopausal women, skin thickness decreased by 1.13% per year. Point being, when used topically, "evening primrose oil can help support skin structure and provide hydration during the perimenopausal and menopausal years," says Levin. In related news, Dr. Trattner points out that it can also be used topically for eczema and other skin conditions.
"Barring any general health concerns, evening primrose oil is usually regarded as a beneficial oil for most people," says Levin. That being said, she's quick to point out that you should always consult with your healthcare professional before starting a new herbal regimen, and that some medications can't be supplemented with essential fatty acids. Dr. Trattner adds that potential side effects include dizziness, headache, stomachaches, rashes, and nausea. You also shouldn't take evening primrose oil if you have seizures, mania, or other bleeding disorders, or if you're on HIV antiviral medications, and use caution or avoid it while pregnant, she warns.
How to Take Evening Primrose Oil for Menopause Symptoms
Dr. Trattner recommends taking evening primrose oil orally as a supplement. She says one capsule usually contains 500mg, and the recommended dosage can be anywhere from 500mg–1300 mg, making this easy to work into your routine. She does point out that because it contains essential fatty acids, it's important to take it with food that contains some fat, and to also keep supplements like this in the refrigerator to keep them from going rancid. Levin points out that evening primrose oil can also be eaten, though you shouldn't cook with it, as you want the oil to be ingested in an uncooked state. "Try adding the pure oil to cold foods such as salad dressing, yogurt, smoothies chia seeds, or mix it with avocado to create a spread for toast or crackers," she says.
For topical use, she says you can add some into your favorite body or face oils, or even make your own vaginal lubricating oil. She recommends combining evening primrose oil with 10 drops of Bulgarian rose, 25–40 drops of rose geranium, and a few drops of grapefruit essential oils, then gently massage a small amount around the external area of the vagina to soothe dryness or itchiness. (FYI, this oil can also be rubbed on your lower abdomen before menopause to help with PMS-related cramping, she says.) Regardless of how you're going to use it, Levin underscores the importance of finding a certified organic oil, as residues from pesticides can mess with your hormone levels—the last thing you want when you're trying to get your menopause symptoms under control.