By Cathy McNease, Herbalist
My last period came the day after I turned 56. For women around the world, average age is 51. The time leading up to the cessation of menstruation is called peri-menopause, and can last several years or more, with all sorts of irregularities. Menopause is officially here when you have not had a menstrual period for one year. Many women choose the hormone replacement (HRT) route when the symptoms are severe, but there are some serious possible side effects. The real dangers with HRT occur when used long term (more than 5 years) and in high doses. Personally, I had strokes, breast and uterine cancers in my family history, so HRT was never a safe choice.
The other danger with HRT, in my opinion, can be associated with the denial of the aging process, using hormones as a “fountain of youth.” The current craze (at least in California) is “bio-identical hormones” which logically sound safer than synthetic ones, but there are no long term studies done with them to actually confirm safety. I do, however, believe that bio-identical hormones are a better choice, if absolutely necessary. Much of the discomforts of menopause can be lessened greatly with herbs and nutrition. Menopause is NOT a disease, it is a life transition.
In her books, Christiane Northrop MD, brilliantly discusses this time as “a mind-body revolution that brings the greatest opportunity for growth since adolescence.” She also advises that peri-menopausal and menopausal women will control their weight more easily if they avoid refined grains, and limit grains in general. Laurie Steelsmith, naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine, has written a great manual for women’s health. In it she describes menopause “not as a loss of youth but as a time of great potential and joy.” She quotes Dr Bob Flaws’ description of menopause as the time a woman becomes “the mother of her community and a fountain of wisdom.”
As the estrogen production by the ovaries begins to wane, the adrenals take over, making the decline in estrogen less dramatic. However, by the time many women are in their 40’s, life’s stresses have significantly depleted their adrenals, so they are not able to help ease the transition into menopause. The adrenal glands sit on top of our kidneys, in the low back, and produce cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone. This peaks when our life is threatened and we must flee. Unfortunately, many of us are now hormonally fighting a ferocious lion all of the time. Over time, the adrenals become exhausted and are unable to function normally, leaving us feeling in a constant state of overload…tired, but wired. Vitamins B and C are depleted with stress. One of the worst things to do for adrenal health is drinking excessive coffee, beating the dead horse to do more. I wonder how much of the hormone hype being pitched to men about your “low testosterone” is more correctly diagnosed as adrenal exhaustion.
Some of the herbs that are considered to be restorative to the adrenals and nervous system include: lemon balm, nettle leaf, licorice root (not with hypertension or edema), parsley, oats, scullcap and passion flower vine. Seaweed, oily fish like salmon (or fish oil capsules), and dark colored-mineral rich foods, will also support the adrenals and kidneys. With severe menopausal symptoms or severe stress, it may be best to seek out a professional herbalist or naturopath in your area to make a custom formula for you.
That said, there are a few over the counter herbs and supplements that may be helpful for the 3 most annoying symptoms of menopause: hot flashes, vaginal dryness and emotional instability. A black cohosh product from Europe called Remifemin is fabulous for hot flashes. It is a mint flavored tablet you chew up 1-2 times a day. Within a short time, the hot flashes are reduced in the majority of women. Chinese medicine would use one of several formulas containing a black herb called rehmannia root. Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan (Rehmannia 6 Herbs Pill Modified) is used for hot flashes. Mint tea, celery, cucumbers, mung beans and soy foods, may also help clear the fire. Vitamin E helps lubricate dryness when taken internally. Eating healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, and fish, will also help. At the same time avoid the most drying agents – coffee, alcohol and hot spicy foods.
The emotions are the most challenging to treat, and probably need individual treatment. I do, however, like using a couple of Chinese formulas for this that are pretty easy to find in pill form. Suan Zao Ren Tang (Ziziphus Seed Decoction) nourishes the heart and liver and helps with insomnia. Jia Wei Xiao Yao Wan (Relaxed Wander) regulates the liver and strengthens the digestion, especially suited to the roller coaster type of emotions. If there is a history of very heavy periods or anemia, Gui Pi Tang (Restore the Spleen Decoction) may be indicated. Calcium and magnesium supplements may also fortify the nervous system and improve sleep, especially taken at bedtime.
Traditional Chinese Medicine looks at menopause as a time when there is a decline in an aspect of the Kidney energy called Kidney Jing (or Essence). It is the genetic material we inherit from mom and dad, like a trust fund. How well (or not) we managed our lifestyle choices, stresses, and diet, determines the amount of Jing we have left by the time peri-menopause occurs. One of my mentors was once asked by a young student when the best time was to prepare for menopause. His answer was, “In your 20’s.” Translation: Don’t waste that Jing trust fund in youth. OK, so now what? Kidney Jing can be supported by eating the following foods: mussels, oysters, anchovy, clams, chicken, fertile eggs, spirulina and chlorella powders, dairy products (from cows, goats or sheep), royal jelly (from bees), lycii berries, and black sesame seeds. And, most important of all is moderation in all aspects of life to preserve what Jing remains in the trust fund.
The Wisdom of Menopause by Dr Christiane Northrop – she takes a wholistic approach with all of the details from western medicine presented clearly. A must have book for aging sisters.
The Secret Pleasures of Menopause by Dr Christiane Northrop – she takes the inspiring premise that Menopause is the beginning of life, not the end, especially with our sexuality.
Natural Choices for Women’s Health by Dr Laurie Steelsmith – a fabulous health manual that unites Eastern and Western thoughts on women’s conditions. Excellent reference.
Herbal Healing for Women by Rosemary Gladstar – she is a pioneer in the herb world.
Women’s Herbs, Women’s Health by Christopher Hobbs and Kathi Keville – two more pioneers with great herb advice.
Cathy McNease is a nationally certified herbalist with a Diplomate in Chinese Herbology from the NCCAOM, a B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Western Michigan University and two Master Herbalist certificates from Emerson College of Herbology in Canada and East-West Course of Herbology in Santa Cruz. She has co-authored two books, The Tao of Nutrition and 101 Vegetarian Delights and a distance learning course, TCM Nutrition.