Menopause. It’s a time of life that every woman needs to go through. Unfortunately it is also a time that many women dread, particularly if they know their friends or female relatives suffered from uncomfortable and distressing symptoms.
It is important to keep in mind that menopause is a natural process – it is NOT a disease or an abnormal state. Somewhere along the line our medically-dominated Western approach has led to a somewhat warped view of menopause, where it has become a negative experience where all a woman can do is grit her teeth and endure the discomfort and heave a sigh when it is all over.
In fact, it may surprise you to learn that in many cultures menopause is seen as a positive experience – a time where a woman can transition into a new, enriching phase of life, free from the burden of reproductive responsibility.
Unfortunately, some women find the transition more difficult than others. It is estimated that around 20% of women will experience ‘healthy menopause’ – no symptoms at all. 60% will experience mild to moderate symptoms and the remaining 20% will suffer severe symptoms that interfere with daily life. On average, menopause begins between the ages of 45-55, with most falling in the 50-51 age bracket.
Typical menopause symptoms include:
- Hot flushes & night sweats
- Aches and pains
- Sleep disturbances
- Vaginal dryness and increased susceptibility to vaginal and urinary infections
- Altered moods – anxiety, depression, irritability and feeling overwhelmed
- Weight gain, even with a careful diet and exercise
- Reduced concentration (‘brain fog’)
It is important to note that these symptoms, while mostly physical, can really interfere with quality of life – not only are they uncomfortable, they can also take an emotional toll and affect social and personal relationships. They also often strike at a time when a woman is already worn out or stressed – often she is caring for ageing parents, dealing with children leaving home, and working full-time. And these extra burdens can in turn influence her experience of menopause.
In many cases, a woman will visit her doctor, who will ask her about her last period, as well as order some blood tests to determine whether her hormones are low enough to class her as menopausal. Then, hormonal replacement therapy (HRT) may be suggested, as a pharmaceutical option to relieve hot flushes. However, whilst popular when it first came on the market, HRT has now been shown to increase the risk of several diseases, including stroke, breast cancer and heart disease.1 So it is not a decision that should be made lightly, and it is important to ensure that if you do choose HRT, that you have been made aware of the risks.
So, if HRT is a less-than-ideal option, what other treatments are there? From a naturopathic perspective, I always consider the health of the patient as a whole, which means working out support not only for the hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms, but also stress, diet, gut health and nutrient deficiencies that may also be influencing the overall picture. And of course, each woman is different, with a different genetic makeup, different stress levels and different way of coping with the transition.
Naturally, there are a few things that can help.
For hormones, I love using medicinal herbs, and I really find that herbs seem to love hormones back! I have observed in my clinic that women seem to have an affinity with herbal medicine – there is something ‘earthy’ and natural about supporting hormones with herbs. I particularly love Black Cohosh and Zizyphus for hot flushes, and find that this combination often forms the basis of any herbal mixture I prepare for a menopausal patient.
Where there are sleep difficulties, high stress, or weight gain, I love using magnesium. Magnesium is a calming, relaxing mineral, and women who experience hormonal issues (of any kind, not just menopause) are often not obtaining enough magnesium in their diet. Interestingly, magnesium is also very good for the bones – magnesium and calcium work in tandem to make strong, healthy bones, which is particularly important for post-menopausal women, who typically experience a decline in bone density over time.
Lastly, I also help encourage my menopausal ladies to look after themselves well during the transition period. Drinking alcohol, eating too much sugar and overdoing the refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, rice, potatoes etc) can all contribute to worsening of hot flushes. This is where eating good, healthy, nutritious food is important, as not only will it help reduce uncomfortable menopausal symptoms, it also helps to improve resilience to stress, and energy levels. And of course, exercise is crucial as a ‘time-out’ strategy to reduce stress, but also as a great bone-health strategy.