Coping With The Symptoms of Menopause Naturally
Women can begin experiencing the changes of perimenopause prior to their forties, although some women don't experience them until their late forties or early fifties. Perimenopause can last up to eight years before menopause begins; menopause is defined as your last period plus one year without a period. An estimated 80 million women are going through the hormonal changes of midlife right now.
The most common signs of perimenopause are alterations in menstrual cycles, such as lighter or heavier periods, skipped periods, or cycles that are longer or shorter in length. There can also be changes in body temperature, such as hot flashes and night sweats; sleep patterns, including insomnia; and mood, caused by a drop in your estrogen level, which reduces the production of the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin.
Although I sometimes use the term symptoms for the problems and discomforts that women may face during perimenopause and menopause, I hesitate to do so. The word suggests an underlying illness or condition that needs to be treated. The truth is that when you are in perimenopause or menopause, whether you have physical difficulties or not, you are going through a completely natural transition.
As a naturopathic physician and practitioner of Chinese medicine, I like to help my choose from the following natural, noninvasive remedies that support hormonal health, help to restore hormonal balance, and ease the discomfort some women experience during menopause and perimenopause.
Natural HRT: for Symptoms of Menopause
Long before the Women's Health Initiative published its findings that hormone replacement therapy can lead to increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease, many naturopathic physicians were prescribing hormones that were bioidentical and natural. For some women, bioidentical, natural HRT can significantly increase the quality of life during perimenopause and menopause.
Exercise: for Symptoms of Menopause
Exercise is one of the most important lifestyle factors for helping with menopausal symptoms. Regular physical activity improves sleep and mood, and a Swedish study found that it decreases hot flashes and reduces night sweats during menopause.
Stress Reduction: for Symptoms of Menopause
During the menopausal years, hot flashes are increased by stress. Many women find relief through stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Acupuncture is another great way to control stress-related symptoms.
Dietary Changes: for Symptoms of Menopause
To help relieve menopausal symptoms, eat more foods high in phytoestrogens. These natural plant constituents contain no estrogens and don't increase the body's estrogen levels, but they have estrogen-like effects-which can be beneficial for women who are experiencing menopausal symptoms. Foods containing phytoestrogens include alfalfa, apples, asparagus, barley, carrots, cherries, corn, fennel, oats, pears, peas, pomegranates, rice bran, rye, soy, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes, squash, and wheat germ.
According to Chinese medicine, foods that have "cooling" or "cold" effects on the body can reduce the hot flashes and night sweats that may accompany menopause. These foods include alfalfa sprouts, apples, asparagus, barley, beets, broccoli, buckwheat, fish, fruits, mung beans, oranges, seaweeds, strawberries, tofu, watermelon, and yogurt.
In addition, consuming foods and beverages that are considered "warming" or "hot" in Chinese medicine can aggravate menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes. Avoid alcohol, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cauliflower, cinnamon, coffee, garlic, ginger, glutinous rice, kim chee, onions, and pumpkin.
Herbs: for Symptoms of Menopause
Many women during the menopausal years have found herbal medicines to be especially helpful in easing their symptoms. Herbs that contain phytoestrogens include red clover and black cohosh. Red clover can be taken in supplement form as a standardized extract of 40 milligrams of total isoflavones a day. You can also drink red clover tea, or mix red clover sprouts into your salads. Black cohosh is best taken as a supplement; for many menopausal symptoms, I suggest 80 milligrams twice a day. Depending on a woman's symptoms, I often prescribe a combination of herbs to achieve the best overall effect.
Plant constituents with Progesterone-like Effects
These "phyto-progesterones" have long been used in natural medicine to help women through their perimenopause, especially when they have irregular menstrual cycles. Phyto-progesterones don't actually contain progesterone, but they may have effects that indirectly favor the production of progesterone. The most commonly used phyto-progesterone is chaste berry. It is a good choice for women who have a deficiency of progesterone but don't want to take hormones. The recommended dose is 175 mg of the standardized extract, or 40 drops of the liquid extract, a day.
Homeopathic Medicines: for Symptoms of Menopause
Homeopathic medicines are often recommended for the imbalances some women experience before and during menopause. Sepia is used to help women who have hot flashes, night sweats, and PMS. On an emotional level, it is recommended if you feel irritable, overwhelmed, indifferent, disconnected from your friends and family, prone to weeping without knowing why, or having the tendency to make sarcastic remarks and then feel remorseful. Pulsatilla is recommended for hot flashes, PMS, abnormal menstruation, and migraines associated with your period. Women who respond best to this remedy often have cravings for cream, butter, and cold foods like ice cream. On an emotional level, pulsatilla is recommended if you feel insecure, timid, or needy for consolation, or have changeable moods that go from being agitated to weepy. Lachesis is recommended if you are aggravated by heat, have hot flashes that especially affect your face, migraines that tend to be on the left side, or pre-period headaches. On an emotional level, it is especially effective for women who experience jealousy, depression, and irritability during their periods.
Chinese Medicines: for Symptoms of Menopause
In Chinese medicine, balancing your Qi is the most important step you can take to keep yourself healthy during perimenopause and menopause. There are a number of traditional Chinese herbal formulas that can help to balance the hormonal system during the midlife years. Most include the herb dong quai, also know as Chinese angelica. An herbal formula containing dong quai developed in Shanghai, known as Two Immortals Decoction (Er Xian Tang), works effectively in treating perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms.
Dr. Steelsmith (www.drlauriesteelsmith.com) is a Naturopathic Physician and Licensed Acupuncturist with a private practice in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is author of the critically acclaimed book, Natural Choices for Women's Health: How the Secrets of Natural and Chinese Medicine Can Create a Lifetime of Wellness (Three Rivers Press, 2005).