It is easy to say that menopause is merely a state of mind until it actually happens and you feel there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Although menopause is a natural process, and you know you are not alone, the symptoms persist year after year, and then it really is not that easy!
Although menopause is a natural stage of life, certain physiological changes – such as inappropriate hot flushes, uncontrollable mood swings, insomnia, headaches, weight gain and bloating – not only make a woman very uncomfortable, but also put her more at risk for specific disorders such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, urinary tract infections, thrush and even depression. So an understanding of what these risks are and how they can be reduced will help you manage menopause more easily.
THE IMPORTANCE OF OESTROGEN
From puberty through to menopause, ovarian follicles produce the majority of oestrogen in the body, known as oestradiol. The follicles also produce the corpus luteum, which secretes progesterone. The ovaries are, therefore, vital to the production of a woman’s two most important sex hormones – oestrogen and progesterone. As she ages, her ovaries shrink and there is a rapid decrease in these hormones with the ratio between them changing. A balanced ratio between these two vital hormones is paramount for physical, mental and emotional health.
Although we always curse oestrogen during our menstrual years, it has many protective functions in our bodies and, unfortunately, it is only once we lose it that we appreciate its importance.
Oestrogen is responsible for a woman’s female sexual characteristics such as her breasts, widened hips and body hair distribution. It also helps regulate her reproductive cycle, as well as her fluid and electrolyte balance; it helps lower her blood cholesterol; helps build strong bones and muscles through a process known as protein anabolism; and helps prepare the uterus for pregnancy and the mammary glands for lactation.
So when this incredibly valuable hormone decreases significantly, it is not surprising that a woman feels her body is going a bit mad: her bone density declines and she is at risk of osteoporosis or bone fractures; her firm breast tissue is replaced by adipose tissue (fat); the pH of her urine changes so she is prone to urinary tract infections or else experiences symptoms such as frequency, urgency or incontinence even when there is no actual infection; the tissue lining of her vagina thins and smooths resulting in vaginal itching, dryness and pain during sex; her pelvic floor muscles weaken, resulting in prolapses of pelvic organs or uncomfortable sensations of ‘heaviness’ in her vagina and lower back; and, most commonly, she becomes prone to depression and vasomotor symptoms such as flushing or hot flushes.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
It is beneficial to understand and accept the transition into menopause. As the saying goes: ‘If you decide to meet age with a smile, you greatly enhance your chance that it will smile back on you.’¹
Previously, research showed that Japanese women experienced very few symptoms of menopause and it was thought that this was a result of their diet and lifestyle. However, more recent research indicates that these women experience the same physical symptoms as Western women yet they are not so negatively affected by the symptoms. British women, on the other hand, seem to experience the worst menopausal symptoms.²
Researchers now put this down to a woman’s status in society and her quality of life – in cultures where age is respected and older women are valued, menopause is not such a negative experience. However, in the youth-obsessed cultures of the West, the emphasis of menopause is on loss, rather than on transition, and hence menopause is considered more of a disease than a normal stage of life.¹
Herbs can be a great help during menopause. For up to six years before menopause, oestrogen and progesterone levels start to decline resulting in a variety of physical and emotional changes. Menstruation becomes irregular, scanty or heavier, and PMS is often more severe and uncontrollable. During this time, not only oestrogen levels change, but progesterone levels also decline. The herb chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) is invaluable for peri-menopausal symptoms as it has an indirect progesteronic action3 and helps normalise the menstrual cycle.3
Women can also help decrease the risk of osteoporosis from an early age by avoiding smoking, doing weight-bearing exercises, and eating foods rich in calcium.
During peri-menopause and menopause, when hot flushes, vaginal dryness and decreased energy levels are more prominent, herbs such as Cimicifuga racemosa, Dioscorea villosa, Salvia officinalis or Tribulus terrestris are indicated. These herbs all work very deeply and help the body find its new equilibrium.
Always consult a medical professional and herbalist (phytotherapist) as herbal remedies can be potent and interact with prescription drugs.
In addition to herbs, an evening primrose supplement can be beneficial for hot flushes, dry skin, mood swings and vaginal dryness. If the vaginal dryness or itching is particularly bothersome, then pure vitamin E oil or Aloe vera gel can also be used to lubricate the area.
Avoid alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods during menopause as they are known to trigger hot flushes and aggravate urinary incontinence.
MENOPAUSE AND DEPRESSION
A symptom of menopause that is often overlooked, yet very common, is depression. Oestrogen affects serotonin levels and it is also thought to be neuroprotective, having positive effects on memory and cognition. Declining hormone levels may result in low moods or depression.
Despite the unpleasant physiological changes during menopause, this transition can be liberating. According to Oprah Winfrey: ‘So many women I’ve talked to see menopause as an ending. But I’ve discovered this is your moment to reinvent yourself after years of focusing on the needs of everyone else. It’s your opportunity to get clear about what matters to you and then to pursue that with all of your energy, time and talent.’4
Editor’s note: For more information, contact the Phytotherapy Assosciation. Tel: 011-615 3170 | Website: www.saphysio.co.za
- Natural Menopause Journey, June 2010. Available from: http://www.natural-menopause-journey.com/perimenopause-symptoms-and-culture.html. Accessed: 21 March 2017.
- Feinmann J. What makes British women have the worst menopause, Daily Mail. June 2010. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1286569/Britishwomen-worst-menopause.html. Accessed: 21 March 2017.
- MediHerb Seminar Notes: Menopause, Endometriosis and Uterine Fibroids, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, Premenstrual Syndrome. 2005: 1-29.
- Oprah Winfrey. Available from: http://www.msn.com/en-gb/lifestyle/relationships/7-quotes-from-awesome-womenthatll-make-you-think-differently-about-menopause.
Accessed: 22 March 2017.