In the realm of life transitions, menopause is one area that deserves particular attention. Not only is it a part of life that is personally & physically experienced by over half of the worlds population (of course I mean women) at some point, but it is one that then secondarily affects a good portion of the other half (all the men/partners)! The menopausal transition is something that has received significant study and attention, and books, texts, documentaries and disciplines are dedicated to its management.
Menopause is a natural process involving hormonal changes (specifically the decline of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone production in the body) eventually resulting in a cessation of ovulation and therefore also menstruation. Menopause is not a disease, however the changes and possible imbalances that occur in a woman’s hormones can lead to a variety of uncomfortable symptoms (like hot flashes, mood changes, insomnia, weight gain, etc) as even more importantly certain health related consequences (for example osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and certain hormone-related cancers). It’s important to keep these facts in mind, as they can alter the way menopause is approached both in a personal and medical way.
Menopause affects all women differently, though there are common threads to the symptoms experienced including hot flashes and night sweats, insomnia, anxiety or depression and vaginal dryness. In some women these may be significantly disturbing to daily life as to bring them to their doctors offices for symptom relief. It is important to note that all women, given the increased health risks that accompany this life transition, even those women who report only minor discomfort, do need to pay extra attention to their health and wellness goals in order to optimize their long-term well-being and prevention of disease.
There are many Naturopathic interventions that can help to minimize any discomfort menopause may be causing and improve quality of daily life, a few examples include:
Nutrition & Lifestyle modification: The foundations of our medicine! Hormonal changes can result in weight gain during and then following the menopausal time, and this then leads to an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, as well as other pathologies. Excess weight and an unhealthy diet are also related to increased severity of menopausal symptoms. Improving ones diet provides a strong foundation for everyone including women entering (or at any stage of) menopause.
Diet: The importance of a healthy diet is particularly important in major life transitions, particularly when hormonal changes are so strong. The foods we eat can directly affect hormonal and other chemical balance, and have multiple additional effects on our bodies.
Several general recommendations for improving symptom management in menopause include the following:
Ensuring an adequate intake of whole foods, vegetables, fruit and whole grains
Incorporating more phytoestrogens like flax seed, legumes and soy on a daily basis
Eliminating processed and deep fried foods
Increasing consumption of unsaturated fats while minimizing saturated fat intake
Minimizing caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar intake
There are also key dietary modifications that can help minimize long term disease risk, one example healthy choices for maximizing bone health.
Certain supplements are known to have benefit for improving both short term symptoms as well as assisting in the prevention of future disease. Your Naturopath will be able to assess your specific risk and then recommend appropriate accordingly.
Exercise is obviously a well-established requirement for weight management as well as for the reduction of menopausal symptoms particularly hot flashes, night sweats and insomnia. It is also a foundation for stress management.
Being physically active for a minimum of 30 minutes, 4-6 days per week is sufficient to reduce risk and improve physical outcomes (for example osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and arthritis). Walking briskly, swimming, riding a bike, as well as weight training (to help prevent bone density loss) the activity doesn’t have to be intense, just enough to increase your heart rate.
Talk to your Naturopath for specific exercise guidelines and a plan that will be most beneficial for you!
Managing stress levels and learning healthy coping skills are extremely important for emotional health. It has also been found that women who know to deal with stress in healthy ways and have good support networks experience less severe symptoms than those who are chronically stressed and have no outlet for their emotions.
Naturopaths are excellent in assisting with stress management, through utilization of supplements, modalities like botanical medicine and acupuncture, as well as counseling.
Botanical Medicine – Teas, Tinctures and Encapsulated herbs
There are many herbs which are known for their affect on the hormones (helping with hormone balance) and which are specifically indicated for menopausal symptom relief. Well know examples of herbs specific for women in the menopausal transition may include Discorea villosa (Wild yam), Caulophyllum thalictroides (Blue Cohosh), Cimicifuga racemosa (Black Cohosh), Mitchella repens (Partridge Berry), among many others. Your Naturopath can recommend the best one(s) that would be of greatest benefit for you specifically.
Not only can specific herbs improve relieve discomfort, there are also botanicals that are extremely active for strengthening and improving the integrity/health of other body systems that are of concern to women in the years following menopause including the heart and cardiovascular system, bones, skin and joints. They can also help improve sleep and emotional wellbeing (lessening anxiety and depression).
Acupuncture and Traditional Oriental Medicine
Acupuncture has been used as a primary treatment for multiple physical and emotional complaints for thousands of years all across Asia and has also been a primary tool in North America for several decades. Acupuncture is a proven treatment for a multitude of physical and mental-emotional complaints, and this is particularly true in relation to menopause. It is beneficial for not only physical symptoms like hot flashes and joint pains but also for insomnia, stress, depression and other mental-emotional components.
Traditional Oriental Medicine (TOM) approaches disease as a sign of an imbalance of Qi (energy flow) through the body. Qi is the life/energy force that flows through us all along meridians of the body, and when healthy this flow is smooth and harmonious. During an acupuncture treatment, extremely thin needles are inserted very gently and painlessly into specific points in the body, tonifying or sedating organ systems associated with those points with the intention of re-establishing the harmonious flow of Qi and bringing balance and support back to the body. Once balance is achieved, symptoms may be resolved.
Acupuncture treatments typically last between 20-40 minutes depending on the individual, and best results are achieved with weekly or even biweekly treatments for a certain amount of time, also depending on the particular person.
Certain herbal combinations may also be recommended, and these work synergistically to improve the flow of Qi and overall wellbeing.
Menopause is a normal life change; one that cannot be avoided no matter how hard one may want to try! Nor should it be something to fear or worry about. Know that there are many therapies that can help support you through your particular transition as well as helping to improve long term wellbeing and prevent future dis-ease.
All women, no matter where you are in your life transition, can benefit from the treatment of a Naturopath:
Pre-menopausal women can learn strategies for how to minimize discomfort before it even starts
Those already experiencing symptoms can receive treatment
Post-menopausal can continue to work to prevent the onset of those diseases associated with menopause (including cardiovascular, osteoporosis, certain cancers, etc).
That being said, everyone undergoing life changes, women, men and children alike can learn skills and techniques for improving functioning, treating symptoms, preventing future dis-ease and improving overall quality of life!
Dr Katarine Holewa, ND