At menopause, after 30–40 years of active service doggedly slaving away month after month, producing eggs and oestrogen, a woman’s ovaries submit their letter of resignation in the hope of a quiet retirement. Menopause signals the end of a woman’s reproductive years and officially occurs at the end of the last menstrual period. The transition to menopause, known as peri-menopause, takes from 2–5 years and can affect each woman differently. Some women breeze through symptom-free, while others suffer a mixed bag of distressing symptoms. Studies have shown that women who have a healthier lifestyle, eat a good diet and exercise regularly, suffer less symptoms of menopause.
The average age of menopause is 50–51. Between the ages of 45–55 is considered normal. Premature menopause is before 40 and an early menopause is before 45 years of age. After menopause, women are more at risk of heart disease and osteoporosis as oestrogen has a protective effect on these conditions.
Symptoms of peri-menopause and menopause
- Hot flushes (night and day).
- Night sweats.
- Dry vagina.
- Poor concentration.
- Itchy skin.
- Mood swings.
- Joint aches.
- Low libido.
- Prolapse of bladder, uterus or bowel.
- Increased bladder and vaginal infections.
- Decreased bladder control.
Symptoms of peri-menopause
- Heavy bleeding.
- Painful periods.
- PMS symptoms.
What causes it?
- Menopause is a natural event in a woman’s life.
- On average, women who smoke experience menopause 5 years earlier than women who don’t.
- Thin women suffer more menopausal symptoms than their curvaceous sisters. This is because fat cells produce a small amount of oestrogen that can help reduce menopausal symptoms.
- Stress increases menopausal symptoms. Adrenal glands can produce some oestrogen after menopause, but they are also responsible for producing the stress hormone cortisol. If the adrenal glands are preoccupied with the production of cortisol, this will negatively impact on oestrogen production.
- Premature menopause may be caused by removal of the ovaries, surgery, medication, radiation and chemotherapy.
What to do
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is the conventional medical solution for menopause. HRT involves taking synthetic hormones, usually in tablet form. Some women find HRT an answer to their prayers, some experience side effects, while others prefer to enter this phase of their lives without chemical interference. Following are some natural remedies that may help reduce the symptoms of menopause – they can be taken in conjunction with HRT.
Behind the scenes
Phytoestrogens are natural chemicals present in certain plants. They exert a very weak hormonal influence, much weaker than that of the real hormone produced by the ovaries. Throughout the body, on most cells are receptor sites capable of being activated by certain substances. In the case of the hormone oestrogen, there are thousands of receptor sites that are coded only for oestrogen. At the time of menopause, these receptor sites are ‘hungry’ for oestrogen, and menopausal symptoms occur at this time. Eventually, after a time without oestrogen, the receptor sites get sick of waiting and close up shop. End of story. No more menopausal symptoms. How the phytoestrogens work is that they look enough like oestrogen to keep the receptor sites happy, although they are in no way as strong as the real-deal hormone. You keep taking the phytoestrogens as long as you experience symptoms. One day they will stop. Promise. If you are in peri-menopause and are experiencing heavy bleeding, hold off on the phytoestrogens for a while and take vitex agnus-castus instead. You can also try the recommendations for heavy periods on page 00.
- Avoid sugar and reduce caffeine and alcohol. The healthier your diet, the fewer your symptoms.
- Reduce packaged and processed foods.
- If you experience hot flushes, avoid triggers such as spicy foods, alcohol and hot drinks.
- Introduce and increase phytoestrogen-rich foods such as soya sprouts, alfalfa, green beans, split peas, olives, soya beans, miso, tempeh, parsley, chickpeas, cherries, corn, oats, barley, rye, wheat, rice, pomegranate, hops, sesame seeds, linseed, buckwheat, millet, sage, fennel, celery, carrots, cabbage, rhubarb and garlic.
- Chop 6–7 fresh sage leaves and soak overnight in lemon juice. In the morning, strain and drink the juice, diluting with water if preferred. After a week or so this mixture can help control hot flushes with the added benefit of improving digestion.
- Phytoestrogen herbs and other tonic herbs are excellent for the treatment of menopause. There are dozens to choose from, but the most helpful include black cohosh, red clover, dong quai, wild yam, soy, sage and hops. (Note: if you are peri-menopausal and still menstruating, these herbs may not be as helpful as for when you are actually menopausal. In this case, use the remedies mentioned below.)
- Vitex agnus-castus is such a lovely herb. Useful for virtually all occasions of hormonal misbehaviour, it is excellent at both peri-menopause and menopause itself.
- Evening primrose oil is also a good remedy during the peri-menopausal time. Especially good for tender breasts and mood swings. Take at least 6 g daily. B6 is indicated here also.
- Herbs to help with sleep problems include passionflower, Californian poppy, St. John’s wort, valerian, lavender and kava. Zizyphus can also help with sleep and hot flushes.
- Herbs that support the nervous system, adrenal glands and hormones are indicated now. Choose from St. John’s wort, withania, verbena, rhodiola, rehmannia, zizyphus and kava.
- For low libido, choose from tribulus, shatavari and/or panax ginseng.
- A reduction in oestrogen creates a thinning of the vaginal wall. If you suffer from vaginal dryness, squeeze the contents of a 500 iu vitamin E capsule into the vagina each night. A dry vagina is one of the more stubborn symptoms of menopause. If the natural remedies are not effective, try oestrogen cream prescribed by your doctor. The amount of hormone absorbed from the cream into the body is minimal.
- Depression descends on many women during menopause. St John’s wort is the best herbal medicine for you at this time.
- The Bach flower remedy, walnut, is recommended during times of change, helping you to traverse this hormonal crossroad with grace.
- Hop to it. Regular exercise can reduce all symptoms of menopause.
- If irritability and stress are part of the picture, incorporate relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation.
- If you suffer from hot flushes, wear cotton clothes in layers that you can easily remove.
- A cool(ish) bath or footbath with 20 drops of peppermint oil in the evening can help reduce hot flushes and aid sleep. During the day, soak a washcloth in cool water and add a few drops of peppermint oil.
- The Bach flower, Walnut, is perfect for this time of transition and change.
- Menopause, a time of change in a woman’s hormones can often coincide with a time of change in other areas of life. If you had children, they may be leaving home or parents may be aging or have passed away. You no longer need to put other’s needs ahead of your own. It’s decision time – decisions made by you, for you. Go for it, girlfriend.
Use this blend in 20 ml of sweet almond oil mixed with 10 ml of borage-infused oil. Use as a body massage oil or in the bath. If using as a personal perfume, halve the blend of essential oils and blend in jojoba oil.
- 8 drops of bergamot oil – a wonderful uterine cleanser, excellent for anxiety and depression while possessing sedative properties and yet at the same time being rather uplifting
- 3 drops of fennel oil, sweet – a great body cleanser, said to mimic the hormone oestrogen, good in cases of fluid retention, may help with low libido
- 4 drops of Cypress oil – great for treating heavy bleeding and oedemas of any kind, can be calming on the mind while putting a lid on anger and frustration (it’s excellent for excessive sweating too!)
Over the last couple of decades, treating menopause has become mired in controversy. Not only the prescription HRT, which may or may not be linked with an increased risk of breast cancer, but also natural remedies including black cohosh and soy. Some time ago, a few cases of liver damage were reported after taking black cohosh. When this was investigated further, it was unclear whether black cohosh was actually taken, and whether or not the people had pre-existing liver disease. The only known side effects of black cohosh – reported by herbalists over hundreds of years – is a skin rash and diarrhoea affecting a small percentage of patients. Even thought there is no proven link between black cohosh and liver damage, due to government regulation, labels have a warning to this effect. No wonder confusion abounds. With regard to soy as a supplement or food, there is no evidence that it increases a woman’s risk of breast (or any other cancer) and, in fact, there is some evidence that it may reduce the risk of breast cancer.
At a glance
- The healthier your diet, the fewer menopausal symptoms you will have. So, avoid sugar and reduce caffeine and alcohol. Reduce packaged and processed foods and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Add some phytoestrogen foods to your diet (see above).
- To control hot flushes, try fresh sage leaves soaked overnight in lemon juice (see above).
- Herbs containing phytoestrogens are useful for reducing symptoms from hot flushes to faltering memory (see above).
- Vitex agnus castus is good for regulating hormones throughout peri-menopause and menopause.
- If you have mood swings, either up or down, St. John’s wort, verbena, withania, rhodiola, rehmannia and/or zizyphus can help.
- Exercise can help reduce all symptoms of menopause.
- Wear layers of cotton clothing to add and remove as the hot flushes dictate.
- A time of change in hormones and often life circumstances, menopause is a time to make big decisions and take charge of your life’s direction from now on.