by Jana Klosterboer
Menopause: my grandmother referred to it in hushed tones as “The Change.” This whispered change is simply defined as the cessation of a woman’s menses, or monthly cycle. Unless a woman enters into menopause through hysterectomy or sudden illness, it is usually not so much an event as it is a shift. The term “menopause,” reflects how our culture often focuses on this stage of life as the loss of fertility and the “failed production” of hormones. As I now make my way through menopause, I am instead choosing to look at my “Change” as a transition to something as beautiful, fruitful and desirable as the decades previously. A new unfolding.
In a nutshell, the menopausal time can be divided into three stages: peri-menopause, menopause and post-menopause. Peri- or pre-menopause is the time when the reproductive hormones (including estrogen and progesterone) begin to decrease. This stage may begin in the thirties or forties and may have duration of ten years or more. It is often so gradual, it may go unheeded. A woman might notice mood swings, erratic monthly cycles, very light or very heavy bleeding, a decrease in fertility and some vaginal dryness.
When the ovaries stop producing an egg and secrete a much smaller supply of estrogen, a woman is experiencing menopause. This usually occurs between the ages of 36 and 60 with age 51 being average. The period of adjustment could last from six months to two years. This is the time of greatest discomfort from hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings. Depression, insomnia, sore joints and vaginal dryness can be prevalent at this time and continue through post-menopausal time.
A woman is considered to be post-menopausal when her body has made the adjustment to these new lower levels of hormones and menstrual bleeding has ceased for 12 to 24 months. Common concerns at this stage include osteoporosis, heart disease, skin and vaginal changes, depression and memory loss, immune system and digestive trouble.
The signs and symptoms of menopause are as varied as the women who experience it. For some women, the shift is a non-event. Others struggle more. Often, a physical symptom a woman is already experiencing may become worse, or, conversely, may go away. My mother suffered from migraine headaches all of her adult life. Once she went through menopause, her headaches disappeared. According to herbalist Amanda MaQuade Crawford, around 10% of American women have no menopausal symptoms while 10% have some kind of severe health breakdown related to menopause.
Fortunately, many great resources are available with helpful information and suggestions. The suggestions offered here are not intended to replace the assistance of a qualified health practitioner. View them instead as possibilities to consider as you do your own search.
Exercise, especially a weight-bearing workout such as walking, bicycling or weight training, has been shown to help with osteoporosis, even if it is simply a couple of forty minute sessions per week. Gardening, tai chi, yoga, swimming or cross country skiing are also excellent choices, in reasonable doses, to help relieve nearly every symptom associated with menopause.
Increasing nutrient-rich foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and decreasing highly processed foods full of additives, sweeteners and empty calories help to provide your body with what it needs. If you are not used to a more natural diet, make the change gradually. Food preferences don’t change overnight. Take the time to notice how different foods affect you. A daily multivitamin and mineral may be helpful for maintaining optimal levels of nutrients. Some people experience stomach aches from their multivitamin, in which case make sure you take it with food. You might also benefit from trying one that is either iron-free or has an easily absorbed form of iron. Also, I find that whole-food or food-based supplements are much easier on the stomach.
Many herbs are used for either helping to relieve specific symptoms or for general support. Vitex agnes-castus is a good one to consider for the pre-menopausal stages. Black cohosh and dong quai are very popular for their ability to help diminish symptoms during and after menopause. Other herbs, such as red clover, ginseng, licorice root, motherwort and the bitters have a long history of use for menopausal struggles.
I love milk thistle so much that it gets its own section. This herb has been shown to be extremely safe and offers a protective and nourishing effect on the liver. The liver processes toxins, both those we absorb from the environment and our food and those that we create within. Many symptoms, such as hot flashes and night sweats, diminish when the liver is able to break down excess hormones that periodically flood the body during menopause. Amanda McQuade Crawford claimed once in a class that I attended, “When in doubt, use milk thistle.” A better functioning liver makes everything else work better.
I frequently use lavender, clary sage and frankincense for their calming effects. Clary sage is also considered a hormone balancer. Peppermint can offer a cooling effect for hot flashes. As essential oils are very concentrated, it’s best to dilute them in water of oil before using.
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are readily absorbed and are essential for producing hormones and maintaining connective tissue such as skin and joints. Also, they have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect and may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Be sure to take a high-quality fish oil that is free of pollutants and is not rancid
I try to spend some time every day simply sitting still, focusing on my breath and letting stray thoughts fly by. When I am in this still place, whether for 5 minutes or an hour, my burdens become lighter and I can find insights to my struggles. I like to call it “compassionate sitting,” as it allows me a space to practice compassion for myself and my own situation and also practice extending that to others.
Massage and Reiki
We are intended to be in a constant state of flux and movement. When the stuff we are made of stays still for too long, whether it is blood, lymph fluid, thoughts, emotions or energy, stagnation occurs. The body and mind compensate, often in ways that create dysfunction. Keep it flowing with a regular “tune-up”.
Listen to your body, your emotions, dreams and thoughts. What are they trying to tell you? Usually you can find that there are hints about how to live more fully. For example, about a year ago, I noticed that I was experiencing some pretty adverse (and embarrassing) reactions to alcohol. Over this past year, my body became less tolerant to drinking even a single glass of wine at dinnertime. I finally decided that the discomfort of drinking any alcoholic drink outweighs the fun I perceived I would have if I did have that drink. As I imbibed less, my body became more able to cope with the menopausal symptoms I was experiencing. It took me a whole year to get to that point, and I had to pay attention.
A woman’s life can be seen as a path from flower to fruit to seed. The seed is where the memory of all the rest is stored into one powerful package. The “midlife metamorphosis,” as Dr. Joan Borysenko refers to it, is an opportunity to reclaim your right to a full and healthy life. Best wishes on your journey.
-THE HERBAL MENOPAUSE BOOK by Amanda McQuade-Crawford, 1996, The Crossing Press.
-PRESCRIPTIONS FOR NUTRITIONAL HEALING by James and Phyllis Balch, Avery Publishing Group.
-THE ESTROGEN DECISION by Susan Lark, M.D., 1993, Celestialarts.
-WOMEN’S BODIES, WOMEN’S WISDOM by Christiane Northrup, M.D., 1998, Bantam Books.
– ENERGY MEDICINE FOR WOMEN by Donna Eden, 2008, Penguin Books.
– THE POWER OF INTENTION by Dr. Wayne Dyer, 2004, Hay House.