What is the Menopause?
Menopause represents the end of menstruation. While technically it refers to the final period, it is not an abrupt event, but a gradual process. Menopause is not a disease that needs to be cured, but a natural life-stage transition.
Many women have irregular periods and other problems of “pre-menopause” for years. It’s not easy to predict when menopause begins. Eight out of every hundred women stop menstruating before age 40. At the other end of the spectrum, five out of every 100 continue to have periods until they are almost 60. The average age of menopause is 51.
There’s no mathematical formula to figure out when the ovaries will begin to scale back either, but a woman can get a general idea based on her family history, body type, and lifestyle. Women who began menstruating early will not necessarily stop having periods early as well. It is true that a woman will likely enter menopause at about the same age as her mother. Menopause may occur later than average among smokers.
Once a woman enters puberty, each month her body releases one of the more than 400,000 eggs that are stored in her ovaries, and the lining of the womb (uterus) thickens in anticipation of receiving a fertilized egg. If the egg isn’t fertilized, progesterone levels drop and the uterine lining sheds and bleeds.
By the time a woman reaches her late 30s or 40s, her ovaries begin to shut down, producing less oestrogen and progesterone and releasing eggs less often. The gradual decline of oestrogen causes a wide variety of changes in tissues that respond to oestrogen…including the vagina, vulva, uterus, bladder, urethra, breasts, bones, heart, blood vessels, brain, skin, hair, and mucous membranes. Over the long run, the lack of oestrogen can make a woman more vulnerable to osteoporosis (which can begin in the 40s) and heart disease.
As the levels of hormones fluctuate, the menstrual cycle begins to change. Some women may have longer periods with heavy flow followed by shorter cycles and hardly any bleeding. Others will begin to miss periods completely. During this time, a woman also becomes less able to get pregnant.
The most common symptom of menopause is a change in the menstrual cycle, but there are a variety of other symptoms as well, including…
• Hot Flushes
• Night Sweats
• Mood Swings/Irritability
• Memory or Concentration Problems
• Vaginal Dryness
• Heavy Bleeding
• Hair Changes
• Heart Palpitations
• Sexual Disinterest
• Urinary Changes
• Weight Gain
The clearest indication of menopause is the absence of a period for one year. It is also possible to diagnose menopause by testing hormone levels. One important test measures the levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which rise steadily as a woman ages.
However, as a woman first enters menopause, her hormones often fluctuate wildly from day to day. For example, if a woman’s oestrogen levels are high and progesterone is low, she may have mood swings, irritability, and other symptoms similar to premenstrual syndrome (PMS). As hormone levels shift and oestrogen level falls, hot flushes occur. Because of these fluctuations, a normal hormone level when the blood is tested may not necessarily mean the levels were normal the day before or will be the day after.
When a woman enters menopause, her levels of oestrogen drop and annoying symptoms (such as hot flushes and vaginal dryness) begin.
Some women report success in using natural remedies to treat the unpleasant symptoms of menopause. Not all women need oestrogen and some women can’t take it. Many doctors don’t want to give hormones to women who are still having their periods, however erratically. Indeed, only a third of menopausal women in the United States try HRT and of those who do, eventually half of them drop the therapy. Some are worried about breast cancer, some can’t tolerate the side effects, and some don’t want to medicate what they consider to be a natural occurrence.
Herbs have been used to relieve menopausal symptoms for centuries. Women who choose to take herbs for menopausal symptoms should learn as much as possible about herbs and work with a qualified practitioner (an herbalist, a traditional Chinese doctor, a Kinesiologist or a naturopathic physician). Pregnant women should avoid herbs because of unknown effects on a developing fetus.
The following list of herbs include those that herbalists most often prescribe to treat menstrual complaints…
• Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa): hot flushes and other menstrual complaints
• Black currant: breast tenderness
• Chaste tree/chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus): hot flushes, excessive menstrual bleeding, fibroids, and moodiness
• Evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis): mood swings, irritability, and breast tenderness
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): hot flushes, digestive gas, and bloating
• Flaxseed (linseed): excessive menstrual bleeding, breast tenderness, and other symptoms, including dry skin and vaginal dryness
• Gingko (Gingko biloba): memory problems
• Ginseng (Panax ginseng): hot flushes, fatigue and vaginal thinning
• Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata): memory problems, fuzzy thinking
• Lady’s mantle: excessive menstrual bleeding
• Mexican wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) root: vaginal dryness, hot flushes and general menopause symptoms
• Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca): night sweats, hot flushes
• Oat (Avena sativa) straw : mood swings, anxiety
• Red clover (Trifolium pratense): hot flushes
• Sage (Salvia officinalis): mood swings, headaches, night sweats
• Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): insomnia
Many women find that yoga (the ancient meditation /exercise developed in India 5,000 years ago) can ease menopausal symptoms. Yoga focuses on helping women unite the mind, body, and spirit to create balance. Because yoga has been shown to balance the endocrine system, some experts believe it may affect hormone-related problems. Studies have found that yoga can reduce stress, improve mood, boost a sluggish metabolism, and slow the heart rate. Specific yoga positions deal with particular problems, such as hot flushes, mood swings, vaginal and urinary problems, and other pains.
Exercise helps ease hot flushes by lowering the amount of circulating FSH and LH and by raising endorphin levels (which drop while you’re having a hot flush). Even exercising 20 minutes three times a week can significantly reduce hot flushes.
Regular, daily bowel movements to eliminate waste products from the body can be crucial in maintaining balance through menopause. The bowels are where circulating hormones are gathered and eliminated, keeping the body from recycling them and causing an imbalance.
The ancient Asian art of Acupuncture involves placing very thin needles into different parts of the body to stimulate the system and unblock energy. It is usually painless and has been used for many menopausal symptoms, including insomnia, hot flushes, and irregular periods. Practitioners believe that acupuncture can facilitate the opening of blocked energy channels, allowing the life force energy (chi) to flow freely. This allows the menopausal woman to keep her energy moving. Blocked energy usually increases the symptoms of menopause.
Therapeutic massage involving acupressure can bring relief from a wide range of menopause symptoms by placing finger pressure at the same meridian points on the body that are used in acupuncture. There are more than 80 different types of massage, including foot reflexology, Shiatsu massage, or Swedish massage, but they are all based on the idea that boosting the circulation of blood and lymph benefits health.
Some women have been able to control hot flushes through biofeedback, a painless technique that helps a person train her mind to control her body. A biofeedback machine provides information about body processes (such as heart rate) as the woman relaxes her body. Using this technique, it is possible to control the body’s temperature, heart rate, and breathing.