Hot flashes. Sweating. Irritability. All symptoms of menopause in women. The symptoms can make life very difficult for some while in women, the problems are not as evident. While it is a fact of life for all women, and a part of the normal course of aging, the process of menopause can be controlled and better managed, which might actually improve your overall health as well!
Menopause begins to impact women in their 40’s and 50’s, with symptoms that include:
- Reduced, absent, or irregular menstruation
- Reduced sex drive
- Irritability, moodiness, anxiety or depression
- Hot Flashes
- Vaginal dryness
- Sleeping difficulty
- Night sweats
- Skin and scalp dryness
- Hair loss or thinning
Why Does Menopause Happen?
Menopause is a natural event that occurs in women, much like ‘andropause‘ impacts men. It is a fact of life in both genders and a direct result of naturally declining hormone levels, with estrogen declining in women and testosterone in men. These are the primary sex hormones for each gender, giving the woman more female qualities and the man the more masculine effects. As the hormones begin to decline, the body becomes imbalanced and cellular function is impacted on many levels because those hormones act as messengers or signalers of events, impacting your physiology.
Our sex hormones, including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, are present in each of us regardless of gender, however the dominant hormones dictate who we are externally as a person, male or female. The primary organs for secretion of estrogen in the woman are the ovary and adrenal gland. The primary organs for testosterone secretion in the man is the testicle and adrenal gland. As we age, our glands begin to deteriorate and with that, cellular function is impacted negatively. Due to this age-related cellular deterioration, hormones are produced on a lower level, declining steadily with age. It has been proposed that peak estrogen and testosterone levels are around the age of 35 and then steadily decrease, often rapidly in some women and men.
Why the Nasty Symptoms in Menopause?
The truth is that our sex hormones are not just for creating a sex drive. They act as cellular signaling devices, turning on or off other cellular pathways. These can be associated with sex drive and arousal, but also skin and hair health, blood circulation, mental and cognitive health, bone health and even digestive health. A young man or woman in their 20’s often have very vibrant skin that is soft, good muscle tone, stamina and energy. This is all a result of increasing hormone levels in their body, being estrogen or testosterone respectively, which also impact HGH or human-growth-hormone.
As women age, estrogen levels begin to decline naturally, and with that, all of the cellular pathways impacted by that hormone are often negatively impacted. Cellular function, including those cells of the ovaries and testicles, degenerate over time due to the aging process, but aging is not just a ‘set’ event, but is further triggered by other factors. In truth, you age because of oxidative and inflammatory damage on a cellular level, which impacts the cell’s mitochondria. Create enough damage and cells can cease all activity or even mutate, creating other problems. Your diet, lifestyle, stress factors, genetics and many other contributors all play a role in the aging process.
Now, I could go into all of the science and specific cellular pathways involved with estrogen and reduced production over time, explaining the symptoms and why they happen, but in truth, this does not tell the whole story. If you take a step back and look at the body as a whole-unit, the process of menopause becomes rather interesting, as does ‘andropause’ in men.
Menopause; A Different Viewpoint
In the world of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), they view the body as a whole-unit, seeing any disease or ailment being a result of an imbalance within the body. In TCM we have 5-vital substances, which are not just dependent upon each other, but must be in balance for overall health. These 5-vital substances include:
- Essence (Jing)
The woman or female gender is typically seen as being more ‘Yin’, while the man or male gender is more ‘Yang’ by nature. Yin and Yang are terms kicked around loosely in society, almost becoming a bumper sticker phrase to effect, but in truth, they are very important and must be in balance. They do not refer to any ‘one’ thing in your body or health, but usually reflect an overall concept. For basic references here, ‘Yin’ refers to a calm, cooling, moisturizing type of property to the body, while “Yang” is more active, heating and drying. These two concepts, being Yin and Yang, are influenced in your body by your diet, lifestyle, genetics, gender and overall health. In TCM, both Yin and Yang are viewed as being ‘stored’ in the kidneys, which includes the adrenal glands.
What? You ask? The kidneys? What does that have anything to do with menopause?
Without getting too complicated, TCM also has a 5-organ system to go with those 5-vital substances, with the kidneys being one of the most important. Yin and Yang must be in balance for optimal health, as this balance then impacts the function of your entire body, including energy production, cardiovascular health, and digestion to name a few. The importance of the kidneys is that interestingly enough, this organ system is easily damaged or drained due to stress in our life (both mental and physical), excessive work (physical or mental), excessive sexual activity and other factors. Given today’s society of high stress, it is interesting to see the increased menopause rate being noted, with many younger than typical women experiencing symptoms. If you drain or stress those kidneys and you can impact Yin, Yang or other substances in the body. Couple that with improper eating habits and matters can escalate rather quickly.
As noted above, women are viewed as being more “yin’ in nature, thus the hormone estrogen is viewed as being ‘yin’ itself, cooling and moisturizing to effect. Thus, as women age and enter menopause, the ‘yin’ levels begin to drop and clinical signs are evident such as dry skin, hair loss, vaginal dryness, constipation and hot flashes. Further more, you have to remember that yin and yang are ideally in balance and both exist, so if you lower the ‘yin’ levels, the ‘yang’ levels are higher relatively speaking. Given this fact that relatively yang is now more dominant, women experience the hot flashes, the sweating, irritability and other concerns, which is the ‘yang’ aspect being more reflective. In essence, the woman in menopause is really shifting towards the yang side of things, being more male-like than female.
On another note, just like your body, the world and more specifically our day, has both yin and yang components. The daylight hours are associated with yang, being more warm in nature, and peak around 12 pm. The evening and night are associated with yin, being darker and cooler in nature, peaking around midnight. Thus, as the day shifts to afternoon and evening, this is a time of ‘yin’ in your body. The environment can provide some due to the hour, but your body should shift as well. If your body is deficient in it’s ‘yin’ component, it has a hard time shifting and as a result, the ‘yang’ component is still dominant. Thus, women experience most symptoms of menopause in the afternoon and evening hours, with the hot flashes and night sweats.
So, to sum things up, menopause equates to a reduced level of estrogen over time. This lowered estrogen, being ‘yin’ in nature, is cooling and moisturizing to the body. Thus, as estrogen levels drop, there is a tendency to swing to the opposite side, exhibiting signs of dryness and heat, being a relatively higher level of yang in your body. Make sense??
Menopause Management Options
In most instances, women just tend to ‘tough it out’, so to speak. It is a natural cycle of events in the body and over time, the symptoms become less severe or noticeable as hormones levels continue to decline and then stabilize. For other women, hormone replacement therapy is utilized and may provide some benefits, although there are risks associated with those therapies.
Supplements and dietary interventions become real options and can be quite effective when applied properly, impacting and relieving symptoms for many women during menopause. Let’s look at some options.
- Dietary intervention can be very helpful. It is important to keep in mind the ‘yin and yang’ aspect of things. All foods have ‘yin and yang’ energies to them, being either cooling or heating to your body. If you are experiencing menopause, ideally you wish to consume foods that are cooling and moisturizing, rather than heating and drying. If you consume too much spicy or hot foods, or too many ‘stimulating’ drinks which includes coffee, some teas and alcohol, these will encourage more ‘yang’ in the body and further deplete the ‘yin’ component. Cooling foods generally include vegetables, especially green veggies, and fruits of many types.
- There are many foods, specifically vegetables, which are helpful for menopause which include plums, apples, grapes, berries, beans, cabbage, spinach, hops, some grains, alfalfa and asparagus. The reason these foods can be helpful is two-fold. First, they are all moisturizing to your body, which impacts the ‘yin’ aspect. Second, they all contain phytoestrogens, which are plant derived estrogen compounds. These compounds are all-natural and can actually bind to estrogen receptors in your body, mimicking natural estrogen to an extent. This can then turn on those cellular pathways once again to help improve health and reduce symptoms of menopause.
- Herbs can be very powerful and include alfalfa leaf powder, asparagus (Shatavari) extract, black cumin (Nigella sativa), red clover, black cohosh root, ginseng, red raspberry leaf. Once again, these herbs can be vital sources for phytoestrogens, which can help your body to regain some balance, relieving symptoms of menopause.
Shatavari is an interesting herb, being a unique form of asparagus called Asparagus racemosus, which is different than the typical asparagus found in the grocery store or in the garden. Shatavari has a high level of natural plant chemicals called saponins, which appear to be very beneficial in female health on many levels. In one study, researchers evaluated the impact of stress upon female reproductive health disorders, noting that Shatavari supplementation could alleviate the cellular damage and improve symptoms (Pandey, 2018). In another research article, it was noted that Shatavari appears to target the estrogen receptor, which could be very beneficial in women with menopause (Sharma, 2018).
Overall, menopause in women is a fact of life and a natural age-related process. If you step back from it and look from another perspective, seeing the ‘yin and the yang’ in your body and life, solutions for better management become evident. It is very possible to intervene through your diet and supplementation, reduce the clinical symptoms of menopause, and even impact your overall health for the better with some simple changes.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN