Green Medicine for Menopause ~ HERBS TO THE RESCUEJulia Woodford July 1, 2010
Whew, the summer heat is on and nobody feels it more than a menopausal woman. Trust me on that. When beads of sweat start to trickle down your neck, and that warm glow becomes a raging fire, you want nothing more than to tear off your clothes and jump in the lake (which would be fun if there was actually a lake nearby). Alas, urban women must resort to more dignified methods for relief from hot flashes and other discomforts of the menopausal years.
An estimated 3 million Canadian women (1 in 6) will reach menopause over the next decade. Whether this time of great change in a woman’s life is experienced as a welcome transition into deep maturity, or dreaded as a slippery slope towards old age, depends on how well she avails herself of the tools available in nature’s pharmacy.
HELP FOR EXHAUSTED ADRENALS
According to Dr. Verna Hunt, ND, the most common cause of menopausal symptoms is adrenal exhaustion. By mid-life, many women are feeling the cumulative effects of a life spent juggling the demands of work and family, and their adrenal glands are burning out. According to Hunt: “Abnormal adrenal function shows up during menopause in the form of hot flashes, brain fog, moodiness, dizziness, aching body, and loss of sexual responsiveness.”
She goes on to say: “Many women find that supporting the adrenal glands and balancing their hormone system with natural health remedies, acupuncture, bodywork and other therapies during menopause is key to improving the experience:
• Acupuncture can improve deficiencies in ‘kidney yin chi’, which will then strengthen adrenal function;
• Foods that build kidney yin include mung beans, string beans, black beans, lentils, wild rice, millet, barley, parsley, asparagus, seaweed, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries;
• Primrose oil, Borage seed oil, and Flax oil in correct ratios can help alleviate numerous menopausal symptoms;
• Botanical medicines can also help rebalance hormones:
Dong Quai – assists with balancing “blood deficiency”
Black Cohosh – decreases hot flashes, promotes relaxation
Wild Yam – promotes progesterone formation
Sequoia (Gemmotherapy) – decreases hot flashes
Vitex – has a balancing effect on progesterone; helps with mood and decreased libido.”
Susun Weed, author of Menopausal Years: The Wise Woman Approach, believes that mid-life anxiety and stress can clobber the adrenals, which in turn gives rise to menopausal symptoms. To calm the mind and body, she recommends daily exercise to blow off stress: “Yoga postures, yogic breathing, and quiet focused meditation tonify (and soothe) the sympathetic nervous system. Regular practice alleviates anxiety, often permanently.”
Sometimes all it takes is a walk in the park, doing slow deep breathing along the way, to calm the mind, refresh the adrenals, and relieve menopausal symptoms naturally. Hot flashes can be viewed as a signal to slow down, retreat, and take time out for oneself.
Adrenal exhaustion can also cause insomnia and sleep disturbances, resulting in a lack of deep rest needed for healing. To improve your odds of a good sleep:
– don’t eat heavy foods after about 7 pm, especially meat, as the digestive process can cause insomnia and disrupt sleep late at night. Instead, choose a light healthy snack if you get the evening munchies (Black Sesame seeds or Nettle soup are yin-nourishing snacks).
– St. John’s Wort is a nerve-nourishing and strengthening herb that helps to relieve anxiety. Take a dropperful or two in a glass of organic red wine during the evening. If the wine brings on hot flashes, then add water to thin it out.
– Herbs such as Skullcap, Motherwort, and Valerian have a tranquilizing effect, and can be safely taken before bed to promote a restful sleep (a few drops of tincture in a glass of red wine or water).
– Move all sources of EMF away from the bed or out of the bedroom, as these can overstimulate or aggravate the nervous system (computers, cell phones, radios, clocks, etc).
HERBAL ALLIES FOR HORMONE BALANCING
According to Andrea Fleetwood, RNCP, RHN, the natural way of working with the process of peri-menopause and menopause, and minimizing the discomforts associated with it, is to restore hormonal balance naturally. She prefers herbal medicines which are backed by a long history of use in folklore medicine combined with modern research:
– Maca Root: This nutrition-packed root vegetable, also known as “peruvian ginseng,” is reputed to increase energy and physical stamina while nourishing the endocrine glands and alleviating menopausal symptoms. It is rich in amino acids, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and has been used as a traditional source of both food and medicine by indigenous people since the time of the Incas. Maca is a powerful adaptogen (an agent that assists the body to find balance) that has long been used to treat menopausal symptoms and is now being prescribed by some health practitioners as a safe alternative to synthetic HRT.
According to Fleetwood, “Maca’s reputation as a powerful enhancer of strength, stamina, and libido-fertility goes back more than 500 years, and today it is gaining worldwide attention. From a nutritional standpoint, maca is rich in natural sugar, proteins, starches, and important minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorous.”
Because Maca root powder is such a powerful herb, some herbalists recommend that you start at a low dosage, building up the dosage gradually over a period of months, and take one day per week off from it to allow the body to adjust.
– Gamma Oryzanol may reduce symptoms of menopause including hot flashes. It is a sterol-like structure, a mixture of ferulic acid esters of sterols and triterpene alcohols, extracted from rice bran oil and other grain oils such as corn and barley. It serves as an important antioxidant within plant cells. Ferulic acid compounds are also present in many foods including oats, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, olives, and vegetables. Sterols are compounds found throughout the plant kingdom, with many vital biological functions.
Gamma-Oryzanol appears to act on the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, assisting in regulating these hormones. Studies show that Gamma-Oryzanol has also displayed an anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety effect in animal models.
Japanese studies suggest that gamma oryzanol may be useful in treating the symptoms of menopause. In one study (1), women who had undergone a hysterectomy, which is the equivalent of surgical menopause, were instructed to take 100 mg of gamma oryzanol three times daily. Over half of the women reported a 50% reduction in menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes (2). Another study gave 40 women 300 mg of gamma oryzanol daily for 4 to 8 weeks. On a survey, 80 to 85% of them felt that their symptoms had “generally recovered.”
– Black Cohosh has a long-standing reputation as a remedy for the treatment of “female complaints.” Root extracts were used by Cherokee and Iroquois Indians to relieve pain; treat rheumatism, coughs, and colds; as a gargle for sore throat; and to treat menstrual irregularities.
According to MenopauseRx.com, “One commercial standardized black cohosh preparation is Remifemin®, which contains black cohosh extract equivalent to 20 mg of root per tablet. It has been used for decades in Germany to treat menopause symptoms. In fact, the German Commission E (equivalent to the U.S. FDA) has done extensive testing under government supervision to determine the efficacy and safety of hundreds of herbal products. Black Cohosh has received an approval status by this Commission. This approval states that black cohosh is safe when used according to prescribed dosage and helpful for premenstrual discomfort and menopause symptoms.
A 1998 study by Liske, et al (3) revealed that 40 milligrams per day of Remifemin® was well tolerated and decreased menopause symptoms in over 70% of participants. And a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that black cohosh has benefit in relieving hot flashes and other menopause symptoms.
More research, reported on iherb.com, indicates: “In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 97 menopausal women received black cohosh, estrogen, or placebo for 3 months. The results indicated that the herb reduced overall symptoms (such as hot flashes) to the same extent as the drug [estrogen]. In addition, microscopic analysis showed that black cohosh had an estrogen-like effect on the cells of the vagina. This is a positive result because it suggests that black cohosh might reduce vaginal thinning. However, black cohosh did not affect the cells of the uterus in an estrogen-like manner; this too is a positive result, as estrogen’s effects on the uterus are potentially harmful. Finally, the study found hints that black cohosh might help protect bone. (4)
– Dong Quai promotes hormonal balance and helps keep estrogen and progesterone levels within the normal range. As one of the most important of the Chinese tonic herbs, Dong Quai has been used for centuries by Asian healers to support the balance of female hormones and promote hormonal health during menopause and peri-menopause. It is sometimes called the “female ginseng.”
Scientific studies on Dong Quai suggest it relieves menstrual disorders such as cramps, irregular menstrual cycles, infrequent periods, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and some menopausal symptoms.
Some lab tests suggest that Dong Quai contains compounds that help reduce pain, dilate blood vessels, and stimulate and relax uterine muscles. According to Susun Weed, “Dong Quai’s warming, relaxing qualities bring ease to the entire pelvis, relieving aches and spasms in the uterus, vagina, bladder, ligaments and muscles. As its healing energy moves to the head, it throws off headaches. And it stirs the kidneys to eliminate excess fluid, ending swollen ankles and bloated bellies.”
– Chaste Tree Berry: This large shrub is native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Also referred to as Vitex, it has traditionally been used in European folklore medicine for hemorrhaging following childbirth, as well as menstrual regulation.
Modern research has confirmed its use for menstrual regulation, and the berries are now widely used by herbalists to restore balance and function to the female reproductive system by stimulating the natural production of progesterone.
Vitex, like many other herbs, exerts a normalizing influence on the body, restoring that which is absent, and constraining excessive tendencies. Vitex influences the pituitary gland, reducing the production of certain hormones and increasing the production of others.
Vitex encourages the pituitary gland to produce luteinizing hormone. This increases progesterone production and helps regulate a woman’s cycle.
Vitex has been used with great effect in restoring absent menstruation, regulating heavy periods, restoring fertility when caused by hormonal imbalance, relieving PMS tension, and easing the changes involved with menopause. Overall, Chaste Tree Berry has reported having a normalizing effect on the hormonal system.
– Schizandra is known in Chinese medicine as “wu weizi”, or five-flavoured herb. Schizandra is considered one of the elite herbs of the Chinese system of herbalism. In ancient times it was considered the quintessential tonic herb and master of the five elements.
Schizandra is a powerful adaptogen said to be youth-preserving and beautifying. It is also reputed to be an excellent sexual tonic, a blood purifier, memory improver and liver cleanser.
Schizandra is considered a mild sedative that exerts a soothing and quieting effect on the body, and has been helpful in cases of insomnia, stress, dizziness, motion sickness, excessive sweating, headache, heart palpitations, anxiety and other problems associated with emotional stress. As well, schizandra appears to play a role in the regulation of symptoms associated with menopause.
Overall, these herbs are currently the most widely used green medicines for relief from the symptoms of menopause. With judicious use of botanical remedies, most women will find that their menopausal years can be an enjoyable and empowering experience. Consult a health professional to help determine which combination is right for you.
Dr. Verna Hunt practices as a chiropractor and naturopathic doctor at her clinic, The Centre for Health and Well Being, at 2927 Dundas St. West in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 604-8240 or visit www.healthandwellbeing.info
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‘NEW’ MENOPAUSAL YEARS: The Wise Woman Way, by Susun Weed, Ashtree Publishing 2002, www.ashtreepublishing.com