Workout Wonders

Regular aerobic and weight-bearing exercise is a smart move for preventing heart disease and osteoporosis. The workouts, ideally performed at least three times a week, can also induce relaxation (valuable in easing mood swings, hot flashes, and insomnia), stimulate blood circulation in the lower body (important for vaginal dryness and infections), and stimulate endorphin production (relieving hot flashes).

Menopause -- also called "the change of life" -- is the ending of a woman's monthly menstrual periods and ovulation (the production of eggs). It also signals other changes to the body and mind, brought on in part because the body begins producing smaller amounts of the hormones estrogen and progesterone (among others). Menopause typically occurs between the ages of 45 and 55.

Alternative therapists often frown on widespread use of estrogen replacement therapy, citing its potential side effects and emphasizing that menopause is a natural occurrence, not a disease or a state of deficiency that requires aggressive treatment. Alternative treatments offer ways to ease or avoid some of the annoying symptoms of menopause. Additionally, osteoporosis and heart disease, whose risks increase with menopause, may be prevented with alternative methods.

Herbal Medicine for Menopause

Herbs that mimic female hormones or relieve symptoms ranging from fatigue to vaginal dryness offer a lot of promise to women during menopause. Several herbs contain natural plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) that are similar to but weaker than the estrogen hormone found in a woman's body. These herbs, including black cohash, false unicorn root, and licorice, are often prescribed to ease the troublesome symptoms of menopause. Other phytoestrogens include alfalfa, dong quai, and soy.

Mexican wild yam, on the other hand, provides a substance similar to another female hormone, progesterone. A modified extract of the yam is used instead of synthetic progesterone to treat irritability and other menopausal symptoms and even increase bone density, with few if any reported side effects. It's available in capsules, as an oil, and as a cream. Most research now indicates that wild yam does not convert to progesterone in the body as was previously speculated, but the chemically converted extract seems effective.

From another class of herbs is Siberian ginseng (eleuthero) -- a well-known energy tonic that can reduce irritability and fatigue associated with menopause. It's typically used in tincture or capsule form.

Evening primrose oil is often prescribed to lessen fatigue, hot flashes, and indigestion. The oil, made from evening primrose seeds, contains the essential fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid, which is given credit for reducing those symptoms. It's available in capsule form.

Other helpful herbs include:

  • chamomile and valerian root for insomnia
  • dandelion root, Oregon grape, and chastetree (vitex) for hot flashes
  • chickweed, cleavers, and valerian root for mood swings
  • aloe vera and calendula for vaginal dryness

An herbalist might prescribe, for example, a combination of Mexican wild yam, dong quai, licorice (in the absence of high blood pressure), alfalfa, and chastetree to reduce irritability triggered by menopause.

Yoga for Menopause

Yoga delivers benefits to both the body and mind, alleviating menopausal symptoms such as insomnia, depression, hot flashes, and mood swings. It encourages deep breathing and relaxation, maintains muscle tone and flexibility, improves blood circulation, and increases the levels of mood-regulating chemicals in the brain, among other advantages.

Because menopausal women are concerned with osteoporosis and heart disease, yoga is doubly valuable. It provides weight-bearing exercise that encourages strong bones. And, as several clinical studies have shown, it can contribute to lower cholesterol and improve the efficiency of the heart. Yoga sessions are most effective when they last from 20 to 60 minutes and are performed three to seven times a week. They include a combination of breathing exercises, warm-ups, poses, and meditation.

The following pose might be part of a complete yoga routine that can help alleviate menopausal symptoms. It emphasizes good posture and breathing:

  • Stand up straight with your feet together.
  • Put your hands behind your back and clasp them together. Keep your arms straight.
  • Inhale deeply.
  • As you exhale, slowly bend forward, letting your arms extend straight up toward the ceiling and your head hang down gently. Try not to bend your knees.
  • Inhale and slowly come back up to a standing position.
  • Repeat two times.