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.
Nutritional Therapy for Menopause
Nutritional therapists hold that certain foods or nutrient deficiencies can trigger or exacerbate symptoms. Still other foods may boost the body's tolerance for fluctuating hormone levels. Soybean products such as tofu contain natural plant estrogens (phytoestrogens) that may reduce menopausal symptoms. Japanese women, whose diet is typically high in soy foods, report few incidents of menopause-induced hot flashes. Phytoestrogens are also found in lima beans, berries, and several other foods.
Another preventive measure is drinking at least eight glasses of purified water per day to ease hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Particular foods may trigger hot flashes, mood swings, vaginal discomforts, and other menopausal symptoms. These culprits include sugar, caffeine, alcohol, refined foods, and spicy foods. Keeping a diary that notes symptoms and food intake can be helpful in pinpointing which foods may be provoking which symptoms.
Vitamin E offers several benefits for women with menopause. Oral supplements of the vitamin can ease hot flashes (and perhaps also headaches, insomnia, nervousness, fatigue, and other symptoms), while vitamin E oil applied to the vagina may reduce dryness and relieve painful sexual intercourse. Good food sources of vitamin E include kale, wheat germ, almonds, vegetable oils, and egg yolks.
Another group of vitamins, the B complex, helps relieve hot flashes for some women, and magnesium may help with other menopausal symptoms, such as fatigue, as this may be caused by a magnesium deficiency. Other helpful supplements include:
- vitamin A
- vitamin C
- essential fatty acids (evening primrose oil, black currant oil, borage oil, flaxseed oil)
- bioflavonoids (especially hesperidin for hot flashes)
Traditional Chinese Medicine for Menopause
During menopause, a woman's body adjusts to the changing hormone levels. According to traditional Chinese medicine, a bothersome menopausal symptom will appear only if the body's vital life energy, or qi, (in particular the kidney qi) is out of balance. Treatment to correct this imbalance may involve any combination of herbal therapy, acupuncture, moxibustion, dietary changes, and qigong.
Chinese herbs are often prescribed in combination mixtures that are individualized to the patient's situation. Dong quai, for example, can be used to relieve the hot flashes, anxiety, and constipation that may accompany menopause. Other Chinese herbs commonly included in menopause treatments are:
Acupuncture is particularly effective in easing annoying hot flashes and night sweats. A traditional Chinese physician will tailor a menopause treatment program for the patient after performing an extensive examination, which often includes questioning, an analysis of the diet, feeling the pulse, and examining the tongue. Using powerful herbs such as dong quai and ginseng without a practitioner's supervision is not recommended.
Other Menopause Therapies
- Ayurvedic Medicine for Menopause -- Treatment involves dietary and lifestyle alterations, herbal therapy, meditation, and other therapies, all focused toward balancing the body's constitution.
- Biofeedback Training for Menopause -- Thermal biofeedback, together with relaxation techniques, can teach women to control their blood flow and relieve hot flashes.
- Bodywork for Menopause -- Massage is used to improve blood circulation and lower tension and stress.
- Homeopathy for Menopause -- Remedies tailored to the individual can treat hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia, and other symptoms.
- Hypnotherapy for Menopause -- Hypnotic trances can ease or eliminate hot flashes, insomnia, anxiety, and other accompanying disorders.
- Meditation for Menopause -- Regular practice can clear the mind and bring lowered heart rates and blood pressure, thereby eliminating mood swings and other symptoms.