A Guide to The Great Change

Integrative care for menopause
By Cara Lucas

If you have considered selling the home heating system at a yard sale, if you write your kids’ names on post-it notes around the house, or if you define “a good time” as getting a few hours of uninterrupted sleep—it’s time to face the music.

You are menopausal.

Besides the obvious physical differences between men and women, our true distinction lurks in the far corners of the mind, in the delicate balance between testosterone and estrogen. The distinction rears its ugly head in the form of erratic behaviors unfamiliar (and often unexplainable) to the opposite sex, often leaving them in a foggy bubble of self-conscious awareness. Mastering these hormones can work wonders for you and for your relationships. Even better, this can be done through a variety of natural, complementary methods.

The average age for the onset of menopause is 51. Those going through menopause typically experience night sweats, fatigue, forgetfulness, low libido, and the infamous hot flashes that all work together to ambush the body. Some women notice changes in their skin, digestive tract, and hair as well. Prolonged periods of reduced estrogen may contribute to cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, conditions that can be addressed naturally with supplements.

INTEGRATIVE TREATMENT

Gone are the days of only having a single option to combat The Great Change. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) conducted with synthetic hormones used to serve as the only effective treatment for women during menopause. Even though it is somewhat effective in alleviating menopausal symptoms, including preventing osteoporosis, studies completed over the past 10 years show potentially harmful side effects of these synthetic components as well.

Because of the associated risks with conventional HRT, some women look to supplements to provide answers for their bothersome symptoms. What works for one woman may not work for another—the important thing is that women are no longer blindly accepting HRT as their only treatment plan.

Approaching menopause from a holistic view means addressing nutrition and lifestyle choices.

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Eat wisely: A balanced diet will provide most of the nutrients and calories your body needs to stay healthy. Cortisol (the stress hormone) is sent out by your adrenals and is tied to your circadian rhythms, so you want to keep yourself nourished to prevent your blood sugar levels from dropping and forcing your adrenals to send out more of that fight-or-flight hormone. Cortisol levels peak between 6:00 am and 8:00 am, which makes having a nutritious breakfast especially important.

Exercise: Incorporate cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening exercises into your daily routine. Regular exercise can help keep your hormones balanced and increase mood-boosting endorphins. Yoga is wonderful for women, thanks to its blend of gentle physical exercise and breathing techniques.

Rest up: Adult women need seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Rehabilitate your sleep schedule by removing electronic distractions from the bedroom, avoiding caffeinated beverages after noon, and exposing yourself to bright lights in the morning and dim lights in the evening. Milk, yogurt, peanuts, and cheese also promote restful slumber.

Stop smoking and avoid caffeine and alcohol: All of these substances can cause drastic changes in mood and interfere with the ability of blood vessels to dilate or constrict.

SUPPLEMENTS FOR MENOPAUSE

Besides the aforementioned lifestyle changes, supplements and herbs can also help alleviate those dreaded menopause symptoms.

Ashwagandha: Called “mood food,” this adaptogenic herb calms nerves and lifts spirits.

Black Cohosh Extract: This is a popular herb that clinical trials show to improve hot flashes and mood swings. Research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry offers an explanation for the herb’s efficacy. It targets the serotonin receptors in the hypothalamus—the  part of your brain that produces hormones to regulate body temperature—to offer relief from hot flashes. Serotonin also affects mood, which is why the herb helps alleviate mood swings, says Susan Lark, MD, a women’s health specialist.

Wild Yam Extract: Long regarded for its positive effects on menopausal women, wild yam extract provides antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic properties, which help alleviate the effects of stress and fatigue. Wild yams also have estrogenic properties and can be used as an estrogen replacement.

Flaxseed: If you want to take a stab at killing those hot flashes, studies tout flaxseed as nature’s best weapon to fight them. Flaxseed is a great source of lignans and contains over 100 times the amount found in grains, fruits, and vegetables. Naturally occurring substances found in plants, lignans are phytoestrogens, plant compounds that can modulate the metabolism and use of estrogen—a fact that could eliminate or alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, sweating, and vaginal dryness.

Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA): Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are as vital to your diet as vitamins and minerals. But the fact is (especially if you are following the typical Western diet), we simply don’t get enough EFAs through food. Borage oil, an omega-6 fatty acid, is one of nature’s richest sources of GLA and benefits the skin, PMS, arthritis and inflammation, and cardiovascular health. GLA is formed from linoleic acid and requires the use of a specific enzyme called delta-6-desaturase (D6D) which can be particularly low in aging women. Supplementing with GLA can help relieve symptoms of perimenopause and menopause including nighttime flashes, inflammation, fluid retention, depression, and irritability.

Holy Basil: Another adaptogen, this ayurvedic herb reduces stress and guards against fatigue.

Motherwort: A lovely herb to calm anxiety, it also helps promote restful sleep.

Licorice Root: Mildly estrogenic, licorice stimulates the adrenals and may ease depression. Don’t use if you have high blood pressure.

Soy Isoflavones: Soy products are popular for a variety of health concerns today. Genistein and daidzein are phytoestrogens present in soybeans. As a result of their estrogenic properties, many women who have a high dietary intake of soy experience fewer menopausal symptoms and have a lower incidence of breast cancer than women who consume lesser amounts of soy. Isoflavones are classified as phytoestrogens and thereby exhibit similar effects to the lignans found in flaxseed. Soy isoflavones are useful in maintaining or increasing bone density, and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering blood cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Raspberry Leaf: This tonic herb eases cramping and tones the uterus.

Sea Buckthorn: High in omega-7, it combats vaginal dryness and regenerates thinning mucous membranes.

Siberian Rhubarb Root Extract (Err731): This powerful extract of Siberian rhubarb (not the garden variety rhubarb!) has been shown in a number of trials to quickly reduce hot flashes in menopausal women—clinical results show it to be just as effective as standard hormone therapies.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Remember, these supplements aren’t all created equal. As researchers continue to explore and scientifically evaluate supplements for women with menopausal symptoms, you can rest assured that there are natural options to get you out of the funk and feeling good again.