Menopause happens to all women, but affects each woman uniquely. For some, the end of fertility (and the end of concerns about contraception) brings a sense of freedom. For others, it is a time of troublesome symptoms or perhaps the need for certain lifestyle adjustments. Menopause is a bridge to a point in life when many women report feeling more confident, empowered and energized than in their younger years. Menopause denotes the cessation of menstruation in women, which usually occurs when a woman reaches the age of fifty but may occur as early as 40 and as late as 55 years of age. Six to twelve months without a menstrual period is the commonly accepted rule for diagnosing menopause. The time period prior to menopause is referred to as perimenopausal, while the time period after menopause is referred to as postmenopausal. During the perimenopausal period, many women have irregular periods. In the United States, sixty-five to eighty percent of menopausal women experience hot flashes to some degree.
Menopause occurs when there are no longer any eggs left in the ovaries. This "burning out" of the ovaries reflects the natural course of events. At birth, there are about one million eggs (ova). This number drops to around 300,000 or 400,000 at puberty, but only about four hundred of these ova will actually mature during reproductive years. By the time a woman reaches the age of fifty, few eggs remain. With menopause, the absence of active follicles (the cellular housing of the egg) results in reduced production of estrogen and progesterone. In response to this drop in estrogen, the pituitary gland increases secretion of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH).
Fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone, which begin in premenopause (as early as age 40) can have a profound influence on the body’s internal balancing act. Hot flashes may result from surges of luteinizing hormone (LH) released by the body in a futile attempt to restore the declining estrogen levels that occur as women enter premenopause. During a hot flash, the pituitary gland releases luteinizing hormone (LH), in a futile attempt to restore estrogen levels. Surges of LH trigger sudden expansion of blood vessels in the face, neck, and upper body. Skin temperature rises and sweat glands are activated.
Low estrogen levels are linked to some uncomfortable symptoms in many women. The most common and easy to recognize symptom is hot flashes -- sudden intense waves of heat and sweating. Some women find that these hot flashes disrupt their sleep, and others report mood changes. Other symptoms may include irregular periods, vaginal or urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence (leakage of urine or inability to control urine flow), and inflammation of the vagina. Because of the changes in the urinary tract and vagina, some women may have discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse.
Recent reports in the medical literature have profoundly shaken popular beliefs about the safety of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for women in menopause. Women have spent $1 billion annually on the conventional medical approach. Now, six million women are searching for safe alternatives to relieve menopausal symptoms.
Public confidence in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) suffered a major blow in July 2002, when the government halted a large clinical trial out of concern for the safety of participants. The study, conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, was ended three years early because researchers found a small but unacceptable increase in the rate of breast cancer among women taking the estrogen/progestin combination. The study, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (7/17/02), also showed an increase in heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots in the lungs, and legs.
Cabbage family foods, including broccoli, Brussels' sprouts, cabbages, collards, kale, and mustard and turnip greens, are good food choice for women going through menopause. Not only for their ability to protect against breast cancer and heart disease, but also because of their high content of nutrients that are supportive of bone health such as calcium, magnesium, and folic acid.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that are capable of binding to estrogen receptors and can replace some of the effect of estrogen that is no longer being made. Increase intake of food high in phytoestrogen such as soy, flaxseeds, nuts, whole grains, apples, fennel, celery, parsley, and alfalfa, may help decrease hot flashes, increase maturation of vaginal cells, and inhibit osteoporosis. Clinical studies have shown eating soy foods (the equivalent of 2/3 cups of soybeans daily) to be effective in relieving hot flashes and vaginal atrophy.
In Southeast Asia,—where soy proteins comprise from 20% to 60% of daily protein intake, hot flashes are practically unknown. epidemiological studies suggest an association between a positive, trouble-free menopause and the consumption of large amounts of soy. Soy concentrate is rich in the isoflavone genistein. Soy isoflavones are phytoestrogens, plant compounds with a weak estrogenic effect, which can help balance estrogen levels. When the body is low in estrogen, as during menopause, phytoestrogens such as genistein may substitute for the lack of human estrogen, mitigating the effects of its absence. Soy isoflavones may help reduce hot flashes by minimizing the compensatory increase in luteinizing hormone.
Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is traditionally used by native American Indian to relieve menopausal symptoms. Black cohosh contains triterpene glycosides, expressed as 27-deoxyactein. This family of beneficial compounds may help reduce the occurrence of hot flashes. Black cohosh is powerful herbal support for women, clinically shown to reduce the hot flashes, mood swings and irritability associated with menopause. Research suggests black cohosh may reduce LH secretion, thereby lessening hot flashes. In a research involving 80 patients, either given black cohosh extract (two tablets twice daily, providing 4 mg 27-deoxyacteine daily), conjugated estrogens (0.625 mg daily), or placebo for 12 weeks, the black cohosh extract produced the best results in relieving menopausal symptoms. The number of hot flashes experienced each day dropped from an average of 5 to less than 1 in the black cohosh group. In comparison, the estrogen group dropped from only 5 to 3.5. Even more impressive was the effect of black cohosh on building up the vaginal lining.
Dong quai is the premier herb used in Traditional Chinese herbalism to optimize female reproductive health. Dong Quai is high in phytoestrogens and is amazingly effective in short-term treatments for alleviating menopausal symptoms.
Vitex (chasteberry) is a European traditional herb. Modern research suggests vitex affects the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, thus influencing female hormone production.
Specifically, modern research suggests that vitex inhibits the secretion of prolactin.
Kacip Fatimah is a traditional Malaysia herb used as after child birth tonic to restore the female reproductive system. Kacip Fatimah is used to contract the birth channel, restore elasticity, and moisture. Kacip Fatimah is high in Glycosides and may help restore female hormonal balance, and relieve menopausal symptoms.