Powerful Menopause

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Menopause. A time of freedom, growth and wisdom, or a quagmire of hot flashes, mood swings and unpredictable cycles?

In ancient societies, a woman's life was divided into three honored stages: Maiden, Mother and Crone (i.e. "crown"). In contrast, the writer Anna Quindlen describes our society as dividing women's lives into the three phases of pre-Babe, Babe and post-Babe. As "post-babes," menopausal women are viewed as having outlived their usefulness. As we age, our energy is often directed towards preserving youth, rather than developing the beauty and wisdom of our elder years. Because of this attitude, many of us find menopause to be a time of diminished power, loss of vitality, and drying up of the life force.

In matriarchal cultures, menopause was a time of arrival, a phase of life when women were revered. Elder women performed society's most important and challenging roles. They were the healers, midwives and the authorities on the entire life cycle, from child rearing, education and sexuality, to care of the dying and the dead. When Native American women reached menopause, they joined the "Grandmother Lodge," a society of women who had left behind their bleeding years, and became Keepers of the Law. They were empowered to scrutinize tribal decisions as their role shifted from nurturing the family to caring for the whole community.

Physiology of Menopause

A newborn baby girl has millions of egg follicles in her ovaries. Some of these are released during ovulation over the course of her fertile years. Most will atrophy, so that by age 51, the average age of menopause, only around 1,000 remain. As the eggs continue to diminish in number, ovulation may or may not occur, which causes the irregular cycling and unpredictable bleeding patterns of the perimenopausal years.

While many women experience a variety of physical and emotional changes during menopause, others are symptom free. Some will have a more difficult time, with enormous mood swings, frequent hot flashes and insomnia. Others will simply one day realize that their last period was six months ago. On the average, the unpleasant symptoms of menopause last about two years.

Menopause Remedies

As in most life transitions, our attitude will help determine our experience of menopause.

During menopause, the adrenal glands take over female hormone production, so it's crucial for women to keep these glands balanced and healthy. To strengthen your adrenals, minimize your exposure to adrenal-stressing substances such as alcohol, caffeine and refined sugars. You can make adrenal tonic teas with oatstraw (Avena sativa), nettles (Urtica dioica) and Licorice root (glycyrrhiza lipidota). Avoid Licorice if you tend to retain fluid or have high blood pressure. Chastetree (Vitex spp) is useful during early menopause to keep the periods regular and ovulation occurring for as long as possible.

Hot Flashes

Hot flashes affect approximately 80% of menopausal women and range in intensity from mild to totally debilitating. Herbalist Susun Weed compares hot flashes to the experience of anger, orgasm and enlightenment, as all are a release of kundalini energy. Instead of suppressing hot flashes, we can learn to ride the waves of a `power surge' or "Post Menopausal Zest" (as Margaret Mead called them) much the way we learned to breathe through the contractions of labor.

Regular exercise can reduce troublesome hot flashes for many women. One should avoid their own personal triggers, which may include spicy foods, hot drinks, caffeine, and repressed anger. Black cohosh (cimicifuga racemosa) and dong quai (Angelica sinensis) contain phytoestrogens, which reduce the frequency and severity of power surges. Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) contains natural progesterone, while Vitamin E has estrogen-like effects, both of which reduce hot flashes. Sage (Salvia officinalis) tea can be used to reduce perspiration if it is troublesome.

Osteoporosis

After menopause, decreased estrogen levels reduce your bones ability to absorb calcium. This can lead to thin, fragile bones, called osteoporosis. This epidemic causes the premature death of thousands of women a year, as a third of all women who fracture a hip die within a year of the injury.

The most important "treatment" for osteoporosis is prevention. Maximize your bone growth starting in your teens and 20's, when your bones are at their highest calcium absorbing capacity. This is best achieved by practicing a lifetime of aerobic, weight bearing exercise. In addition, 10-20 minutes of sunlight a day will help your body to create vitamin D, which is crucial for calcium absorption. Eat a diet high in calcium rich foods, such as dark leafy green vegetables, tahini, kelp, molasses, sardines and yogurt and other dairy products. You can also make herbal bone tonic teas from horsetail (Equisetum arvense), nettles (Urtica dioica), and dandelion Taraxacum officinalis).

Many women will benefit by supplementing their diets with calcium, most easily absorbed in the form of calcium citrate. Calcium is best absorbed during sleep, when the parathyroid gland is more active. You should avoid a diet high in fats and proteins and minimize intake of coffee and sodas, as these can deplete your bones' calcium stores.

Urogenital Atrophy

Later in menopause, your vaginal and urethral tissues lose collagen and become thinner and paler. Vaginal lubrication may decrease as well, causing itching, burning, and painful intercourse. Because of the thinning of the urethra and the relaxation of the muscles surrounding the bladder, you may experience stress urinary incontinence, a leakage of urine when you laugh, cough or sneeze.

One way to remedy this is to remain sexually active, as the increased blood flow to the genitals during sexual arousal will thicken the vaginal walls and muscles significantly. If dryness is a problem, a lubricant such as vitamin E, or wheat germ oil may be used to ease penetration. Varying sexual positioning and the creative use of pillows can also be helpful. Black cohosh (cimicifuga racemosa) and ginseng (Panax), in tincture or teas, can increase vaginal wall thickness. It is also crucial to make your relationship a priority, by creating intimate, private, undisturbed moments with your partner.

Stress urinary incontinence can very often be alleviated by exercising the pelvic floor muscles with `kegel exercises' and with biofeedback.

Estrogen and Hormone Replacement Therapy

Estrogen is protective against heart disease, the leading cause of death in American women over age 60. In ancient societies, a woman's life span often wasn't much longer than her reproductive years. In our modern society, a woman can expect to live more than a third of her life after menopause, without much protective estrogen. At menopause, estrogen levels sharply decrease, affecting those areas of the body that are especially sensitive to estrogen, such as the uterus, vagina, bladder, heart, bones and brain. How are we to deal with the withdrawal of such an important substance in our later years?

Natural remedies, including regular exercise, which can reduce your risk of heart attacks by 75%, and proper diet are the keys to prevention of heart disease. You should eat lots of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and high fiber foods. Try to avoid fatty foods, especially animal fats and highly refined foods. Fresh garlic helps prevent buildup of plaque in your heart's arteries. Smoking should absolutely be avoided. Hawthorne berry (Crataegus) is protective to the heart, and can also be helpful for menopausal insomnia.

Some believe that virtually every menopausal woman should be taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for life in order to relieve and prevent the symptoms of menopause, especially osteoporosis and heart disease. Others believe that the synthetic estrogens of HRT carry too many risks, especially breast and uterine cancer and should not be used by any woman.

The truth is that for some women HRT makes a tremendous improvement in quality of life. Many other women prefer to manage menopause with a more natural approach that emphasizes dietary changes, exercise, sunlight, meditation, and herbal and homeopathic remedies. These powerful healing tools can keep our bones, hearts and adrenals strong for many decades. For those who need it, specially compounded natural hormone replacement can ease discomfort and prevent osteoporosis with minimal side effects and without increasing the risk of cancer.

Ultimately, menopause is a time to reflect, a time to take stock of your life and to assess where you have been and where you are going. Most important is an inner purpose, peace and a passion for embracing all that life sends your way. In the words of Lao-Tse:

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.

Do not resist -- that only creates sorrow.

Let reality be reality

Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like."

If we could anticipate and look forward to menopause, work with our natural energies and not against them, our transition would be smoothed. Let us celebrate and honor the crone within us and the crones among us!

The above suggestions are meant as general advice; it is wise to consult your health care provider for an individualized plan of care for your particular set of symptoms and circumstances.

Sentient Press.

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By Sue Mauer Morningstar

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