What is menopause?
Menopause is the permanent end of a woman's monthly period. A woman has reached menopause when she has ceased having periods for one year. In North America, women usually go through menopause between the ages of 45 and 55. When menopause occurs before age 40, it is considered premature.
As menopause nears in a healthy woman, the ovaries begin to gradually reduce the amount of estrogen, progesterone and androgens they produce.
Estrogen is the main female sex hormone, and it controls the development of a woman's secondary sex characteristics. Estrogen also prompts the growth of a uterine lining during a woman's menstrual cycle and maintains that lining during pregnancy. However, estrogen is far more than a reproductive hormone, as it has wide-ranging effects on other parts of a woman's body, including her:
- Urinary tract
- Blood vessels
- Portions of the brain
Progesterone is important in maintaining a regular menstrual cycle.
The role of androgens is less well documented. A reduction in androgen levels may contribute to the decline in energy levels and sexual desire that women sometimes experience during menopause
As a woman's hormone levels decline, she may begin to notice signs that her hormones are fluctuating. Common symptoms include:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Erratic monthly periods, often combined with unusually heavy menstrual bleeding
- Vaginal dryness and thinning of the tissues of the vagina and urethra
- Increase in facial hair and thinning of hair on scalp
Every woman has a different experience through menopause. Some women have very few of these symptoms and find them easy to manage. Other women, though, have such bad symptoms that they lose sleep and their mood suffers.
If you're struggling with symptoms of menopause, talk to your health care provider about hormone replacement therapy or alternative remedies to ease symptoms of menopause. And talk to your health care provider immediately if your bleeding occurs more frequently than every 21 days or if there is heavy bleeding that lasts more than seven days.
Alternative Therapies to Ease Symptoms
Today, women are seeking herbal and nutritional therapies to ease hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. While many herbal remedies may help ease those discomforts, these therapies have not been proven to reduce risk of heart disease or osteoporosis. If you're considering alternative therapies, talk to your health care provider. Note, though, that not all doctors feel comfortable recommending herbal or nutritional therapies for symptoms of menopause.
These leading female herbs, deemed safe by the FDA, appear to balance estrogen in the body when the human hormone level becomes too low or too high. They are available dried, as capsules or tinctures, or in teas:
- Dong quoi (Angelica sinesis) -- To quell hot flashes and regulate hormonal production. Investigators have confirmed dong quoi's pain-relieving, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory activity.
- Ginseng -- A tonic that increases energy and endurance.
- Feverfew -- To relieve migraine headaches triggered by perimenopausal hormone fluctuations.
- St. John's wort -- Scientifically shown to relieve mild depression and anxiety.
- Valerian -- To promote sleep and relieve anxiety.
- Motherwort -- To relieve vaginal dryness.
- Wild yam -- Regarded as a progesterone-producing herb to ease hot flashes and breast tenderness.
- Garlic -- Whether eaten or taken in deodorized capsules, may lower harmful lipids and protect the heart.
These alternative therapies also may ease symptoms:
- Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) roots and stems -- Reduces hot flashes and relieves depression and vaginal thinning. It is the main ingredient in Remifemin, a widely used German product, and in "menopause" teas and capsules. Note: do not use if you might be pregnant or are having heavy bleeding.
- Vitex or chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus) fruit -- May regulate progesterone levels that contribute to fluid retention, bloating, breast tenderness, headache and fatigue. It is often included with black cohosh in menopausal products. Note: do not use this if you might be pregnant.
Interest in soybeans has been sparked by the theory that a soy-rich diet may explain why Asian woman don't experience symptoms of menopause. Lab studies reveal soy can significantly boost the high-density lipoproteins that protect the heart -- a significant finding given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in post-menopausal women. Soy also may prevent bone loss.
Tips on Natural Herbs
Natural isn't always safe. Some herbal remedies may have harmful side effects in people with certain medical problems. Stop taking herbs and see your physician if you develop uterine bleeding, a rash or any adverse reaction.
- Seek guidance. Contact a licensed herbalist or talk to your health care provider if you are considering alternative therapies.
- Seek reputable herbal preparations. Herbal products are not uniform. To make sure the ingredients you want are in the jar, read labels to learn genus and species, known active ingredients and the amounts.
- Results may not be instant. It can take about six to eight weeks for most herbs to work.
- Start with a lower dose. There is a therapeutic dosing range that may vary with each individual, just as there is with drugs. If the dose is three capsules three time a day, you may want to start with one capsule three times a day.