My thoughts on menopause

By Martha S. Benedict

Menopause is a woman’s transition from the responsibility of biology to the freedom of opportunity. It is the emotional passage from physiology to spirituality. Menopause marks the milestone of a woman’s life from the first half to the second. The rules of the first half need to be reworked and modified to prepare for the challenges of the second. Initially we go energetically from birth through expansive growth stages and reproduction. Life is busy, busier, and busiest. The carousel starts slowly with wonder as a child and revs up seemingly without relief. Choices and challenges of career, life partner, and family can become daunting. As women, our basic Yin nature is to be nurturers and give of ourselves to our mates, children, work, and communities.

Just when the cycle peaks at a frenzied intensity, it’s time to take a breath and it’s time for menopause. In Chinese theory, a women’s life happens in cycles of seven, so within the decade of forty-nine, that transition usually occurs. Most of us think about menopause with as much zeal as having a tooth pulled. We’ve all heard horror stories of hot flashes, night sweats, flooding menses, loss of libido, dry vaginas, headaches, memory loss, exaggerated mood swings or depression, bone loss, muscle mass decline, and body weight increase.

These symptoms do occur. In the past thirty years I’ve worked with thousands of women in an effort to influence and soften or resolve the intensity of the passage. No, I don’t wave a magic wand. I do apply some of the guidelines of Chinese medical thought as well as a lot of herbal wisdom.  On rare occasions, I refer patients to a western practitioner for chemical hormone support to compliment the work we do together.  I only do this as a last resort and my patient is unable to make the necessary lifestyle changes for menopause.  I encourage them only to use it for 1 – 2 years at the longest and for the worst symptoms because chemical hormone therapy has a very real downside and some significant side effects.

I’d like to share some of what has worked with my patients.

To begin, we need to set the stage and understand the ground rules. First I ask my patients to go home and find a quiet hour, relax with a cup of tea and “paint” a picture of how she wants the second half of her life to look like, to feel, and the various elements to be included. Take a piece of paper and draw a word picture, or cartoon, or a picture if talent is abundant, to reflect all of her individual I wants. Explore, fantasize, dream, wish, and be inclusive, no reality limitations allowed. What’s in the picture? Common responses include education, time, relaxation, fun, laughter, learning something new like playing an instrument or language, travel, a garden, companionship, sex, money, ideal weather, good health may be included. If you find yourself so far from being able to dream, then take it slower and sit down over a period of time and try the exercise a few times until you feel satisfied.

Next, draw or list what you consider impediments to having your dream. Analyze these two pictures. Really try to understand the most important content of your pictures-that which blocks you from having it all as well as the most salient elements in your dream.

Third, prioritize these elements.

Chinese Energetics of Menopause

Now let’s understand a little of the Chinese pattern of menopause energetics. Life force, or kidney energy in Traditional Chinese thought, controls the life and the hormone cycle. As a woman approaches early forties, there is a slowing of this energy. Sometimes it is called peri-menopause.

You may notice some small change in your period, as there is a hormone decline. Blood flow can change in volume, cycle length can get longer or shorter, and color of blood can get darker or lighter. There can be a decided increase in PMS, there can be a change in sexual interest, your skin can become drier or you may develop problem skin, and your weight can change. Often the middle-age spread becomes pronounced around the waist. More freckles, or age marks, or liver spots start occurring on your body, especially on your face and hands. Wrinkles on the face and neck can become more pronounced. A mustache above the lips may darken and hairs may start on your chin. Everything about our bodies starts to sag as gravity begins winning.

There we are looking in the mirror at sagging breasts, bulging belly, flabby upper arms, sagging jowls, eyelids, and chicken skin on our necks, and cellulite in all the other places. Our hair begins to gray and we rush to pull out the first few strands before giving up and resorting to hair dye–menopausal red. It’s almost like putting up a neon sign. We rush to exercise classes as much to keep our girlish figure as to protect our bones. We, the ME Generation, begin supporting a lucrative anti-aging industry. This generation seems to refuse to age. At least it refuses to age gracefully.

After a one to two year peri-menopausal interim, the body settles and returns to normal for a decade before launching into full menopause. The passage may take one to two years and is usually marked by some or all of the symptoms you may have experienced during peri-menopause. Some consider it to be over when you haven’t had a period for thirteen months. Some American Indian tribes refer to this as becoming a daughter of the thirteenth moon.

The good news comes next. After menopause, in Chinese theory there is a time in a woman’s life called, Second Spring. There is no further blood loss for a woman and therefore her body doesn’t need to replenish this blood. Blood represents Yin energy and the extra energy not lost via menses is now available for each woman to use as she sees fit. In some cultures, specifically in India and some American Indian tribes, women go to school and become teachers, doctors, lawyers, or even a Prime Minister.

Facing the Passage

Now that we understand a little of the energetic terrain, just how do we face our passage?

By now I think you realize that some of your life patterns need to shift. It is common and desirable to pull in your horns, and do one less thing from your TO DO list each day.

Many women want to be alone a greater part of the day. Whether or not you get to enjoy this solace will depend on your life circumstance and how much you plan for it. It helps to get up early and go to bed early. It helps to exercise in a less strenuous way for shorter periods of time. It helps to support the vital functions of the slowing body with warm, cooked, nutrient-dense foods. It helps to be candid with yourself and others about your changing needs.

Most women in my experience give much of their energy to others over their reproductive years. There has been an ethic on being Super Woman, Soccer Mom, or Career Maven. Maybe it’s time to learn how not to be capable of everything. Maybe it’s time to give up some control and let other family members or friends shine. Consider this payback time. Learn how to ask for things you like or need. For example, if the holidays have always been at your house, ask for someone else to do the honors. If you’ve always done all the cooking, ask others sitting down to the table to be accountable for some of the meals (or shopping, laundry, errands, fix it list, bill paying, or mending). Do you want to do all the vacation planning? Do you really enjoy sending holiday greeting cards? Let loose. You get the picture.

Now that we have some space and time, let’s start exploring your dream picture. Choose something. Try it out. How does it feel? If it doesn’t hold your interest, let it go and try something else. Perhaps you’ve wanted to write, paint, draw, plant a garden, or take lessons of one kind or another. Sign up for a short class. Invite a friend for a walk. Take a hot tub. Explore a massage. Take a nap on a workday. Become unpredictable to yourself. Become true to yourself.

Soon the major concerns of menopause pass. There are women who still report a cycle for a decade afterwards. However, if you’ve done your homework, you find the renewed energy of Second Spring available. How you use it is up to the new you.

That’s the BIG picture. What about the details?

I find menopause is a wonderful time to test our relationship to the plant kingdom. Grow a garden. Nourish yourself. Grow an herb garden to care for yourself. Many of the plants helpful during menopause can be grown in most gardens. On the top of my list is Vitex also called Chaste Berry or Agnes Castus. When hormones start vacillating, start with Vitex to put vitality back into the cycle. If you need to, add a progesterone crème. Use it in the fleshing parts of the body under the upper arms, sides of the breasts, between the thighs, as well as on the face and neck.  Use this sparingly and only under the supervision of your medical practitioner, as there are some significant side effects of hormone replacement therapy.

To support the Chi and Blood of the cycle as well as the kidney energy of life force, consider using Chinese herbs such as Butiao, Women’s Precious, Xiao Yao Plus, and Mega Ginseng tonic. Adding Holiday Bitters to enhance digestion and Tummy Ease to improve assimilation of nutrients supports getting the goodness from the food you eat. Using kitchen herbs and essential oils for problem skin is fun and inexpensive. Adding rosemary essential oil to your hair conditioner, or a rosemary hair rinse if you have a bush of your own. Cleansing the skin with papaya or yogurt and apple cider vinegar before doing a tonic mask of egg yolk, avocado, and olive oil feel good and softens facial lines due to dryness. Use a Chinese Yin tonic such as Six Flavor, if there is dryness or Yoni Oil topically for vaginal dryness. Women have reported using Yoni Oil with success on their face and neck as well.

For hot flashes and night sweats Tien Wang Bu Hsin Wan, vitamin E, evening primrose and borage oil are very helpful. Eating soups made with organic bone broth, saffron, and leafy green vegetables and egg drop is delicious and tonifies Yin and Yang as well. Yoga stretches, brisk walking, or dancing are great ways to move the body. California Poppy or Passion Flower helps with sleeplessness. So does Women’s Precious. Clary sage, Blessed Thistle and Black Cohosh are useful for estrogen depletion. Using soy products and milk thistle helps tie up estrogen, clear the liver and de-conjugate hormones. Yoni Oil is excellent for vaginal dryness, increasing sexual interest, and improving urinary incontinence symptoms by 20%. Magnesium glycinate, 1-4 grams per day, encourages relaxation. MSM assists in over two billion chemical reactions daily in our bodies. For depression, I find four grams of inositol more useful than samE. For memory concerns use Ginko, Gotu Kola or Memory Tonic. For minerals, use Herbal Minerals or a dulse seaweed source.

Test your thyroid function using early morning basal temperature.

According to Broda Barnes, M.D., this is a more reliable indicator of thyroid function than a blood test. Use exercise, glandulars, and seaweed to help. Most women I treat for hormone problems have low or low-normal thyroid function. This may not be so surprising considering how much heart energy women put into their families over their reproductive years. Now it is necessary to turn the table or face an unpleasant painful older age.

Have a baseline bone density test. If you fall short give a serious commitment to weight training. I wear my gardening belt around my waist to carry two or three extra pounds. Don’t go overboard as you can damage your shoulders, neck, and hips by being too strenuous. Salutations to the sun for five minutes every morning get the yang chi moving and protect the joints.

Drink pure water. Small frequent sips beat big tall glasses and there’s no need to run to the bathroom so frequently. A short hot tub or sauna once or twice a week is another restful way to cleanse the skin, lymph, and blood. As the chi declines there may be more digestive and elimination problems. Consume more vegetables and fruits, especially prune juice or dried prunes.  Kefir, acidophilus, colostrom, and digestifs are also enjoyable. If bloating and gas are problems, reducing simple carbohydrates or using digestive enzymes increases comfort.

Use appropriate supplementation not to replace food, but truly as a supplement to good quality food. As necessary, include vitamins A, B, C, D, E, essential fatty acids, minerals, and protein. Of course my personal preference is to use a lot of herbs.  For overall menopause support I suggest Menopause Plus, Ginkgo and Memory Tonic for memory, Foti for hair color and general anti-aging concerns, Vitex, Black Cohosh, Blessed Thistle, Hormonal Acne tonic for hormonally related skin eruptions, Herbal Mineral Tonic, and Yoni Oil for vaginally thinning and dryness, California Poppy tincture for insomnia, Mega Ginseng Plus for fatigue, Yew for breast discomfort, Xiao Yao Plus for irritability, and other herbs as necessary.

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