by medical herbalist, Wendy Kelly NIMH
Menopause – the word that can strike fear into 40-something women everywhere!
However, what is worth bearing in mind, is that menopause is not a pathology or an illness. It is a normal part of a woman's life cycle, signalling our transition from menstruator and child bearer to a wiser, more experienced mature woman, unencumbered by those reproductive duties. Our bodies are biologically programmed to adjust to this dropping off of hormones but the stresses and demands that modern life puts on our bodies can cause some women to struggle with menopausal symptoms. Women who have endured an induced menopause can also suffer more severely as their bodies are not prepared for the sudden loss of oestrogen.
Feeling a bit hot under the collar can be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these symptoms. Vaginal dryness, night sweats, digestive upset, low libido, mood swings, forgetfulness, joint pain, itchy skin, disturbed sleep and erratic periods can all make life feel pretty miserable for some.
This can be the trigger for many women to seek help from the medical profession. GPs can offer HRT, but some women cannot take oestrogen-based remedies - plant or otherwise - because of a history of breast cancer or oestrogen-led complaints such as endometriosis or fibroids. Many women are not keen to use HRT due to the potential side effects involved.
This is when women may start looking for a 'natural alternative to HRT'. Often they will try over-the-counter herbal remedies such as black cohosh, red clover and soy isoflavones, all of which contain plant oestrogens which can mimic our own. Or they may try sage drops which can help alleviate sweating. Sometimes these remedies will do the trick and are enough. But if they do not work, all is not lost.
Importantly, herbal treatment is not about 'replacing' those hormones that have declined. We are not meant to retain the same levels of hormones forever – we just need our bodies to adjust to the new regime! This is where herbs can have so much more to offer than simple 'hormone replacement'. They can support the body in many different ways as it goes through this transitional peri-menopausal stage and can even be used by those who can't take herbs containing plant oestrogens.
A herbalist will always consider adrenal support for menopausal women. As the ovaries down regulate, the adrenal glands will start to produce small amounts of oestrogen instead. However, these little glands also produce our stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, so those leading busy or stressful lives (and let's face it, who doesn't these days!) will need adaptogenic herbs that can nourish and support them.
The presence of healthy gut bacteria is essential for the breakdown of hormones before they are further processed and excreted by the liver, so good gut and liver health is crucial at this time. Healthy gut bacteria is needed to effectively metabolise phyto-oestrogens from food sources and also plays a key role in the production of seratonin – the 'happy hormone' and precursor to melatonin which is involved in sleep regulation. Herbalists can use bitter tonics to support and nourish the gut as well as advise on any dietary tweaks that could help. Sometimes probiotic supplements can help, especially if there is a history of the contraceptive pill use, anti-biotics and certain medications.
Types of herbs used in menopause support
Cooling, astringent herbs have their role to play in balancing out an overheated system and herbs known as nervines can help to smooth out those moodswings and unsettled nights.
Lymphatic herbs can have a very cooling effect on the whole system and ease those who feel 'puffy' and mineral rich herbal teas such as nettle or alfalfa can promote healthy hair, skin, nails and bones.
Anti-inflammatories can be employed to ease achy joints or unhappy skin and thyroid protective and nourishing herbs may be employed if needed.
With so many herbs in our medicinal toolkit, you don't need to suffer in silence. Even when the picture is complex, a medical herbalist is skilled and experienced at knowing which herbs to put together to best help each individual patient. Many patients will tell me that after a few months on their tailor made herbal regime that they feel more like themselves again, that they have their lives back and that they no longer feel like they are 'losing the plot'!
So if you are struggling with menopausal symptoms, why not book in for a consultation and get ready to enjoy a whole new chapter of your life!
Wendy Kelly is a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and is running a Menopause clinic with consultations available every Thursday at Dee Atkinson Herbal Dispensary and Clinic. As well as being a passionate advocate for herbal medicine, she is the mum of two teenage boys, a keen baker and crocheter and enthusiastic member of her local Leith choir.
To make an appointment with Wendy, please call our reception on 0131 225 5542.