During the reproductive years many women suffer from distressing symptoms related to their menstrual cycle and the production of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. These can include an erratic menstrual cycle, fatigue, fluid retention, sugar cravings, irritability, menstrual cramping and headache. Menopause heralds a time during which levels of a woman’s reproductive hormones decline to the point where menstruation ceases. While most cultures celebrate the wisdom that comes with age and experience, we in the west tend to associate it with a period of ‘identity crisis’ and negative attitudes. Women begin to feel the effects of their lifestyles over the preceding years, and many of the symptoms blamed on menopause are actually the result of poor lifestyle choices and eating habits. Smoking is associated with an early menopause, and total hysterectomy (as well as some chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments) results in an artificial menopause, usually accompanied by more severe symptoms than a natural menopause.
Poor diet is known to be related to hormone imbalance, and women who experience premenstrual difficulties during their reproductive years are also more prone to menopausal problems. Try to eat food that is in as natural a state as possible – lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, seeds and nuts. Reduce your meat intake and avoid all processed and ‘junk’ foods. Much of the meat and dairy produce in this country contains traces of hormones given to animals to increase milk and meat yields. Calcium intake need not be affected by a reduction in dairy products if you eat more foods such as seeds, nuts, oats, blackstrap molasses, sardines, salmon, figs and parsley. The recommended daily amount of calcium is 1000mg prior to the menopause, rising to 1500mg during and after the menopause.
Increase your intake of ‘phyto-oestrogenic’ foods to allow a good level of hormone production to be maintained. Japanese women, whose diet is rich in these foods, rarely suffer from the premenstrual and menopausal symptoms that afflict Western women. Phyto-oestrogenic foods include soya, corn, apples, bananas, almonds, cashew nuts, oats, pulses, broccoli, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables. Eat regularly – the symptoms of PMS and hot flshes may be related to fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Try to eat fewer sugary foods which can cause a surge in blood sugar. Ensure that you empty your bowel at least once a day, otherwise toxic build-up will aggravate your symptoms.
Regular exercise keeps you fit, helps maintain bone density thereby delaying the onset of osteporosis, helps prevent weight gain, lifts the spirits and boosts your immune system.
There is a wide range of herbal remedies that can offer support and help relieve some of the more distressing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause:
Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS): Chaste berry (Vitex agnus-Castus/Periagna®) helps to balance the production of female reproductive hormones. It can be of benefit in cases of progesterone deficiency or an excess of oestrogen and may help women who experience erratic menstrual cycles or those who suffer from menstrual cramping and symptoms of pre-menstrual tension. A magnesium supplement can help ease low headache and low blood sugar associated with premenstrual syndrome, while an adequate intake of calcium may reduce fatigue and depression. Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of those minerals, so make sure you spend lots of time out of doors. A stagnant liver is unable to efficiently filter hormone-rich blood and this can contribute to cramping, mood swings and headaches. Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum/Silamarie®) helps to support the liver. Research has shown that evening primrose oil can help alleviate painful breasts.
Menopausal Hot Flushes: Falling levels of oestrogen are one of the causes of hot flushes during menopause. However, increased levels of histamine can also be a factor. Histamine production rises when you are under stress, sensitive to particular foods, or if you smoke or drink alcohol. Highly processed foods are also culprits. Sage (Salvia officinalis/Salvian®) helps to balance the brain’s sweat-regulating mechanism. You should also stop smoking and address your diet. Try to eat foods which are in as natural a state as possible, drinks lots of water, and avoid coffee and alcohol. Drinking nettle tea several times a day can reduce histamine levels.
Depression: Oestrogen is a mild anti-depressant, and a sudden fall in levels can cause mild depression. Symptoms such as flushing can also make you feel quite tired and emotionally low. Regular exercise encourages the body’s production of chemicals known as endorphins; these are known to increase feelings of well-being. Take a brisk walk daily, visit your local swimming pool or join a dance class. Exercise is extremely important for your general health and will also help with any weight-loss regime. St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum/Hyperidrine®) is a marvellous treatment for mild to moderate depression. However, it can be harmful if taken alongside several conventional drugs, so you should always check with your herbalist or GP before you take it. If it does prove to be inadvisable, then try Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) or Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) instead. Both have an uplifting effect on the spirits and can help to reduce nervous tension.
Stress, irritability and anxiety may be due to a deficiency of the B-vitamins and magnesium, essential for a healthy nervous system and adrenal glands. Low progesterone levels can also be a factor and lack of sleep will exacerbate symptoms. B-complex and Magnesium supplements may be of benefit, and Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) or St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum/Hyperidrine®) will help to relieve symptoms. Bach Flower remedies may also offer effective treatment – choose the remedy most suited to your personality type.
Fatigue can be caused by lack of sleep due frequent night sweats or anxiety, low iron levels due to very heavy periods, other nutritional deficiencies, or inefficient removal from the body of toxins due to constipation. Iron levels can be boosted by a natural iron tonic such as Floradix which, unlike conventional iron supplements, will not make you constipated. Too much wheat can cause feelings of tiredness and bloating, so try to reduce the amount of bread, pasta and other wheat products in your diet. Coffee and other stimulants should be avoided, especially in the evening. Herbs such as Valerian (Valeriana officinalis/Valdrian®), and Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) can help you to relax. Oats, taken in the form of muesli or porridge, help to calm and nourish the nervous system.
Frequent, heavy periods: High levels of oestrogen in relation to progesterone can result in frequent, heavy periods. High oestrogen levels may be caused by a poorly functioning liver, particularly if the bowel is a little sluggish. Chaste berry (Vitex agnus-castus/Periagna®) will help to balance oestrogen and progesterone levels, although it can take up to three menstrual cycles to reach its optimum effect. This herb should be avoided if you are on conventional HRT or are taking the contraceptive pill. Liver function can be given a boost with milk thistle (Silybum marianum/Silamarie®) and dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale); the latter is also a gentle laxative.
NB: Flooding is not a normal symptom of menopause and should be reported to your GP if severe or if it continues for a long time. Similarly, if bleeding recurs after menstruation has ceased for six months or more, you should tell your GP.
General aches and pains: Poor diet, leading to a build-up of uric acid, can cause joint pain, but low oestrogen levels can also be a factor. Nettle or celery seed tea help to dissolve uric acid crystals. The discomfort and inflammation of osteoarthritis can be relieved by Runo Turmeric+.
Weight gain, fluid retention and ‘bloating’: The primary causes are poor diet, over-eating and/or lack of exercise. The remedy is obvious! Other factors include the consumption of too much coffee and salt and not enough water. A poorly functioning bowel and too many wheat-based foods in the diet will result in bloating, and a poorly functioning liver is unable to metabolise fats properly. A gentle laxative such as dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) wills both improve liver function and increase the efficiency of the bowel. Silamarie® (Silybum marianum) will ensure that your liver is working efficiently. Dandelion leaf is a potent diuretic that will help to reduce fluid retention without depleting potassium levels. Aromatherapy massage can also help.
Osteoporosis: Research has shown that osteoporosis is due to nutritional deficiencies as much as, or even more than hormonal changes. Thin, meat-eating women who eat a high protein, high salt diet are most prone to osteoporosis. Low magnesium levels, lack of exercise, smoking and alcohol are also factors. Although conventional HRT can protect against osteoporosis, as soon as you stop bone density falls rapidly. Improving your diet and lifestyle is a far better long-term solution. Since the body requires magnesium in order to absorb calcium, you should increase your consumption of magnesium-rich foods such as wholegrains, pulses, nuts, seeds and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Bladder problems: Low levels of oestrogen during menopause can cause thinning of the lining of the bladder which may lead to mild incontinence, for example when you cough or sneeze. It can also give rise to recurrent bladder infections like cystitis. Pelvic floor exercises are effective in alleviating stress incontinence. One of the easiest and most convenient ways to do this is to tense your pelvic muscles each time you empty your bladder, stopping the flow of urine for a few seconds before allowing it to flow again. It is important to drink lots of water to ensure that the bladder is flushed out regularly. Coffee, fizzy drinks and alcohol can all irritate the bladder, so intake of both should be reduced. Sugar, sugary foods and yeast can exacerbate candida and bacterial infections. Taking cranberry juice daily helps prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder lining, but beware of juices with a high sugar content, as this can actually make your symptoms worse. Cranberry is available in capsule form, with no added sugar.
Vaginal Dryness is caused by low oestrogen levels and, sometimes, lack of Vitamin E. If a vitamin E supplement is required, take 200 to 400 i.u. daily. Use of a vaginal lubricant is helpful.
Poor skin, thinning hair and brittle nails are most likely to be caused by nutritional deficiencies as a result of poor diet over many years, although falling oestrogen levels can result in thinning hair. Poor calcium absorption and a lack of silica and zinc may make the nails brittle and cause the skin to lose its elasticity. Adopt the same dietary measures as those described for osteoporosis. It may also be necessary to take a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement for a few months. Kelp (Fucus vesiculosis) may be of benefit, but should not be taken by women with thyroid problems. Silica will improve the nails, skin tone and hair thickness if taken over three to four months. Mineral-rich Nettle tea is also of benefit.
NB: The above information is for guidance only, and is not intended to take the place of diagnosis and treatment by a qualified practitioner. Several of the herbs used to treat menopausal symptoms should not be taken at the same time as conventional HRT treatment, the contraceptive pill or if you have a history of breast cancer. Women with thyroid problems and those on anticoagulant therapy should also seek professional advice before taking any herbs or supplements.