Menopause is a time when a woman’s life transitions from one stage into another. Ideally, this is done gracefully, and without any problems or health concerns.
In reality, I see women entering menopause with dread and fear. They have been taught that menopause is a disease and that it will be a time for unpleasant symptoms and hormone therapy. Much of our culture supports this, and it is no wonder women feel this way. So why is it, that women in the West react this way to a natural life process while their contemporaries in the East do not?
In China, women do not fear this natural stage of life. It is not part of their culture, or their experience. Menopause is not something that should cause anxiety, as it is seen as a completely natural process and not an illness that needs medicating. It is a time that a woman moves out of the reproductive part of her life and enters deeply inwards, bringing the focus to herself, often after many years of focussing on others. It is a time that is welcomed and honoured.
We are a culture that reveres youth and beauty. The transition into menopause is seen as a permanent loss of both. In China, one’s elders have great importance in both the family and social structure. As we move through life, we are seen to be accumulating something very valuable – WISDOM.
As we age both our yin and yang energy are seen to be in a gradual state of decline. This is a natural part of life, and we are certainly able to supplement them by eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and taking care of our bodies, minds and spirits.
Jing – The Essence of Your Being
To understand menopause, we must first understand what is called Jing, or essence – which is stored in and regulated by the Kidneys. Jing can be loosely compared to our genes or DNA. Jing is like our life force, and we are all born with a finite amount. This is supplemented throughout our lives by the food we eat and nutrition derived from the external environment, so the better we eat and take care of ourselves, the less we are drawing on our Jing or essence. A good way to illustrate how Jing works, is to think about it as a savings account, and the one you will have when you get older (which is when you really need it).
How difficult menopause will be for a woman is largely dependent on the physical, spiritual and emotional health she has maintained throughout her adult life. At the first signs of menopause, or perimenopause, a woman will often seek out her doctor or gynaecologist and the recommendation is often Hormone Replacement Therapy, or HRT. While this is an option for some women, there are certainly alternatives, and Chinese medicine has been treating gynaecological issues for more than 2000 years. In Chinese medicine, menopause is not seen as a disease, but merely a stage of life where the needs of the body change. If a woman has led a relatively balanced life, then she will go through menopause without incident, and yes this does happen! This is largely the experience in China. If a woman has had a lot of stress, emotional upheaval, poor nutrition and insufficient exercise, the effects will be felt when she enters menopause. When we are young our bodies are able to handle a lot more abuse and bounce back – living an unhealthy lifestyle would be constantly drawing on the Jing in our savings account, and it is when we are older, when we continue the behaviours of the past, that we notice that our bodies don’t respond as quickly or as well to our demands. In a bank account that was overflowing in our youth, we are now functioning at a deficit.
The Jing, or essence is stored in the Kidney and is the source of all our body’s vital energies. When the Jing becomes deficient we lose our capacity to remember, have vision and hearing problems, our libido is compromised, stamina decreases, bones become thin and brittle, our minds become dull, teeth and gums deteriorate, we experience vaginal dryness, have sore lower back, hips and knees and emotionally we become apathetic and prone to despair. These are symptoms of a deficiency of Jing in Chinese medicine, but, as you can see, they are also in our experience, signs of aging.
A deficiency of Jing, as it is at the core of our health, has huge consequences as everything else draws from it, leading to deficiencies of yin and yang, qi and blood. Deficiency of qi presents as symptoms of fatigue, feeling unmotivated, unable to think and concentrate, an overwhelming desire to sleep and feeling sad and melancholy. A deficiency of blood manifests as dizziness, memory problems, numbness and vision problems. Insufficient blood is unable to nourish the body’s tissues, causing it to stiffen up, losing its suppleness and flexibility, not only physically, but there is a lack of emotional flexibility as well. Yang deficiency is literally a lack of the warming energies of the body manifesting as chills, cold limbs, loose stools, and spontaneous sweating. Hot flushes are a symptom of yin deficiency, as yin is not able to anchor yang fire, causing it to rise up uncontrollably. Yin deficiency also causes anxiety, and night sweats which are so often associated with menopause.
Diet & Nutrition
Menopausal women often notice a change in the way they process food, therefore, dietary changes can be hugely helpful for dealing with symptoms. Women going through menopause often become lactose intolerant, so eliminating dairy products will help eliminate bloating and gas. Supporting the beneficial bacteria in the body like probiotics will help to normalize the functions of the digestive system.
Another dietary consideration is that of carbohydrates and insulin. Carbohydrates (bread/grains/cereal/pasta/potatoes) are broken down into sugar or glucose which causes the body to release insulin. The role of insulin in the body is to break down glucose. Increased consumption of carbohydrates leads to increased insulin levels which interfere with the cells ability to respond to hormone stimulation. Women with symptoms of liver qi and blood stagnation (sx: anger, irritability, frustration, depression, feeling emotionally ‘stuck’, lump in the throat, anxious and easily stressed, severe pain that is fixed, stabbing, fixed masses, dark complexion, bleeding with clots, purple lips and nails), are likely oestrogen dominant and would most benefit from a limited carbohydrate intake, preferably to one meal a day.
Dietary Recommendations for Menopause
Smoking – smoking is extremely drying to yin fluids which are needed to combat common menopausal symptoms like night sweats and hot flushes, so either quit or cut down and try to stay away from secondhand smoke.
Avoid foods like sugar, dairy, alcohol, spicy foods, caffeine and red meat as they aggravate symptoms like hot flushes and decrease emotional stability causing mood swings.
Include foods rich in phytoestrogens like soy (from non-processed or GMO soybeans) including tofu, tempeh and miso pastes, flaxseed, sesame seeds, hummus, dried apricots and dates, alfalfa and mung bean sprouts and pistachios. Soy is a staple of the Chinese diet and the highest source of phytoestrogens known.
Also including foods that are a source of progesterone is important in menopause. These foods include yams, turkey, walnuts and fortified cereals. Eggs, dairy products and chicken are good sources of progesterone, but it can be difficult to find sources that have not been given antibiotics or hormones which you want to avoid.
Other things you can do to ease Menopause Symptoms
You may be wondering if you have lived a less than healthy lifestyle up until now, if your menopausal symptoms can still be treated – and the answer is definitely yes. Women with menopausal symptoms, sometimes very severe or debilitating ones, are often seen in clinical practice. Even though the basis of Chinese medicine is on prevention, it still offers us an incredible array of tools that can be used to help reduce the symptoms of menopause.
Get some acupuncture. A practitioner of Chinese medicine with their robust skills of interrogation and diagnosis will ferret out the source of the imbalance and has many tools at her disposal with which to correct it. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine has been used for thousands of years to treat gynaecological disorders and work very well to combat menopausal symptoms. As I often tell people, there is no miracle formula or acupuncture point for night sweats or hot flushes. Chinese medicine is a holistic system, and the reason that you are having the symptoms is because the body is simply out of balance. It is the job of the Acupuncturist to discover the root of the imbalance and correct it, while educating their patient on things like nutrition, lifestyle, exercise and meditation so that the body will remain in balance and the symptoms will never reappear.
Menopause should never be a time for worry and fear, it should be a time for inner reflection, and many women find it is an incredibly powerful and edifying part of their lives. All stages of life are important, so if you are experiencing problems, just know that you are not alone and that Chinese medicine can offer relief.