Maybe like me, you have started to see some changes happening that might just be the dawn of the perimenopause? Could it be that those aching joints, fevers at night and irritability that lasts a bit too long to be just PMT, is not another virus but is in fact symptoms of perimenopause? Might it be that the heightened sensitivity to certain foods, alcohol, maybe coffee (or even skin products) mean that those hormones are starting to shift? And that feeling of despair, that comes mingled with regret and exhaustion (like an inner storm) is because of what’s going on inside rather than an external factor? Moved by considerable discomfort I decided to investigate.
Perimenopause is the stage in a woman’s life before her period stops completely. A women is not considered to be in menopause until at least a year after her final period. Perimenopause can last anywhere between two to eight years, and it can be different for everyone. Oestrogen and progesterone are beginning to decrease, and this is why she might experience symptoms of change in her body.
The hot flush is probably the most talked about symptom but there are many more such as anxiety, palpitations, dizziness, insomnia, night sweats, headaches, joint aches and depression. In fact the psychological symptoms are as prevalent as the physical with irritability, mood swings, forgetfulness and difficulty coping all potentially occurring.
Let’s face it the menopause doesn’t have a great reputation does it? It’s an experience that we might have seen woman endure, and suffer through, with symptoms that don’t seem to shift, such as another migraine or the dreaded hot flush.
But things have changed a lot since my mum went through this, such as women’s attitude to health and wellbeing. Many woman over the age of forty in 2017 are actively taking responsibility for their wellbeing, through exercise, making informed dietary choices and understanding the relationship between how you treat yourself and what you feel. So surely there must be a way to have a happy healthy perimenopause?
Certainly every woman is completely and perfectly individual, and just like puberty the hormonal changes will affect everyone in a unique way. It is thought by the medical profession that diet and lifestyle changes can have a significant effect, and there is much that can be done in the way of self-care. Many women are advised to take Hormone Replacement Therapy and there are certainly both benefits and risks to this path but that’s for the medical profession to debate.
I’m going to be investigating how complementary therapies and natural alternatives to HRT can help in achieving the holy grail of a happy healthy perimenopause. I will be meeting with a range of complimentary therapists and across a series of weeks will be discovering the keys to celebrating this part of my life, and I hope I can empower you to celebrate yours.
Week One – The Herbalist Approach To Peri-Menopause
Helen Rideout BSc NIMH is a medical herbalist with ten years of practice as a therapist, teacher and grower of herbs. When talking with Helen it became clear to me that the herbal approach is very much about health and wellbeing as a whole during this phase of a woman’s life. So giving the entire body, mind and spirit the support it truly needs is a pretty good strategy towards a happy healthy perimenopause. Right? Well Helen explained that when she sees women in her clinic the main aim is doing just that - supporting the whole body system, and reducing things like stress. However she says that herbs can go a long way towards addressing symptoms like hormone imbalance, hot flushes, anxiety or insomnia.
Helen has seen the effects of stress making symptoms of menopause worse so dealing with this is a good place to start. She says that perimenopause is big thing for a woman’s body to go through, so self-care is paramount. That might include more rest, letting go of things that are draining, delegating tasks to other people, boosting stress reducing endorphins through exercising regularly, talking things through with a friend, expressing feelings, practising mindfulness or taking quiet time and doing things that are nurturing and enjoyable.
This can often be a big cultural shift for many woman. If you are like me you might have been a carer for many years so finding some gravity to put yourself first doesn’t come easy. The process of letting go and unburdening yourself of responsibilities is not always possible, so learning to sometimes just shelve worries for the weekend is as good as it gets. Exercise can be a big game changer however and I have to constantly remind myself about the value of a 15 minute walk or yoga session when I claim I have no time free. Nothing beats expressing and releasing the feelings inside, and nothing beats a good friend or therapist to hold your hand through it. I some time feel like I have been broken down into pieces and each time I engage in one of these self-care activities I am putting another piece of the jigsaw back together. This is about a change of attitude and perspective.
However despite the best laid plans, if the stress is just unavoidable, or you are experiencing persistent anxiety and alarm no matter what you do, then Helen recommends herbal adaptogens such as the gentle and balancing Ayurvedic herb Shatavari or Liquorice root. Herbal adaptogens do what they say on the tin, they help the body adapt to extreme conditions and find some resilience and recovery. She might also prescribe herbal nervines that are safe for everyone to take such a Skullcap, Motherwort or Avena Sativa. Nervines are very straight forward too, they calm the nervous system down and can help bring relief from stress and anxiety and elicit a sense of peace.
Helen explains that there are certain herbs that strengthen the body’s ability to deal with hormone changes, known as phytoestrogenic and progesterogenic herbs. Balancing hormones can be tricky as they are constantly in flux but these herbs and foods, such as Red Clover and Soya can help.
Helen’s Herbal Top Tips
Stress Relief – Try Liquorice or Shatavari. It’s the adrenals located below the kidneys in the lower back that govern the stress response. So adaptogens can nourish the adrenals and in that way aid in the reduction of hot flushes
Hot Flushes – Try Sage tea, preferably cold. Helen says there is a link between hot flushes and the adrenal function, so try the adaptogens above too.
Heavy Bleeding – Blood loss can increase during perimenopause which can indicate an excess in the hormone oestrogen. Cutting out sugar is recommended by Helen and using herbs that have a tonifying and astringent quality (this makes everything much more toned) including the womb tonic often used in the child bearing years Raspberry leaf.
Helen says that many of these herbs can be bought off the shelf and tried at home, but it’s always worth checking for contraindications with medication on The Medscape Drug Interaction Checker
Helen does advise caution when taking both Vitex agnus castus and Black Cohosh. They are both used for balancing hormones and whilst very sucessful for many woman sometimes symptoms can get worse before getting better. (Seeking the support of a herbalist is a good idea).
Herbs cannot work alone and Helen also recommends dietary changes. It seems that a woman’s body in a time of such changes might not be as hardy as it once was. It could be wise to reduce alcohol, coffee, sugar and nicotine as they are all not only addictive but also stressors to the body. This list of offenders are also responsible for minerals being lost from the bone and passed out through the urine, and they all jump start the stress hormone cortisol which can trigger oestrogen dominance and this can unfortunately make symptoms worse.
Phyto-oestrogen rich foods can help with hot flushes and vaginal dryness. These include tofu, tempeh, legumes, peas, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Oily fish, Flax seeds (also known as Linseeds), Hemp seeds and Chia seeds are all sources of Omega 3 essential fatty acids, which are important during perimenopause because of their anti-inflammatory properties, helping maintain a healthy heart, circulatory system, joint flexibility and balanced sugar levels. Limiting environmental estrogens called xenoestrogen found in plastics wrappers, not heating food in plastic containers is also advisable.
In part two I’ll be talking to Lizzie Smith who has 20 years experience as a Homeopath and has worked with many female clients helping them survive and thrive through perimenopause and beyond.
“Perimenopause is a bridge to new life, it’s about remembering who we are in our very essence. I see perimenopause not only as a very physical experience but also a spiritual one, a soul event that needs tending accordingly, its symptoms as symbols of a new life to come” Lizzie Smith
Read the next blog in this series - How to Have a Happy Healthy Menopause Part Two - The Way of the Homeopath