Menopause – East and West
Menopause, or the stopping of a woman’s menstrual cycles, is not a disease, but a normal part of every woman’s life experience as she ages. A woman’s ovaries, twin organs which are positioned on either side of the uterus, produce eggs during the woman’s fertile years, in addition to producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones control ovulation (the release of a mature egg from the ovaries) as well as menstruation, the shedding of the lining of the uterus which happens if the egg is not fertilized.
Most women who experience menopause naturally do so after the age of 40. Before this, a woman can undergo menopause caused by various surgical or medical treatments, such as removal of the ovaries due to disease or radiation therapy to the pelvis.
Naturally occurring menopause is a gradual process which occurs in three stages:
1 – Perimenopause – Several years before menopause, the ovaries slow their production of estrogen and finally stop releasing eggs. As estrogen levels drop, many women in this stage begin to exhibit symptoms, such as hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness and irritability.
2 – Menopause – At this stage, the woman’s ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and very little estrogen is being produced. Technically, menopause begins when it has been a full year since the woman’s last period. Symptoms of menopause, as described above, continue for many women during this time.
3 – Postmenopause – In the years following menopause, hot flashes gradually lessen and then stop, but the decline in estrogen puts many women at increased risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and other conditions.
Western medical practitioners have have traditionally treated symptomatic menopausal women with hormone replacement therapy or HRT, although HRT is not for everyone, as it is not without side effects, including increasing the risk of strokes and blood clots. In the East, the approach is much different. For example, in traditional Chinese medicine, menopause is looked upon as a yin energy deficiency, which needs to be balanced and nurtured. Methods include Chinese herbal formulas, acupuncture and changes in diet rather than turning to HRT.
Alternative approaches to menopause also include the use of essential oils, such as clary sage for hot flashes, Roman chamomile to reduce stress and help with sleeping problems and peppermint oil for cooling the body. In addition, some aromatherapists use thyme essential oil to help balance hormones in the menopausal woman. I will address essential oils and menopause in more depth in another article.