Menopause is the permanent cessation of menstruation, a process that corresponds with a decline in ovarian function. It occurs roughly between the ages of 48-55. Menopause itself it is a natural, physiological process, and for some women the process is relatively uneventful. For others, however, the process is not so easy. When women seek treatments for menopause, it is not for menopause itself but rather for what’s called perimenopausal syndrome – a relatively new term for a group of symptoms associated with menopause. Most of the symptoms are linked to the drop in estrogen production with declining ovarian function.
These symptoms can begin as early as 10 years prior to menopause itself. Though symptoms vary depending on the individual, commonly experienced symptoms include:
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Heart palpitations
- Irregular menstruation
- Water retention
How does Chinese Medicine view Menopause?
In Chinese Medicine, the reproductive system is primarily under the domain of the Kidney system. The Kidney system governs not only the kidney organs but also the bones, marrow, the brain, ears, as well as the reproductive system. We are born with what’s called Kidney Jing or Congenital Essence, which is akin to that of our DNA; it predetermines, to a certain extent, our individual constitution. Throughout life we also gain and/or lose what is called Acquired Essence. If the kidneys were a gas tank, acquired essence would be the gas itself – it is that which fuels us and it is ours to use and refill. We can deplete or replenish this life energy depending on our lifestyle choices. Menstrual blood is a fluid that is considered part of Tian Gui, which governs fertility and is derived from Kidney essence. As the Kidney essence depletes with age, there is the subsequent drying up of the menstrual blood. With this new stage of life the body has to rebalance itself, and Chinese medicine is rich with tools to support women through this process.
Emotional Balancing During Menopause
Since the Kidney system is related to our hormones, it ties into how we feel. As estrogen levels drop and hormone levels change rapidly, many women experience subsequent changes in their mental emotional state. Some women experience either increased anxiety, sadness, worry or depression – and many experience a roller-coaster of them all.
While we know that hormones affect our emotions, it’s also important to know that our emotions affect our hormones, too – it’s a two way street. The good news here is that we can equip ourselves with tools to help achieve a more balanced emotional state and feel much better in our day to day life.
DIY Tools for Emotional Balance
Rather than feeling helplessly run by hormones and emotions, there are small lifestyle changes that can make a huge difference in helpIng to temper extreme highs and lows and regulate one’s emotional state. Below you will find tips ranging from natural supplements to nutritional recommendations to seeking out what brings you joy.
- Ling Zhi / Red Reishi mushroom. Indications include: Sadness, depression, anxiety, insomnia,forgetfulness, fatigue, restlessness, weakened immune system, dry cough. Red reishi is an adaptogen which works to balance the nervous system, easing stress and promoting calm. Pick up a supplement that uses naturally cultivated red reishi, and specifically the fruiting body of the red reishi as it contains the highest medicinal compounds.
- Gou Qi Zi / Goji Berries. Indications include: dry eyes, dizziness, tinnitus, blurred vision,vaginal dryness. Yes, these delicious berries are used as an herb in Chinese medicine – food is medicine! Sprinkle into soups, desserts, teas or trail mixes – or enjoy them as a snack on their own. Most health food stores have a supply of goji berries, and I recommend going organic if you can, as non-organic goji berries often contain dye to make them a brighter red colour.
- Lian Zi / Lotus seed. Indications include: Insomnia, irritability, anxiety and palpitations, anxietyand sweating. Lotus seed is excellent for calming the mind. You can pick these up at most grocery stores in Chinatown. Boil or steep the lotus seed and and drink as a tea. Lotus seed may increase the risk of constipation, in which case discontinue use.
Though the above herbs are gentle, safe and can be taken long term, it is always advised to speak with your practitioner or doctor before taking herbs, especially if you are currently taking other meditations.
Acupressure is a Chinese Medicine technique, essentially administering self-massage on particular acupuncture points.
A beneficial point for emotional balance during menopause is KI 1 on the sole of the foot (see image). This is the first point on the Kidney meridian. As mentioned, the Kidneys are the root of yin, yang, essence and they govern the reproductive system. Self massage or acupressure on KI 1 is excellent for calming fears and anxiety. Acupressure on KI 1 is especially helpful right before bed, as it promotes a peaceful sleep.
To apply acupressure, gently push into the area with your thumb for a few seconds, then release pressure for a second or two, then apply the pressure again. Do this for 3-5 min bilaterally (on each foot).
Food as Medicine
We now know that what we eat affects our endocrine system and as such it is essential that we learn how to best use nutrition to nourish our body and mind during different stages of life. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) uses food as medicine and has specific nutritional recommendations that can be applied to support the body through perimenopause and menopause. During perimenopause, women tend to present with symptoms that, from a Chinese Medicine diagnosis, point towards either a Kidney Yin deficiency or a Kidney Yang deficiency. There are also women who present with a mixed pattern.
Below contains a summary of Kidney Yin vs Kidney Yang symptoms and the foods that can be eaten to support these systems. If you are someone who experiences a little of column A and a little of column B, by all means enjoy foods from both lists.
Kidney Yin Deficiency with Deficient Heat Pattern
Symptoms: Vaginal dryness, hot flashes, night-sweats, anxiety, depression, palpitations, depression, palpitations
To nourish Kidney Yin and clear deficiency heat, include foods from the following:
• Eggs, seaweed, dates, chlorella, watermelon, celery, cinnamon, bone marrow, squash, sweet potatoes, fish oil, walnuts, chestnuts and sesame seeds
Avoid or reduce: caffeine, alcohol, hot spices, refined sugar.
Kidney Yang Deficiency
Symptoms: Depression, cold hands and/or feet, lower back pain, weight gain
To tonify Kidney Yang as well as nourish Jing / Essence, include foods from the following:
• Black sesame seeds, black beans, organ meats, bone marrow, royal jelly, fish oil, ghee, fennel, walnuts, chestnuts
Avoid or reduce: caffeine, alcohol, refined sugar and cold, raw foods.
Move your Qi
Qi is essentially our vital energy, and when qi is not flowing properly throughout the body we get what TCM calls Liver Qi Stagnation. This could look like anything from depression to irritability to rage, aches and pains in the body and/or trouble with digesting what we eat. It can also create heat in the body, which can rise upwards resulting headaches, or neck and shoulder tension.
To move qi, engage in daily exercise for at least 30 minutes. It doesn’t have to be fancy exercise, nor do you have to join an expensive gym, nor do you have to do high impact or complicated cardio. Even walking for 30 min a day counts as moving qi. If you can, pick an activity that you enjoy, as you’re more likely to stick with it.
Speaking of joy, remembering that it’s a two way street between hormones and emotions, it is important to surround yourself with what brings you joy. What brings you true joy? If the first thing that comes to mind is caffeine or a sugar related product, that’s okay but dig a little deeper here, as caffeine and sugar really just trick your brain into thinking it’s happy via a temporary sugar rush (a chemical reaction that will only create more peaks and crashes, essentially feeding the roller coaster!). So dig deeper with this question. What are the activities that you truly enjoy? What nourishes your spirit? When do you feel the greatest sense of calm? Find what these things are for you, and incorporate them into your life as often as humanly possible.
Mind your Mind
We are not our thoughts, yet we are often slaves to them. Learning to see our thoughts for what they are – just thoughts – allows us to detach from them and re-train the neural pathways of reactivity. This takes time and patient practice, but the good news is that it’s not complicated. Set aside even 10 minutes a day to sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and observe your thoughts. When a thought comes into your mind, try not to engage in it but rather label it, without judgement, as simply ‘thought’ and then let it drift away like a cloud. See over time how the space between thoughts widens. This is where we make space for the new; this is where we change.
It is the aim of this article to offer tools you can use at home and everyday. However, there may be times when you’d like or require extra support. As a TCM practitioner I can speak to the benefits of acupuncture and herbal medicine, as time and time again women leave my clinic after an acupuncture session reporting that they feel much more emotionally balanced (usually phrased more like, “I feel soooo much better, thank you!”). Acupuncture works to balance the autonomic nervous system and I also often prescribe custom herbal formulas in order to help nourish the Kidney Yin and Yang. Seeing an acupuncturist or Chinese Medicine practitioner regularly can be of enormous benefit. And don’t forget about the importance of preventative medicine! I recommend any woman over the age of 35 consult a TCM practitioner to learn how they can start now, preparing their body and minds for healthy and joyful menopause.
The suggestions in this article are not meant to replace advice from your doctor. If you experience severe symptoms during perimenopause, please visit your family doctor.