By: Red Hot Mamas
Published: May 26, 2010
Women everywhere go through menopause. But have you ever wondered how other cultures perceive menopause? Do women from the eastern hemisphere experience the same daunting symptoms as women from the western hemisphere? Think about how various diets, modes of exercise and styles of living affect people in so many different ways. How can we make the right treatment choices for ourselves if we are unaware of all of our options? Our November issue of the Menopause Minute explored some alternative routes of non-hormone treatment for menopause symptoms. This month, we are exploring the diagnoses and treatments for menopause in eastern medicine. The fundamental recurring theme is the balance of yin and yang. The Chinese believe at the time of menopause, women are discovering the yang (energetic, aggressive) side of themselves. On the contrary, in general, as men grow older, they are becoming more yin (passive, yielding).
The Yin and Yang of Menopause
The Chinese regard yin-yang as the balance of forces, a polarity in energy and the fundamental ordering of the universe. The basic theory of traditional Chinese medicine is based on the yin-yang philosophy. Under normal, healthy mental and physiological conditions, yin and yang are equilibrium, or a state of relative balance. If the balance is for some reason disturbed, the result is either an excess or deficiency in either yin or yang which subsequently causes ailments. The key to the yin and yang balance is directly related to the mind, body and spirit. In eastern medicine, a tranquil mind plays a considerable role in maintaining good health.
Estrogen and progesterone can also be seen in a yin and yang sense. For example, estrogen is considered to be a yin-promoting agent because it relieves conditions of the yin deficiency (menopausal symptoms). Alternatively, progesterone is considered to be a yang agent because of its ability to enhance fat metabolism and thyroid function (among many other things). To maintain the proper levels of these hormones, traditional Chinese medicine focuses on balancing both the yin and the yang.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, fertility, libido, regeneration of the entire body and tissue elasticity/strength are all dependent on proper kidney function. They regard menopause as a stage in a woman’s life when there is a lack of sufficient energy in the kidneys. As women become menopausal, their yang energy increases (the active, dry, hot element). Subsequently, the kidneys’ energy becomes imbalanced. As yang energy increases, kidneys become more yin-deficient. The yin deficiency causes the typical menopausal symptoms that we all know so well (hot flashes, insomnia, hypertension, etc.). The yin organs (such as the kidneys and the heart) are responsible for producing, circulating and storing Qi (pronounced chee), the vital energy in the body. Blood and Qi are often linked together as blood is considered the material basis of Qi (representing all internal organs). The concepts of yin, yang and qi are usually difficult for the Westerner’s mind to grasp. Bottom line, the balance of each is the key to good health and the key to attenuating menopausal symptoms.
Menopausal Symptoms in the East and the West
Many recent studies have investigated and compared North American and Asian symptoms and frequencies of symptoms related to menopause. A notable study conducted by medical anthropologist Dr. Margaret Lock (McGill University, Canada) revealed Japanese women experience far fewer menopausal symptoms than women in North America. Surprisingly, the Japanese have no word in their language for “hot flashes.” Dr. Lock explains, “Together with other cross-cultural research, these data indicate that postmenopausal life is a complex biosocial process, one in which declining estrogen levels are but one factor among numerous others. Menopause should not be conceptualized as simply an invariant biological transformation with individual differences due solely to psychological and cultural variation.”
One possible explanation for the differences could be related to diet. It is well known that Japanese women have different diets than North American women. The Japanese eat less animal protein than Western women, consume less fat and eat several servings of soy each day. This diet promotes the intake of phytoestrogens (estrogens contained in plants) thought to act as a natural hormone regulator (like oestrogen). To learn more about phytoestrogens, refer to the November, 2004 issue of the Menopause Minute (http://www.redhotmamas.org/newsletters/newsletter_200411.html). The great variability of menopausal symptoms in Eastern and Western women could also be attributed to other socio-economic and cultural factors such as life-style and exercise differences. Whatever the reasoning, maybe we should take a closer look at how Eastern women are living so we can help alleviate our menopausal symptoms!
A variety of alternative treatments are available and many women find them very effective. Acupuncture, meditation, relaxation techniques, herbal and natural remedies are all available. It should be noted that the claims of safety and efficacy of alternative or natural remedies are not reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Acupuncture, meditation, relaxation techniques, massage therapy and diet are all harmless ways to reduce the stresses of menopause. These therapies support the eastern medicine belief that the mind and body are so interrelated. Menopausal symptoms can be amplified with stress and negative thoughts. Research has indicated that women who practice daily relaxation-response techniques have fewer hot flashes.
Our North American culture is slowly noticing how ailments in eastern cultures are so quickly relieved and/or cured. Acupuncture has grown tremendously over the past 20 years and continues to grow by providing alternative treatments for many westerners. Acupoints (specific points on the body) are stimulated to restore the balance of qi. Acupoints correlate to particular organs in the body that are located near or on the surface of the skin. Once they are triggered, they have the ability to alter various biochemical and physiological conditions to relieve hot flashes, anxiety, insomnia, vaginal dryness and many other symptoms associated with menopause.
There are many websites available to further explore acupuncture. If you are interested, the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine recommend physicians to have a minimum 200 hours of training in acupuncture recognized school and nonphysicians have a minimum of two years training, licensed and registered in your state, or certified by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturist. Private insurance coverage depends on individual insurers and what the treatment is for, so check with your company to determine coverage. For a list of practitioners who meet these standards, call 1-610-266-1433 in the US, and 1-416-752-3988 in Canada or visit www.acufinder.com.
Massage therapy has recently received attention for “easing the journey through menopause.” Massage therapy promotes personal health through hands-on manipulation of muscles and soft tissue and provides therapeutic benefits for health, fitness and mental well-being. Massage can improve circulation by increasing blood and lymph flow. It can enhance relaxation, stimulate the nervous system, release muscle spasms, eliminate toxins and promote healing.
Many different types of massage therapy exist and although many women have reported great success with relieving their menopausal symptoms, the treatment may not necessarily be for you. If you are interested in finding a massage therapist in your area to find out if you are a good candidate for the treatment, visit the American Massage Therapy Associ
ation’s website: www.amtamassage.org.
Other alternative treatments
Another alternative option to treat menopause relative to the mind-body equilibrium is yoga. Yoga activates all glands, organs, tissues and cells of the body. It reduces the effects of hormonal changes and brings emotional balance and mental clarity. There are a variety of yoga positions that can be used to treat menopausal symptoms. Also, yoga promotes a health lifestyle by providing an excellent outlet for exercise. Yoga also improves ones state of well-being, hand steadiness and balance. All of these are important aspects of aging.
Other eastern medicine alternative treatments exist including herbal and nutritional supplements. Among the most common herbal treatments include black cohosh, he shou wu, ginseng and soy products. Studies on Dong Qui performed in the United States did not find it useful in relieving menopausal symptoms. However, the studies looked at Dong Qui alone rather than as part of an herbal recipe which is how it is used in Asia. Complementary and alternative medicines do exist and supplements are frequently used by many women throughout the world. If interested, please research whether these remedies will be safe and effective for you. Keep in mind herbal and nutritional supplements are usually “at your own risk” treatments since the FDA does not regulate them.
Menopause can be a happy time and symptoms can be controlled by managing stress, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly and balancing your yin yang and qi. We encourage you to further explore your options with eastern medicine. Below is a list of helpful websites.