Navigating the Menopausal Transition: How to reduce menopausal symptoms and feel better naturally with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.
One question we often receive at Well Woman Acupuncture is “does acupuncture work to relieve the symptoms of perimenopause & menopause”? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Many women don’t realize that Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are powerful tools for reducing many of these uncomfortable symptoms in a natural and effective manner, and can be safely done without the use of hormone replacement therapy.
This topic is one that I am very passionate about. Having been in the throes of menopause since my late 30’s, I understand how difficult the transition can be, how uncomfortable the symptoms of menopause are, and I have great compassion for the multitudes of women who find this part of their journey disconcerting at best.
What are the symptoms of the Menopausal Transition? And what causes them?
So, let’s lay some groundwork. First of all, menopause is not just hot flashes and night sweats. And it doesn’t just begin with the cessation of your menses. Perimenopause, or the menopausal transition, often begins years before you stop having periods, sometimes spanning up to ten years. This is why it is called a transition. What many women don’t realize is that during this time, they can begin having symptoms that they don’t even realize are due to this multi-year hormone party.
During perimenopause, one of the first things changes to occur is a reduction in ovulatory cycles, or sporadic anovulation. This is because there are fewer follicles available as the ovaries begin their natural decline away from conception. With the decline in follicle count, ovulation becomes more sporadic, leading to lower progesterone levels and erratic pulsations of follicle-stimulating hormone and estrogen. These erratic hormone levels cause symptoms that often precede the hot flashes and night sweats that we commonly associate with menopause. This is called the “early menopausal transition”, and symptoms can include:
- Short menstrual cycles, irregular periods or skipped periods
- More severe and/or prolonged PMS symptoms
- Irritability and/or weepiness
- Weight gain and difficulty losing weight
- Hair loss
- Digestive upset, constipation, bloating
- Lower libido
- And just generally not feeling like yourself…
As time goes on, follicle counts continue to decline and hormone levels become more erratic. Eventually, the periods become more spread out and the above symptoms can worsen. And we can also start to see hot flashes and/or night sweats, which are associated with worsened mood and more severe insomnia. Interestingly, many women often report that these perimenopausal years are often much more uncomfortable than true menopause.
Perhaps even more important than this decline in ovarian hormones is a change in adrenal function. The adrenals are an important source of progesterone and DHEA in post-menopausal women, which helps create regulation in the body as a whole. So, as ovulation begins to go by the wayside, we call on the adrenals more and more to provide the progesterone and other hormones that we need to feel balanced.
However, here is the rub. More and more women in our modern era suffer from some degree of adrenal fatigue related to STRESS. When the adrenals are taxed by persistent, high cortisol levels, progesterone levels fall even further, and hormonal fluctuations are much more pronounced. And when the adrenals are taxed in this way, our stress threshold is lower, menopausal symptoms become amplified, and our bodies respond by becoming even more stressed, creating a vicious cycle of fight-or-flight response.
Menopause sounds like a walk in the park, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, it isn’t. The menopausal transition can leave women feeling like they are on a roller coaster, no longer inhabiting the same body they’ve come to know and rely on for decades. Suddenly what was once a well-oiled machine based on regularity and predictability starts to resemble this:
So, what can we do?
This is the part where I become a bit of a personal crusader against the woes of menopause. I know firsthand how it feels to come apart at the seams and to find tools that help me put the pieces back together again.
How Acupuncture Can Help During Menopause: Steps You Can Take to Regain Control
There are certain recommendations I make to my patients to address the hormonal, adrenal and stress components of menopause. Following these simple steps can make a huge difference in how smoothly a woman moves through these transitional years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of “Thank you! I feel like myself again!” after patients adopt these changes.
Of course, acupuncture is the first thing I recommend. And I’m not trying to make a sell here…I’m speaking from personal experience. At 38 years old, I was having many brutal symptoms. I was still having periods, but they were starting to become erratic—sometimes early, sometimes late. They were shorter, lighter and I lived in a state of perma-PMS. I had my hormone levels checked and learned that my FSH was already in menopausal range. I was absolutely unwilling to go into true menopause at 38 (as my mother had), so the first thing I did was begin a weekly acupuncture regimen. Because I do what I do, I knew that it would make the most sense to start with acupuncture.
Within a few weeks, my periods had regulated and my symptoms reduced. At that point, I felt comfortable decreasing my acupuncture frequency to more of a maintenance level (once every 2-4 weeks, depending on my schedule). I also took Chinese herbs and supplements (which I’ll talk about in a sec) and continued this for 2 years or so.
Then life happened. I got busy, and because I was doing relatively ok, I decided to let the acupuncture sessions go. Weird to say as an acupuncturist, but there you have it. After 9 months without any treatment, guess what happened? My periods stopped altogether, hot flashes came on full force and I stopped sleeping. I learned my lesson and started back over with weekly acupuncture sessions for a bit until I felt things were more under control. I’m now back to a maintenance routine and while I am truly post-menopausal (it has been more than 12 months since my last period), I feel like my symptoms are much more manageable.
So, for women are experiencing uncomfortable symptoms, I recommend a series of weekly acupuncture sessions for menopause. This is because we are trying to reestablish a sense of equilibrium in the system and the body thrives on the regular input from acupuncture. We are building up a reservoir tank of internal resources, if you will, and spreading those initial treatments out too far can keep the tank from filling. Once improvement is noticeable, then we spread sessions out to a maintenance level, which will vary from patient to patient.
Herbs & Supplements for Menopause
Acupuncture is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to treating menopause effectively. Chinese herbal medicine is another piece that, when combined with acupuncture, offers a powerful one-two punch. We house a full herbal pharmacy in our clinic and custom blend herbal preparations for our patients based on symptoms and where they are in the menopausal transition. We find that using both acupuncture and herbs helps them feel better much more quickly.
In addition to herbs, we recommend a few key dietary supplements. There are aimed at regulating hormone fluctuations, improving mood and reducing hot flashes. Some of these are:
- Evening Primrose Oil
- Vitamin D3
- Fish Oil or other EFA’s (if vegetarian)
- Adrenal Support
Nutrition in Menopause
Diet also plays a key role in determining how smooth the menopausal transition is. Adopting dietary changes is certainly individual and there is no one-size-fits-all regimen that we recommend. But there are some basic changes that are helpful, some of which are based on Chinese medicine theory. These include:
- Avoiding processed foods (especially those containing high sodium and that are laden with processed carbohydrates)—these foods contribute to bloating, water retention and weight gain, as well as increasing systemic inflammation, none of which help your hormones—and mood—be regulated.
- Have the majority of your meals consist of protein, fats and vegetables.
- Consume organic food as often as possible.
- Avoid sugar in all forms, but especially processed, refined white sugar. Sugar increases inflammation, causes hormone dysregulation and taxes the adrenal glands, all of which have negative consequences for Perimenopausal symptoms.
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine to no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per week and 1 serving of caffeine per day (if at all)
- Reduce intake of acidic foods, as these contribute to hot flashes.
- Drink 80-100 ounces of water per day.
Exercise during Menopause
Regular exercise is an imperative part of any perimenopausal regimen. Exercise does all of the following:
- Reduces stress
- Regulates adrenal function and balances cortisol levels (but avoid overly-strenuous exercise, as this can deplete the adrenals further)
- Improves sleep
- Strengthens cardiovascular system, muscles and bones
- Reduces hot flashes/night sweats
- Regulates blood sugar and helps balance weight gain, especially through the abdomen
So, what kind of exercise is beneficial? Studies show that all exercise is beneficial for menopause symptoms, but that the most benefit comes from 45 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise 3-5 times per week, coupled with moderate strength training (a total of 2 ½ hours of exercise per week)
However, it is important to add that Chinese medicine views the menopausal process a bit differently than these guidelines suggest. In our thinking, it is important to honor the “yin” aspect of the self as you move through menopause, which is important for bringing balance to your reproductive hormones. Yin is represented by slowness, gentle breathing, quiet introspection. So, while exercise is absolutely imperative, it is also good to incorporate more “yin-style” exercise into your daily regimen. Things like gentle yoga, walks in nature, qi-gong, tai-chi are all types of exercise that fit this description.
Moving through Menopause with Grace, Humor and Ease
Finally, we come to our final point for helping make this time one to celebrate, rather than one to hate. And this may be the most important tip of all. It is this: do what brings you joy and allow time for creativity and communion (with self, with others, with nature, with Spirit).
This could be a blog in and of itself (and, in fact, is interconnected with the theme of this one. It is so deserving of more air time that I may well expand on it at some point. But here is the basic introduction for now.
As our internal resources move away from procreation, there is more available for a different kind of creativity—personal expression, connection to beauty and sharing the wisdom we have accumulated through our lives with next generations. In response to this shift, our physical/mental/emotional energy becomes more inward-focused and our rhythms become slower. I believe that much of our suffering through menopause comes from being out of rhythm with ourselves, trying to keep up with the fast-paced nature of the world (which is continually gaining speed), while our bodies want to tune in to our natural processes. The more we resist these internal cues, the push-pull creates internal chaos, manifesting in worsening symptoms.
In essence, it is important to do more of these things:
- Spend time in nature
- Take up creative projects
- Commune with other people who share your vision and dreams
- Watch funny movies. Laugh. Dance.
- Embrace joy and share it with others!
In conclusion, it is important to know that, yes, you can move through menopause with yourself intact. It is possible! By adopting these simple strategies, you can feel more alive, more yourself, and enjoy the next stages of your life in a way you didn’t even know was possible. Think about what lies ahead: a you that is present and aware, guided by the wisdom of all of your previous versions of Self. It can’t get any better than that!
Interested in exploring acupuncture further? Contact us for a free consultation!