Part One: What is going on?
With Dr. Sara Hart, ND, MSOM, LAc of Stillwater Healing Arts Clinic, Lyons
One moment you’re sitting in a meeting having a conversation with a colleague and you’re able to present yourself as a professional, intelligent person. Before you can blink, your mind turns to Jell-O, you can’t remember the last word you said nor the poignant message you were trying to convey, your body temperature seems to be going through the roof, and you’re sweating profusely.
As if this weren’t enough, ankle pain from an injury 20 years ago has come back with a vengeance, you’re waking six times a night, gaining weight, and feeling completely unhinged.
This experience in many variations is increasingly common today, as women move through the menopausal transition with a laundry list of complaints. “What is happening to me?” is the phrase repeated again and again in Doctorss offices by the 50 something female crowd (or much younger with surgical menopause). Menopause is traditionally known simply as the cessation of the menstrual cycle. Yet for the majority of women, the transition can be extremely uncomfortable and result in a myriad of symptoms.
When a female is born, she has as many eggs in her ovaries that she will ever have. By the time she reaches puberty, less than half of the eggs remain. Menopause is the experience of the ovaries releasing their last eggs and the hormone cascade that is associated with this process. The most dramatic hormonal change is the decline in estrogen and treatment is often directed here. This is just one aspect of menopause and while it seems to “cause” the symptoms, the root goes much deeper.
While western science has drawn the association to estrogen decline, there still is not a concrete explanation in biochemistry as to why the symptoms result as they do. A close look into immunology illustrates one relationship that impacts multiple systems, recognizing inflammation as the root of the imbalance.
Estrogen has a unique relationship with the immune system. Interleuken 8 (IL-8) is a chemical messenger in the body that interacts with white blood cells and is an important mediator for the body’s expression of inflammation. Estrogen potentiates IL-8 and these two aspects of the human body act as a blockade to the expression of the inflammatory cascade. It’s as if a dam were in place to prevent inflammation from being experienced. When estrogen begins to decline in peri-menopause, the dynamics of IL-8 on the immune system changes. Essentially, the dam breaks and the backlog of inflammation that the body has been living with is now experienced.
Chinese medicine has another take on menopause. Physiology is a continuous balancing act of yin and yang energies and while this is a theme for the whole of the system, we can also look at each part of the system and see the balance portrayed separately as well. Chinese medicine recognizes a myriad of different patterns possible during menopause, each accounting in detail for the symptoms that manifest.
A common pattern of imbalance during menopause is known as yin deficiency. The yin energy acts as the container and is restored through sleep, meditation, and peaceful living. This container needs to be strong enough in order to contain the active yang energy. When we live high stress lifestyles, compromised sleep and self-care, yin deficiency is a common result. Menopause is a particularly delicate time because we come to exhaust the reproductive energy, which serves as a sort of storehouse of energy for the body’s activity. If a woman goes into this phase with a degree of yin deficiency, she is likely to experience the full gamut of symptoms.
The menopause transition presents a new challenge to the body with the limitation of tolerance to inflammation that was otherwise easily ignored as well as the disruption in equilibrium of yin and yang. It is a time when the body demands to be better cared for and the results of improper lifestyle are more dramatically present. The path of greatest ease through this time often requires very conscious consideration of what a person truly needs and a close examination of how energy is expended.
Shift gears gently through menopause with natural medicine support. While hormone therapies can provide symptomatic relief, they are not solving the underlying problems that are causing the symptoms and long-term use can be detrimental. Stay tuned for specific information on the collection of symptoms common during menopause with three more upcoming articles, every other week. (Part 2: hot flashes and night sweats, Part 3: mental clarity and fatigue, Part 4: aches, pains, and weight gain)
For individual support, please visit Dr. Hart at Stillwater Clinic in Lyons.