Female Symbol in pillsHot flushes, fat and weight gain, dry skin, thinning hair, osteoporosis – the list goes on. Yet we all know people who have come through the menopause relatively unscathed and full of vitality, so there must be a route through it. Traditional medicine aims to treat the symptoms, and for many women this works for them. However many others nowadays feel that in the longer term they are better off addressing the core wellbeing issues of diet and exercise and treating the causes with natural therapies. Diet (in the sense of healthy foods) and exercise are dealt with in other sections, and HRT is a matter for you to discuss with your GP. Here we focus on natural remedies.

Menopause

Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes and, for women, the menopause. The only uncertain element is how will it affect you personally and what symptoms you will get.

The  menopause is technically 12 months after your last period, rather than being a duration of time. In the 5-7 years before that you are pre menopausal, and afterwards you are post menopausal. The average menopause age for women in the UK is now 51.5 years.

Yes it is a challenge – both mentally and physically – but you stand every chance of coming out of it with a sort of post menopausal zest, imbued with a new vitality and a sense of power and freedom. Its hard to explain but it can be really invigorating, and without wishing to sound too evangelical it can be the birth of a new enriched phase of your life.

So, in the knowledge that there is much that can be done to ease you through it, lets get the bad news over with first, bearing in mind that you may be lucky enough to sail through with only a few of these problems.

Menopause can hit you like a tidal wave – it really can happen that fast. The pre-cursors of weight gain and increasing reliance on notes scribbled everywhere to remember what you are meant to be doing, or where you are going, are just the first rumblings. Then suddenly, and it can be virtually overnight, on come the surges of heat, hot flushes, poor sleeping patterns, irritability and unsettling feelings of isolation and lack of purpose. Add to that dryer skin and a dry vagina which makes sex uncomfortable, a lower libido and sudden mood swings which can leave a flabbergasted husband not quite sure of what he did wrong as the door slams behind you, and you’ve got the general picture. Oh yes – and possibly a thickening waist and tendency to urinary tract infections!

BUT when you come out the other side there is the GOOD NEWS!

Mentally
Menopause affects the brain – but in a good way. With a growing post-menopausal zest you can find that

  • Energy levels and enthusiasm return
  • Creativity is sparked
  • New ambitions and new thoughts emerge

Some women describe it like a haze lifting, a sort of steadying without the surges and plunges caused by the menstrual cycle.

It can also result in a shifting away from the homemaker role – maybe unknowingly helping adjustment to an empty nest? You can find yourself feeling more empowered and rather liberated as an individual – less willing to be the accommodating peacemaker, the one who always cooks, who always puts family first and themselves last. It’s an exciting time, though possibly a bit of a surprise for the rest of the family!

Physically
Yes, your body will of course continue to age, as it always has but now you have:

  • freedom to have sex without the risk of pregnancy
  • time to rediscover your interests as children grow in independence
  • rediscovery of life as a couple
  • reduced body hair so less shaving & waxing – but watch that chin!
  • no more periods, which latterly may have been heavy and gloopy

So how do you get through it?
80% of women only get mild symptoms – no comfort if you are in the 20% that suffers badly, but there is a lot you can do to help yourself, using natural remedies and keeping your body active.
The medical community is divided as to what should be recommended and it is confusing to know what to do to relieve symptoms and not cause health problems down the road. Talk to your doctor and friends too for feedback. At the end of the day you must decide what works for you.

HRT v Natural Remedies
There are lots of pro’s and con’s for HRT and for many it is their salvation. One of the disadvantages which your doctor probably wont tell you is that when you come off it menopause symptoms can come back, hot sweats, the lot – no fun if you are in your mid 60’s! And reports of side effects in the press have put women off using it.

Many women prefer to try natural alternatives first, with HRT as a back up. There is no magic recipe but whichever route you choose, of paramount importance are

  • diet – a healthy diet is absolutely key
  • exercise – vital for physical and mental health

Foods containing Phyto-oestrogens can help you sail through the menopause. What are they and how do they work?

Jodie Forman of Foreman & Jones explains that these plant chemicals are naturally-occurring forms of the female hormone oestrogen that are found in certain foods, specifically soya products such as soya milk, tofu, tempeh and miso, plus pulses, linseeds and a variety of vegetables.

They act in the body as a weak oestrogen because they bind to hormone receptors. But they are also adaptogens, which means that they help to reduce high levels of oestrogen or boost low levels. They have an important role in helping to regulate hormones and can be used to relieve the unpleasant side effects of the menopause (flushing, vaginal dryness & night sweats etc). The common phyto-oestrogens are shown below, with their food sources. Try and increase your intake them to help alleviate menopausal symptoms.

Isoflavones (genistein, daidzein, glycitein, and equol) are primarily found in soya beans and soya products, chickpeas and other pulses
Lignans (enterolactone and enterodiol) are found in oilseeds (primarily linseed), cereal bran, pulses.
Coumestans (coumestrol) can be found in alfalfa sprouts, split peas and lentils.

For more information on a herbal approach to the menopause from Jodie Forman click here.

Natural Progesterone

What is it?
Natural progesterone is the most natural way to help with the symptoms of menopause to restore your body’s equilibrium and, when used correctly, seems to help many women through the symptoms of hormonal imbalance with added benefits. It has the same molecular structure as the progesterone produced by the body, and is absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. It can help your body keep oestrogen and progesterone levels in balance, resulting in a maintained sense of equilibrium.
Natural progesterone is the molecular match of progesterone produced by the body. You can use it if you have had a hysterectomy too. (Synthetic progesterone carries a long list of contra indications)

What does it do?
It does sound rather like a wonder drug, as users claim that it has a huge range of benefits related to hot flushes, vaginal dryness, sex drive, balancing of emotions, panic attacks and migraine, constipation, cold feet and hands, stiffness in joints, arthritis, joint injury, thinning hair , under active thyroid and the list goes on. It can also help peri-menopausal women to bring periods back to normal until they naturally cease. Osteoporosis too will usually show a measurable improvement over 6 months.

Side effects?
The key is to just use it enough to make symptoms disappear. Once symptoms have cleared up you will probably need very little to maintain its benefits. Reported side effects are minimal – if your periods have stopped you may get some vaginal bleeding for a month or two as old blood is passed out, but it will cease.

How soon does it have an effect?
For some women the benefits start to be felt within a couple of days, but it can take 3 months to feel the full benefit. You only need to use it sparingly – don’t be tempted to use loads as your body will become used to it and it will cease to be effective.

How is it applied?
It is rubbed onto the skin, as a topical application gives a more gradual and steady absorption. The larger the area the greater will be the absorption. It is a good moisturizer so sinks in easily.
Apply where skin is thinner- inner arms, inner thighs, back, stomach, neck or chest in rotation.
It’s best to start by using half what is recommended – a ¼- ½ teaspoon split into two doses, and apply morning and evening. Start by just using it every 3 to 4 days and then you can increase/decrease as required.

These are guidelines from personal experience only – you will need to find the minimum you need to alleviate your symptoms – less is more as overdoing it makes the body less receptive.

The suppliers recommend that you use it for 24 days each month then have a break, and to make it easy either start say on 6th of each month or end on 24th
You can use it after the menopause, in whatever reduced dose suits you, to guard against osteoporosis, improve dry skin etc, but use it sparingly and do give yourself a few days off each calendar month to keep the body’s receptors sensitive.

Where do I get it?
You should buy progesterone derived from Wild Yam extract – it must be progesterone, not diosgenin or dioscorea which don’t convert to progesterone in the body. Don’t use creams with other hormones in them.
The Natural Progesterone Information Service (NPIS) is a useful source of information.
Serenity Natural Progesterone Cream from Wellsprings Trading Company 01481 233370 costs £18 for about 3 months supply. Their website is a useful source of information, and you can contact them on 01481 233370. If in doubt discuss with your doctor.

Will a change of diet help?
Yes it will – if for no other reason than general health and weight control. Read Healthy Eating and Superfoods above, and try keeping a food diary for a week or so – you may find you are not eating as healthily as you thought.

For hot flushes:

  • Natural Progesterone – see above
  • Black Cohosh Cytoplan or Nutrigold
  • Multivitamins – Vit E to help the flushes and Vit C to help its absorption
  • Keep a face spritzer and/or fan handy
  • Keep a glass of water by the bed when you wake at night
  • Try sleeping with arms and a foot out of the duvet
  • Wear clothes in layers – is this why ladies in their 50’s wear cardigans?

Soy isoflavones ( fermented from soya beans to make them more easily digestible than the form found in actual soya beans) have a high concentrate of phytoestrogens, which are plants molecules chemically similar to oestrogen. There is apparently no word for “hot flush” in the Japanese language, which sounds a good advert for the effectiveness of soya.
An isoflavin supplement like Menopause Support Formula from Nutrigold or True Food Super Potency Soyagen from Higher Nature has been shown to have a positive effect on menopause symptoms.
Seek medical advice first though, as some practitioners say that too much soya can upset your thyroid and endocrine system.
Dong Quai ( from angelica) and Agnus Castus can also help alleviate hot flushes. Try Higher Nature’s supplement.

For vaginal dryness:

Vaginal tissues are dependent on oestrogen to secrete their lubricating fluids. Vaginal dryness can be upsetting for both the woman who feels uncomfortable, and her partner who may feel sexually rejected.

Comfrey Cream or oil is wonderfully healing and soothes soreness and irritation. It facilitates growth of healthy cells on the vaginal wall and it helps moisturize the vaginal area. Try using half what is advised on the tube , and use every other day or so to find what suits you – or when you think you might need it! Phyto Pharmaceuticals 01623 644334. Some users find that after 3 months or so they no longer need it.

Vitamin E oil or sweet almond oil also help to lubricate and heal soreness when used regularly. Break a capsule and massage the oil just inside the vagina.

It is also important to support your adrenal glands, as they produce sex hormones as well as stress related hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenal glands don’t like caffeine, so you should try and cut caffeine out of your regular diet, abandoning coffee and ordinary tea in favour of herbal teas and water. Adrenal glands also use vitamins B and C and zinc, hence the need to eat a good diet and take vitamin supplements.

Sex and the menopause

Loss of interest in sex is not uncommon with the onset of menopause – and it can happen on both sides as men hit their own ‘men-o-pause’.

It is not given the euphemism “change of life “ for nothing. During your pre menopausal 40’s your body is slowing changing and getting ready for full menopause. And lets face it – hot flushes, heavy periods, poor sleeping patterns and a thickening waist line are enough to give the best of us mood swings and put us off sex.

And grumpy old men are not called that without good reason – many more men are now owning up to losing interest in sex too according to Relate so don’t feel you are on your own – about 20% of middle aged couples have sex less than ten times a year.

The subject is a difficult one to discuss, as any admission suggests that you don’t love your partner as much, which invariably is not the case. Recognition of the problem is also regarded as an admission of a disappearing youth.

It’s just that having invested so much time and effort in a relationship, a degree of comfortableness and habit will inevitably seep in over the years. Just as well really – if it didn’t we would all be exhausted! Our lives are not as exciting together and few of us (on both sides) probably make a significant effort to keep romance alive, yet alone look sexy at the level we might have done ten years ago. A recent empty nest can show up cracks that need a bit of filling too.

Lack of interest in sex can also be a warning sign of an encroaching dullness to a partnership, that is best nipped in the bud, to avoid long term effects that are hard to reverse. Divorce rates amongst the over 50’s are rising, because partners get bored and look elsewhere. Intimacy. closeness and happiness doesn’t necessarily equate to sex , but it goes a long way to helping, particularly for women, but for men too.

Just like a new challenge in life injects zest and bounce, you need to invigorate your relationship every now and then by doing something new and different together. This is not in a sexual sense – we are not talking about swinging from chandeliers or doing the dance of the seven veils. It is more about doing something unusual, non routine, impulsive, to keep your lives together and on the tracks – criss crossing, running parallel whilst you do your own thing to avoid over exposure, and then meeting up again for quality time together – the glue in a relationship. It doesn’t have to cost anything – a trip to the coast and a bracing walk on a Sunday morning, a Friday night meal by candlelight, or getting into a bubble bath together can invigorate a relationship and bring back the urge for sex.

The Times columnist Suzi Godson has set up a web site aimed at “people in long term relationships who have concerns about sex”. It has some informative and helpful articles on depression, male and female menopause, loss of libido, etc, though the Kama Sutra’s useful tip of rubbing the penis with stinging insects to induce a long-lasting swelling is probably best avoided! Seriously though, like many things in life, if you don’t do anything to make things better they have a nasty habit of getting worse even if neither side has actually done anything wrong. So good luck making the first move!