Nobody ever prepares you for menopause. Nobody tells you that if you are going to have hot flushes or emotional instability, they are likely to be far worse before you stop menstruating than afterwards. Nor does anybody explain that waking regularly at two or three in the morning, and lying in bed filled with sadness or fear or anger, is likely to be not some aberration of nature, but a messenger announcing that menopause is near.
And because we are told so little about menopause - apart from the scaremongering that equates the menopause with a disease, something that needs fixing - few women in our culture are prepared for the next phase of their life. We seldom expect the intensity of emotion - both pain and pleasure - that can accompany the end of the childbearing years, nor do most of us realize that such passions can be transmuted into creative power.
In fact, there are many signs that the change is near. Alterations in menstruation, for instance. Periods can become longer, heavier, shorter, lighter or irregular. You can find your feelings go up and down very much the way they did in puberty, so that one moment you are completely content with your life, and the next you want to throw everything up and go off to India to ‘find yourself’. You may begin to experience a growing dissatisfaction with the parts of your life that used to seem fine. You may also find yourself very tired without apparent reason. You may also begin to get aches and pains in joints, or find your skin suddenly seems to sag or look sallow.
Some or all of these things can happen to a woman in mid life. They are commonly lumped together with menopause, some even are temporarily masked by giving hormone drugs; however, most have little to do with the change - aches and pains in the joints, weight gain, and aging skin for instance, as well as the sense many women report that they have climbed to the top of the ladder only to find that it was against the wrong wall. Such symptoms are really signs that a woman’s lifestyle - probably her values too - needs revising.
It could be time to give up the work you are doing and do something else, to follow your passion, to take up weight training, to learn a technique for meditation or deep relaxation, to reeducate the way your body moves through Feldenkreist, or to revise your way of cooking and eating.
If you have been eating convenience foods, or going on and off crash diets over the years, for instance, in an attempt to keep your weight down, you will have inevitably created biochemical imbalances in your body. Deficiencies of minerals such as magnesium and zinc, or trace elements such as boron or chromium here, excesses of heavy metals such as lead or aluminum from your environment there, radically interfere with the functions of enzymes in your body - which are responsible for the manufacture of hormones, for the digestion of food and assimilation of nutrients, and for the production of energy.
A woman’s body has a remarkable ability to compensate for a deficiency here and there. But, as a result of chemical farming - which depletes the soils and therefore our foods of trace elements and unbalances minerals - as well as food processing, which further depletes vitamins and minerals and puts chemicals into our bodies that do not belong there, by the time mid-life arrives most women have accumulated many metabolic imbalances. In time these biochemical distortions begin to create symptoms - mood swings or depression that occur because of a resultant deficiency in brain chemicals such as serotonin, low levels of adrenal hormones that we need to cope with stress and to protect against inflammation in the tissues such as rheumatoid conditions, and fatigue with no apparent cause. Perhaps a woman also begins to get hot flushes or night sweats, both of which are a normal and temporary part of the readjustment in hormones that takes place during the profound passage of menopause, yet these days are also treated like a disease, and so she goes to her doctor for help.
Yet because few doctors are trained in either nutrition or metabolic biochemistry, nor are they aware of how to use effective plant substances and natural hormones to ease a woman’s passage through the change, they believe there is no alternative but to put the woman on drug-based HRT. He will choose from an enormous variety of combinations of oestrogen and artificial progestin drugs, the latter being added to help protect her from cancer. For by now it has been well established that giving oestrogen on its own is dangerous - predisposing a woman taking it to cancer of the breast and womb.
The experience of taking HRT varies widely from one woman to another. Some feel great on it. Others feel lousy and gain weight. More commonly a woman will feel better for a few months and then begin to report unpleasant side effects from the drugs she is taking. The most common complaints from prolonged HRT are migraine, bleeding, depression, water retention, increased blood pressure, weight gain, thrush, breast problems, varicose veins and chest pains. A recent Swedish survey in the university town of Linkoping showed that 48% of women who go on HRT stop taking the drug within a year. A recent British study examined the reasons most commonly given by women who give up HRT after starting the treatment: about half stop taking it because of side-effects, about one-fifth because they are advised to do so my their doctors, and about one-third either because they are afraid of long term consequences such as cancer, or because HRT has shown itself to be ineffective in helping them. Unlike changes in diet and lifestyle, at best HRT is a stop gap measure which addresses symptoms but offers little in the way of genuinely strengthening and re-balancing a woman’s body. And as far as the treatment of hot flushes is concerned - the single major symptom which is part of menopause - where the plant based treatments from say, wild yam, or agnus castus, or angelica will tend to work more slowly, it will also tend to eliminate hot flushes completely; while the woman who opts for HRT as a way of treating hot flushes finds that the moment she stops taking the oestrogen - whether in a few months or ten years - her hot flushes return. But it is time we stopped talking about the bad news connected with menopause and looked at the good. For despite all of this, we are now poised at the brink of a revolution in women’s natural health care, which promises to help women turn the menopause transition into a true passage to power, personal well being and freedom.
Health educators such as Sandra Coney, author of The Menopause Industry, and Dr Robert Jacobs of The Society of Complementary Medicine in London, scientists such as biologist Renata Klein, and doctors such as (the now sadly late) John Lee MD - the only person who has ever carried out a study on 100 women and been able to reverse osteoporosis - now vigorously challenge the wisdom of established medical practices in the treatment of women with drug-based hormones. They also object strongly to the widespread propaganda which accompanies the sale of HRT, claiming that the indiscriminate doling out of potent drug-based hormones can undermine a woman’s fertility as well as trigger the development of menstrual agonies including PMS, and menopausal miseries, from endometriosis to cancer of the breast and womb. This practice of making virtually every woman a `patient’ for most of her life by subjecting her to drug treatment, not only where it may not be necessary but even when it can be potentially dangerous, is a way of diminishing her personal power and taking away control over her own body. It is therefore, they say, biologically, politically and morally reprehensible.
There are two classes of major reproductive hormones in a woman’s body - the oestrogens, which are commonly lumped together and called `oestrogen’, and progesterone. When these two are in good balance, a woman’s health thrives. She remains free of PMS and other menstrual troubles. She is fertile and able to hold a fetus to full term, and menopause becomes a simple transition instead of a passage riddled with suffering. She is also protected against fibroids, endometriosis and osteoporosis, and she is likely to remain emotionally balanced and free of excessive anxiety or depression. When oestrogen and progesterone are not in balance in a woman’s body, all of these things can come a cropper.
In our modern industrialized world it is easy for a woman’s biochemistry to become distorted as a result of declining physical activity, because of the proliferation of highly processed convenience foods depleted of essential minerals, and as a consequence of the rise of a whole new - as yet largely unrecognized - phenomenon known as oestrogen dominance. This is where a woman’s oestrogen levels far outweigh progesterone in her body, making her prone to cancer, menopausal agonies and menstrual miseries.
Oestrogen dominance has developed in industrialized countries for many reasons, including the widespread use of oestrogen-based oral contraceptives, and the exponential spread of chemicals in our environment which are oestrogen mimics - they are taken up by the oestrogen receptor sites in a woman’s body and throw spanners in the works.
Called xenoestrogens, these include the petrochemical-derivatives we take in as herbicides and pesticides which have been sprayed on our foods; the plastic cups we drink our tea out of, from which can migrate into our bodies; and even the oestrogens that come through in drinking water recycled from our rivers. Oestrogens from the Pill and HRT are excreted from a woman’s body in her urine, which end up in water and are not removed by standard water purification treatments. Every woman needs to be aware of the potential dangers of the `sea of oestrogens’ in which we are now living. Recently, Greenpeace issued a report describing the effect that xenoestrogens are having on men’s sperm count. It has dropped by 40% in the past fifty years. But far more devastating - and much less publicized - are the effects that the rising sea of oestrogens, and its consequence of oestrogen dominance, are exerting in women’s lives.
Oestrogen dominance makes us more prone to breast and womb cancer, to fibroid tumors, to endometriosis, to osteoporosis, to infertility - not to mention a long list of emotional and mental imbalances. However, because much of the medical profession as well as the general public remains ignorant of the effects of xenoestrogens and the growing oestrogen dominance in women’s bodies, oestrogens continue to be prescribed heavily as part of HRT, not only to the handful of women who - around the time of menopause - may need it temporarily, but for thousands of women whose lives would be far better off without it. Neither do they know that hot flushes, dry vaginas, and early aging can usually be addressed more safely and successfully - not to mention less expensively - by alterations in diet to eliminate highly processed convenience foods (replete with junk fats which can interfere with the production of important hormones and prostaglandins in a woman’s body), changes in lifestyle, and by the use of traditional herbal remedies such as wild yam (from which many of the drugs sold for HRT incidentally are derived), chastetree, motherwort and black cohosh.
Natural menopause revolutionaries are by no means altogether opposed to HRT. But they want to see it put into perspective. They insist that, while it may be useful for short periods in a small number of women who actually need oestrogen, the use of drug-based hormones in most women’s cases is costly both in financial and physical terms. Drug based oestrogens and progestogens in the ‘treatment’ of menopause have virtually all been shown to have dangerous side effects and for many who have followed such advice, the use of hormone drugs has ultimately created more problems than it has solved. Also they insist there are better, more natural, ways.
One alternative to the currently available HRT appears to offer many new benefits yet is virtually side effect free. It consists of using plant derived natural progesterone - natural in the sense that it is the identical molecule to that found in a woman’s body - in the form of a cream applied to the body. Progesterone can not only help eliminate oestrogen dominance in a woman’s body, reestablishing hormonal balance; it can therefore also help protect against the many conditions with which oestrogen dominance is associated.
Unlike the progestins prescribed in conventional HRT, it has virtually no side effects since it is a normal body chemical. As such, the body has the enzymes needed to metabolize it easily. Progesterone is also superior to the progestins because it is a biochemical precursor to many other important hormones in the body. This means the body can turn it into these other important hormones - adrenal hormones, for instance, to help support against stress damage, and into hormones which support brain function and balance emotions. It can even be transformed into the natural oestrogens. By contrast, the progestin drugs are ‘end product molecules’. They cannot be converted into other important body chemicals that are needed for emotional and physical health. In fact, their presence in the body may actually interfere with these conversions. After all, the progestins have to be unique molecules foreign to the human body to be patented and sold as drugs. There are no big profits for anybody in selling a generic substance such as a natural progesterone cream. This is another reason why so many doctors remain ignorant of its value in the treatment of women who need extra hormones. Unlike oestrogen commonly given in HRT to help slow down bone loss, progesterone actually increases bone density. It effectively stimulates the activity of osteoblasts - the cells which make new bone. By contrast, no drug has ever been shown to do this significantly. In most countries of the world, the progesterone cream used for natural HRT is readily available to women for their own use without a prescription. In Britain it is available by prescription from doctors who do know about it, but it can also be legally ordered by post, by any woman for her own personal use, from the United States or Ireland. In fact a French study has recently reported not only that transdermal progesterone in small doses is well absorbed, used monthly, it reduces the risk of breast cancer.
These are only a few of the exciting alternatives developing as part of the natural menopause revolution. But in many ways, what is most exciting of all about the new movement is a growing recognition that menopause is no more a disease than menstruation. It is a natural and important transition in a woman’s life - a passage every bit as important physically and spiritually as puberty was. And, like puberty, menopause carries with it enormous fluctuations in hormone levels and with them great shifts in mood, attitude and personal values, all of which are part of the passage itself.
In other cultures, the transformation which takes place in a woman’s life sometime between the ages of 35 and 60 is traditionally considered a journey towards new freedom and power for a woman, a time of celebration where her creativity - until then bound to her biology - is at last set free for her to use as she wills. It is a time when women cease to give a damn what others think of their eccentricities and can set themselves free to soar into whatever realms they fancy. The passage we make at menopause - like the passage at birth or in giving birth - is a profound one which dissolves the boundaries of a woman and can take her deep inside an archetypal heroine’s journey to discover the real treasures of her life.
Each woman is biochemically and spiritually unique. So is the inner journey she must make if she is to succeed in her quest for wholeness. Such journeys need to be undertaken with the highest respect for the body, the spirit and the powers of nature which bring it about. Such journeys cannot be codified. They are not packaged holidays where you pay your money, take your anti-diarrhoea pills and know exactly what to expect. These, insist natural menopause revolutionaries, are journeys of the soul.