By Deanne Greenwood.
‘The menopause is kind of like the ocean… a sea of change. You have to roll with it as it ebbs and flows, explore its hidden depths, appreciate its breadth and all the new and exciting places it could take you.’
This is what sprang to mind a few years ago, when contemplating my own experience of menopause as well as that of the many women I have worked with in my profession as a medical herbalist. I live in the far reaches of Cornwall, right next to the sea, and as I considered the power and momentum of this vast body of water, alongside its calmer moments when it is so full of mystery and promise, I realised that, just like menopause, it cannot be ignored, or overcome. And when respected and explored, it can bring a great sense of empowerment, which is what we women need at this stage in our lives.
If this all sounds a little romantic, well I think a little bit of romance is just what we need at this time in our lives. OK, I know hot flushes, aching joints and dry vaginas really aren’t at all romantic, but the thing is, we can do so much to relieve these symptoms and make them more manageable by working with nature, rather than against it.
I am firmly against hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Our hormones don’t need replacing, they need balancing. And I am quite sure that in years to come, HRT will be yet another of those ‘medical interventions’ which will prove to have been a big and very harmful mistake. I have followed all the arguments over the years for and against the safety of HRT, with past ‘evidence’ being contradicted, and new ‘evidence’ being brought to light, and feel strongly that nobody really knows the truth. Yet. It seems to me that it is more about medical science, together with the billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, pushing the idea that menopause is not normal, is something to dread, deny, fight and suppress; that we should hang on to youth for as long as we possibly, unnaturally can, because the alternative is too awful to contemplate. Being old and barren.
Well it isn’t. Get real. Menopause is a natural process that all women have to, and will, go through. It happens when it is supposed to happen, for all sorts of reasons, and to try and change the course of nature invariably leads to problems. Much better to work with nature, harness and feel rejuvenated by its power.
Nature has provided us with medicinal plants, which have been used to help heal and restore equilibrium, on a physical and emotional level, for thousands of years across many different cultures. When used alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle, I believe herbal medicine is the most efficacious and safest – not to mention fulfilling – way to sail through menopause. There may be waves, eddies and even whirlpools, but these are all negotiable. Trust me. It is all about balance.
Herbal medicine helps the body re-establish and maintain balance in mind, body and spirit. It works on an individual basis. We are all different, we all experience menopause in different ways. Therefore medicinal plants that work for one woman may not be as effective for another. In the words of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: “The person who has the disease, is more important than the disease the person has.” And while menopause is not a ‘disease’, it is a symptom of ‘dis-ease’. That is, imbalance.
There are literally thousands of medicinal plants, many with similar actions. A skilled herbalist selects the most suitable plants for the individual. If six women come to see me who are all going through menopause, I can pretty much guarantee they will not leave with the same prescription, although they may have some of the same herbs in their mix.
Black cohosh, sage and red clover all commonly appear, particularly with regard to hot flushes. Plus research shows that black cohosh can help maintain bone mineral density. Devil’s claw is a herb that can help relieve joint and muscle pain and often works particularly well when associated with menopause, in my experience. Lady’s mantle is good for perimenopausal heavy periods, asparagus, shisandra berry and the ginsengs for low libido and low mood, skullcap for nervous tension, headaches and insomnia… These are just a very few examples…
Medicinal plants contain active constituents that have been scientifically identified. These have distinct therapeutic properties. For example, plants that contain anthroquinones tend to have a laxative effect, alkaloids have pain-killing and anti-spasmodic properties (great for menstrual cramps and muscular tension), mucoids have demulcent properties (help to soothe and heal the gut, respiratory, urinary and vaginal tracts), bitters promote good digestive function, and plants containing steroidal and triterpenoid saponins have hormone-balancing properties.
Every plant is made up of many different constituents and these all work in synergy with one another to produce a balanced, therapeutic effect. Many pharmaceutical drugs in use today were originally synthesised from plants, but this involved isolating what was considered to be the ‘most active’ constituent and discarding the rest of the plant. Which may be why many of these drugs have side effects.
Take aspirin, for example. In the late 19th century, a German chemist isolated the active constituent in willow bark, salicylic acid, which gave the plant its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. From this, he created a chemical derivative called acetylsalicylic acid, and called the resulting product aspirin – a potent analgesic and anti-inflammatory. But aspirin has some rather disturbing potential side effects – internal bleeding and stomach ulcers, for example. We don’t get these side effects with willow bark, because we use the whole plant, with all the constituents working together to keep all the body systems on an even keel. It is one of many plants that can help relieve the joint and muscular aches and pains that often come with menopause.
As well as the different constituents within a plant working in synergy with one another, plants also work in synergy with each other. So some plants work particularly well with certain other plants. Plants also work in synergy with people. Which is why what works well for one person, won’t necessarily be the most effective remedy for someone else. The synergy within and between plants and people partly explains why random over-the-counter herbal supplements are unlikely to be as effective as a bespoke herbal prescription. Unlikely to help at all, to be frank.
For acute ailments, some herbs can be used very effectively on a symptomatic, one-size-fits-all basis. For example, calendula or comfrey for wound-healing, meadowsweet for diarrhea, ginger for nausea. But when the health imbalance is more complex, we need a personalised approach to address the underlying cause and associated knock-on effects. With menopause, all the body systems may be affected by the changing levels of hormones, which is why we get symptoms such as irritability and depression, fatigue, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, poor memory and concentration, loss of libido, weight gain, hot flushes and night sweats. While we’re still menstruating, the nature of our periods often changes; they may become heavier and more painful, for example. In the longer term, menopause can also affect the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, increasing the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.
We all have different and often changing combinations of symptoms, of differing intensity, and we are all affected by and respond to these symptoms in different ways. How could one herb, or set combination of herbs, possibly suit all?
Herbalists have different approaches, but I think I am fairly typical in the way that I support a woman through menopause. I change or tweak a herbal prescription as she moves through the different stages, going with the flow, which is so important. And I always stress that we are working together to create a smooth passage through menopause. It is a two-way thing. I help women take responsibility for, and control of, their own journey. We talk and work out a plan of action between ourselves.
Dietary and lifestyle advice is a big part of this. It doesn’t matter how many different herbs you try, if you have a poor diet and are not exercising, relaxing and responding to your environment in a way that is conducive to good health, you are placing your body at a distinct disadvantage in its attempts to attain balance and serenity.
And let’s not forget about the power of communication and expression. It’s good to talk about how you are feeling. To other women who have gone through, or are going through, menopause, to friends and family, to partners, to your herbalist/natural health practitioner…
As the analogy between ocean and menopause dawned on me, I realised how much more I had to offer, not only as a herbalist, but also as a woman who had been through menopause herself. I started running workshops for women making the transition, where we could share information, experience, fears and wisdom. And I launched a ‘satellite’ website, called Natural Help For Menopause, for all those women who can’t get to the workshops but would like to access the advice and discussion topics featured in them.
Fundamentally, it is so important for women going through menopause to understand what is happening and why, and how they can take control of their own bodies and manage menopause in a natural, and effective, way. It’s also important for women to feel supported, and confident enough to dive into the sea of change and go with the flow.
How to find a qualified medical herbalist
Look for a herbalist who has a degree in medical herbalism and/or is a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) or the College for Practitioners of Phytotherapy (CPP). Ask if you can have a chat with them on the phone before you make an appointment. It’s important to find a ‘travelling companion’ that you can relate to and feel comfortable with.
Check out Rachel’s workshop on Natural Menopause. Click here to check out our courses page.
Deanne Greenwood (BSc Hons, Herb Med) is a medical herbalist with a special interest in women’s hormonal issues, from menarche to menopause. She lives in and adores Cornwall, and travels around the county giving talks about herbal medicine and running workshops for managing menopause and PMS. She sees patients at her home on the Lizard Peninsula, in nearby Helston and slightly-further-away Falmouth, and on Skype (traditional practice meets the modern world!) She has a husband, two sons, a dog and two horses. For more information about Deanne, and herbal medicine in general, please visit her website.