A lot of women come in for acupuncture and herbal medicine treatment to seek relief for symptoms of menopause. Menopause refers to the time in a woman’s life when her menstrual periods stop and she is no longer fertile. This is a natural process of the ovaries lessening their production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. While the cessation of periods is a healthy and natural thing, this hormone disruption can cause many unpleasant symptoms for some women – sometimes lasting for many years. Common symptoms of this menopausal hormonal fluctuation include hot flashes, night sweats, poor memory, anxiety and depression, low libido, irritability, vaginal dryness, insomnia, fatigue, hair loss, and osteoporosis.
For many years, the standard treatment was hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which many women still choose as a solution. HRT supplements the body with either estrogen only or estrogen and progesterone together to moderate the symptoms of menopause and prevent osteoporosis. However, HRT is not without risks: a landmark study published in 2002 – the Women’s Health Initiative – found that HRT increased risk of heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and breast cancer compared with placebo.
Today, many more bioidentical hormone options exist on the market, which may be safer. However, the National Cancer Institute still acknowledges that there are risks associated with HRT. The FDA recommends that women take HRT in as low of a dose for as short of a time as needed to control symptoms.
Given the very serious risks of HRT, many women opt to try to control menopausal symptoms through more natural means. And here is the good news: acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine can be a wonderfully effective treatment for menopausal symptoms!
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we talk about the concepts of yin and yang. Yin and yang are two equal and opposite forces that exist in all of us, and perfect health is a balance between yin and yang. Yin refers to the watery, cooling, passive, receptive, heavy, grounded aspects of our body. Yang refers to the fiery, hot, active, expansive, light aspects of our body. When there is not enough yin (water) to anchor the yang (fire), we see an apparent excess of yang symptoms. These include hot flashes, night sweats, dryness, and irritability. The weakness of yin leads to poor memory, anxiety, sleep issues, and fatigue.
TCM understands the body through understanding the relationships between different energy systems. These systems are named after our organs (such as Heart, Liver, and Kidney), but when we talk about these we aren’t talking about the physical organ in your body – rather a form of energy within the body that governs our health and well-being. The Kidneys, in TCM, govern our life cycles from birth to death, our hormones, and reproduction. So as you can tell, menopause is an issue related to the Kidneys. The Kidneys also control our hearing, our low back and knees, urinary function, and our hair and nails. Thus, many women tend to experience pain or weakness in the low back and knees, hair loss, incontinence, and problems hearing during the menopausal time.
In TCM theory, a healthy baby is born with equal parts of yin and yang. Over the course of the life cycle, women’s yin is slowly depleted, while men slowly deplete their yang. This is why older men tend to get cold more easily as they get older (not enough fire to moderate the cool water), while women experience hot flashes and waves of heat (not enough cool water to moderate the fire). This decline is a natural part of the aging process and the life cycle. However, if the body is in balance, symptoms of this changing balance should not be severe or disruptive. Therefore, we can use acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine to bring the body into balance, nourish the yin energy, and clear the heat symptoms.
Scientific research has shown that acupuncture can significantly reduce symptoms of hot flashes when compared to usual care. (See studies here, here, and here.) Acupuncture has also been shown to be as effective as the leading drug therapy for treating hot flashes associated with side-effects of breast cancer hormone treatments.
Small pilot studies have also shown that Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) can be beneficial to controlling hot flashes. Because research into Chinese Herbal Medicine is fairly young in this country, further scientific research is needed to make definitive conclusions. However, clinically, we see menopausal women benefit from CHM therapy all the time. There are some wonderful CHM formulas that specifically target menopausal symptoms, and we can modify them based on which symptoms are most disruptive to the woman seeking treatment (i.e., target vaginal dryness, or memory issues, or weight gain.)
As with anything, the sooner you start treatment, the better! Women between 45 and 50 who start having irregular periods, heavy periods, and/or some hot flashes should get in for treatment as soon as possible so that their body can be brought into balance before the hormonal changes affect it too much. Menopause is a natural occurrence – a time of transition, wisdom, and growth. Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine can help moderate the negative aspects of this time so that you can appreciate it for what it is!
Marcie Bower received her Masters in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from the New England School of Acupuncture, and is a winner of the Tsay Fellowship Award for Excellence in the Art and Science of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Marcie has a passion for and extensive experience in alternative medicine research. She has worked at Tufts Medical Center on National Institute of Health-funded studies of the effects of Tai Chi (a traditional Chinese mind-body therapy) on Fibromyalgia and Osteoarthritis. Her ultimate goal is to better integrate Chinese Medicine into the dominant medical system, thereby making it more available to more patients who will benefit from its use. Outside of the office, Marcie enjoys spending time with her husband Karl and their two young children, as well as running, doing yoga, reading, and networking with other entrepreneurs. You can learn more about Marcie at steppingstoneacu.com.