Although it’s a natural phase of a woman’s life, menopause is often accompanied by a host of troublesome symptoms. Luckily, many can be managed with herbal and nutritional support, diet and lifestyle changes.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
Most women experience menopause in their late 40s or early 50s, signalling the end of their fertile years.1 For some this transition occurs suddenly, while for others changes to the menstrual cycle occur gradually (often over several years) and typically involve changes in the length of the cycle, the duration of the period and/or the volume of the menstrual flow.1
During menopause and the time leading up to it (referred to as perimenopause), many women experience a variety of symptoms, which may include:
- Hot flushes (sometimes referred to as hot flashes)
- Night sweats
- Poor sleep
- Irritability and mood swings
- Lowered libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Mild joint aches and pains1
Additionally, in the years following menopause, women may become more likely to develop osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) if they aren’t getting enough calcium from their diet.1
What causes menopause?
Women are born with a finite number of eggs, which are stored in the ovaries until being released at the rate of approximately one per month to enable conception to occur.
Menopause occurs when the supply of eggs from the ovaries runs out, and signals both the end of menstruation and the end of the fertile years of a woman’s life. This milestone is accompanied by steep declines in the ovaries’ production of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone.1,2
These hormonal fluctuations are responsible for the various menopausal symptoms that individual women experience.2
From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), many heat-related symptoms of menopause can be attributed to falling levels of kidney Yin, a type of energy that’s stored in the kidney organ-meridian system.
Yin is considered cooling, calming and moistening. Consequently, a deficiency of Yin often culminates in menopausal symptoms characterised by an excess of heat (such as hot flushes and night sweats) and dryness (for example the vaginal tissue).
Herbal and nutritional support for menopause symptoms
Dong quai and anemarrhena: traditionally used for the relief of hot flushes
When heat-related symptom of menopause such as hot flushes and night sweats are present, herbal medicines aimed at restoring Yin (feminine energy) and draining away excess heat are often used in traditional Chinese medicine.
For example, the cooling herb anemarrhena has traditionally been used in patterns of kidney Yin deficiency and to clear deficiency heat, and is commonly taken in TCM to relieve menopause symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats and vaginal dryness in kidney Yin deficiency pattern. It’s often taken in combination with herbs such as dong quai, also used traditionally in TCM to relieve menopausal hot flushes.
Black cohosh: used traditionally to relieve menopausal symptoms
For relief of a wide variety of menopausal symptoms, black cohosh is a herb traditionally used in Western herbal medicine to provide relief of menopausal hot flushes, disturbed sleep, irritability, mood swings and mild rheumatic joint aches and pains.
Black cohosh also supports women’s reproductive hormone health, based on its traditional use in Western herbal medicine. Vitex (also known as chaste tree) is traditionally used the same way in Western herbal medicine.
Take calcium to support bone health and help prevent osteoporosis in later life
Women’s calcium requirements are increased after menopause, but unfortunately, many women in Australia don’t obtain adequate calcium from their diets, which can increase their risk of osteoporosis as they get older after menopause.3
Taking a calcium supplement may help strengthen your bones and maintain their mass and mineralisation. As you get older and go through menopause, it may also help to prevent osteoporosis if your intake of calcium from your diet is insufficient.
To support your body’s absorption and utilisation of the calcium in your supplement, choose a formula containing a well absorbed and bioavailable source of calcium (such as calcium glycinate, which is more readily absorbed compared to other forms of calcium such as calcium carbonate) that also contains vitamin D3, which is required for calcium uptake and its absorption into the bones.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations for menopause
- TCM teaches us that symptoms caused by a deficiency of Yin may be aggravated by stress or emotional upset. If you’re experiencing hot flushes or night sweats, practices such as meditation or yoga may improve your ability to cope with stress and help restore feelings of being calm
- Include legumes and seeds in your diet on a regular basis, prioritising soy foods (like tofu) and flaxseeds (also known as linseeds). They’re natural sources of phytoestrogens and may help you manage your menopause symptoms
- Foods that are traditionally eaten to foster Yin energy in the body include staples such as rice, spinach, beetroot, carrots and sweet potatoes, ideally in warming, nourishing dishes such as soup, stew or congee (rice porridge). Small quantities of seafood, pork, eggs and duck are also recommended but are best not eaten in excess
- Steer clear of spicy foods such as chillies, ginger, curry because their heating properties may exacerbate hot flushes
- Regular exercise can help to manage menopausal symptoms so try to be active almost every day.2,3 Ideally, enjoy a mix of aerobic activities to support your cardiovascular health and weight-resistant activities to help prevent osteoporosis (jogging or brisk walking are good choices as they incorporate both aerobic and weight-bearing components)
- If you’re prone to hot flushes, dressing in natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, hemp and bamboo rather than synthetics may help you stay cool
- Victoria State Government. Last updated Nov 2019 and accessed July 2020 from betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/menopause
- Jean Hailes. Accessed July 2020 from jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/menopause
- ABS. Australian health survey: usual nutrient intakes 2011-12. Commonwealth of Australia, 2015.