Because of the onset of troubling symptoms, menopause has unfortunately, but understandably, become commonly viewed as a disease state.
What is menopause?
Menopause – by definition – is the complete cessation of menstruation and begins on the date of a woman’s last menstrual cycle. It is also viewed in many cultures as the transition to becoming wiser and stronger. The average age of menopause occurs at about 51 years old, but may occur years earlier or years later.
Menopause is associated with a declining function of the ovaries and thereby a reduction in the hormones that they release, primarily: progesterone, estrogen and testosterone. As a consequence, signs and symptoms may present. These may include the following: hot flashes, night sweats, disturbed sleep, irritability, mood changes, decreased libido, vaginal dryness, bone loss, headaches, urinary incontinence, dizziness, hair loss and weight gain.
The good news is that menopausal symptoms can be treated to ensure that your transition is more smooth and to improve your quality of life.
What causes menopause?
Menopause is caused by a woman’s body natural shifting away from reproductive capacity due to the declining function of the ovaries.
Peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms occur as a secondary effect of the fluctuating and ultimately lower levels of hormones (mainly estrogen, progesterone and testosterone). The transition in some women may be more prominent than others. And it is not every woman who will experience menopausal symptoms.
A key contributor to explain the rocky hormonal transition that leads to menopausal symptoms is the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands also produce progesterone and estrogen to a lesser degree than do the ovaries. If the adrenals “pick up the slack” so to speak during peri-menopause, the transition to menopause becomes much smoother, with less problematic symptoms.
Unfortunately, the adrenal glands are often occupied with helping our bodies manage chronic stress. The more they have been depleted and taxed by their requirements to produce stress hormones, the less they will be able to produce adequate levels of progesterone and estrogen. This prevents them from being able to provide some compensation for the ovaries shutting down and manifests as menopausal symptoms. As well, cortisol (the stress hormone) competes with progesterone for receptor sites, essentially inhibiting the effect of progesterone.
What is peri-menopause?
Peri-menopause is the transitory interval during which the ovaries are gradually decreasing function until menopause is reached. During this time, menopausal symptoms may start to present and a woman’s menstrual cycle often changes. Periods may become irregular and menstrual flow typically lessens, but can also become heavier or come and go unpredictably.
How are menopausal symptoms treated conventionally?
The options conventionally to treat menopausal symptoms are fairly limited. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is often prescribed, which can improve symptoms.
The long-term safety of HRT was questioned after a large study called the Women’s Health Initiative in 2002 that found increased incidence of breast cancer in the HRT-treated group.
HRT is still commonly recommended to menopausal women, but due to its controversial adverse effects, many women seek safer and effective alternative options.
How does a naturopathic doctor treat menopausal symptoms?
A naturopathic doctor assesses the patient, their diet and lifestyle and their whole constellation of menopausal symptoms.
During the initial period of naturopathic treatment of menopausal symptoms, dietary and lifestyle modifications will be implemented with the patient, which may lead to improvements in menopausal manifestations.
At some point, a saliva hormone test may be recommended to better understand which hormones are sub-optimal, and to what degree. Saliva hormone testing provides an assessment of bio-available hormones – that is, the hormones levels in your tissues. This is different than blood hormone levels because saliva tests measure total circulating hormone levels.
Based on the understanding of which hormone levels need normalizing, your naturopathic doctor may recommend nutrients or herbs to help your body re-balance hormone levels naturally.
Alternatively, in some cases, bio-identical hormone treatment may be prescribed to more directly target hormones that are very depleted. If bio-identical hormones are recommended, this will be done in an amount catered to your individual requirements. It is also recommended to re-test saliva hormone levels a few months after initiating bio-identical hormone therapy to ensure levels are at their appropriate optimal levels.