Tuesday 14 June 2011

Times of change: Menopause

On Saturday I shall be facilitating a workshop at the Sanctuary looking at herbs which can support women (and their families) during menopause. As this is something I am/have been experiencing for the last four years or so, it is a subject I feel intimately involved with. I thought I would share a few things which have helped me to retain a reasonable quality of life during this time.

In today’s busy world, there is considerable pressure to be continually happy and successful in our lives. Our culture idolises younger people and cosmetic companies continually spread the message all women should strive to preserve their youthful appearance “because you’re worth it”. The underlying sign appears to be that if you show any signs of aging, you somehow become invisible and worthless.

These continual messages have caused many women to fear the time when their ovaries cease to function; when they pass from “fertile mother” into that of “wise woman”. They fear the change in body shape, the supposed loss of sexual attractiveness and believe stories that all women suffer terribly from a range of symptoms during the years while their body readjusts to hormonal changes.

They worry about emotional imbalance. Some women talk about feeling “as if they are going mad” because emotions may not be contained as they were before. Periods of unhappiness or grief are considered signs of an inability to cope or function properly and expressing anger is not considered “proper” in a polite society.

Many people associate sadness and unhappiness with lack of self-worth and failure, yet all emotions are part of the human condition. Our capacity for all shades of emotion and sentiment may well increase as we grow older and are exposed to loss, death and bereavement in all its many forms. This is not something to be feared, but acknowledged as a part of life from which to learn and grow.

The usual decade during which the majority of women experience menopause is the fifth. Some women will suffer an early onset of menopausal symptoms in their forties and some women may have to undergo a surgical hysterectomy at any age.
The grief caused by this sudden onset of menopause can catch many women unawares. With the current trends to start families later because of career or partnership commitments can mean a woman loses her choice of whether or not to have a family before she has had time to consider which path she wishes to travel.

There is then the decision whether or not to go down the hormone replacement therapy route (HRT). It has to be a personal decision but anyone asked to engage with this therapy should consider all the facts before embarking on it.

If you do decide to receive HRT, current best practice is that the drug should not be prescribed for more than five years. Many women try to come off it, but because the subsequent menopausal symptoms are so bad, they often go back on the tablets. I have friends who were on the drugs for over ten years because their GP did not reviewed the prescription.

Germaine Greer and Susun Weed have written what I consider to be excellent if controversial books about menopause and they both cite research which shows that HRT does not deliver many of the original claims when it comes to issues like loss of bone density. You really have to get as much information as you feel is helpful and then make your own decision.

One of the most powerful allies in our journey through life is to be aware and knowledgeable about our own bodies and how they work. To be able to find meaning behind a seemingly meaningless situation or symptom is half the battle towards coping with and either accepting or challenging whatever troubles or concerns us.

There are many good books and online resources which look at the menopause from both a sociological and herbal perspective. It is also helpful to discover some basic anatomy so you understand how your body and particularly the reproductive and endocrine (hormonal) system works.

References and websites are included in the resources section at the end of this post. Rosalee de la Foret has written an excellent article about menopause in this month’s Plant Healer Magazine which gives a brief overview of some issues women face from a Chinese Herbal Medicine perspective with some corresponding herbs which can help.

The changes in hormonal activity which women experience can be helped by looking at vitamin and mineral intake in the first instance. It was Henriette Kress who drew my attention to the need for extra B vitamins during menopause. She talked about women who experienced hot feet during pregnancy and how hot feet were a symptom of lack of B vitamins.

Hot feet were something I had suffered with during each pregnancy, but no-one had ever explained why it happened or what I could do to make it better. Of course, since no-one else mentioned it, I thought I must just be really strange and didn’t tell anyone else either. I just went to bed with a cold hot water bottle and waited for my hot feet to disappear!

The same symptom appeared again as I entered menopause. This time I didn’t wait but increased my B vitamins with a supplement. The hot feet disappeared, as did the dreadful heat I suffered for twelve months every time I went to bed. Now, if I stop the tablets, the night heat returns, so I try not to go without them for more than one or two days if I’m away from home.

Paul Bergner talks about mineral deficiency amongst modern cultures. He recommends making up a simple recipe for magnesium deficiency by putting 1 tablespoon of milk of magnesia into 3.5 tablespoons of 5% apple cider or white vinegar and stirring until the milk of magnesia dissolves. If it won’t dissolve, add a touch more vinegar. This produces an ionic solution of magnesium acetate. The mag is 100% ionic and thus nearly completely absorbable as opposed to about 35%
with a pill.

Add one tablespoon of this mixture to one litre of water and drink throughout the day. Don’t exceed this dosage or it can cause loose stools, but he says it is very effective and results should be seen within several days.

Your body can change dramatically during the menopause. Things which have been certainties for the past fifty years are suddenly no longer there and new challenges appear. I can give you two personal examples.

All my life I’ve had greasy hair. It is fine and has always been something I’d rather ignore than take time over. The issues I faced during my teenage years with not being able to wash it more than twice a week has probably scarred my soul!
Once my body began to change I noticed large white patches and a terrible itching on my scalp. At first I thought I’d somehow burned my scalp since the patches had arisen from nowhere, but it soon became apparent I was suffering from terrible dandruff. Proprietary shampoo helped a little but didn’t solve the problem completely. I also noticed I could leave my hair for a couple of days and there was no grease in sight.

Luckily, around the same time, James Wong presented his second series of Grow your own drugs. One of the episodes dealt with dandruff and itchy scalp by rubbing with a mixture of infused thyme and rosemary oil. Over the next few weeks, Chris and I spent a memorable holiday in Spain during the first Icelandic volcanic eruption. One of the good thing about the golf resort we were staying on was that there were large numbers of herbs growing everywhere.

Risking life and limb from stray golf shots, I gathered thyme and rosemary and brought them back with me on the thirty hour coach journey through Spain, France and England. (Never to be repeated!) Once dried, I made double infused oils from both the herbs and mixed a quantity together to apply to my hair. I applied it liberally first thing in the morning, left it for an hour or two and then washed my hair in the usual way.

The herbal oil completely removed the dandruff and stopped the itching on my scalp. I continue to apply it every two or three weeks and haven’t had a recurrence of the problem in eighteen months. One thing which did happen was that I “lost” the thyme oil amongst all the jars of oil in my larder. Instead I mixed first golden rod and then elderflower with the rosemary and still achieved a positive result. Last week I found the thyme oil again, so will be returning to the original combination.

I know my hair will never be spectacular, but I have been able to grow it over the past four years. A couple of months ago, I caught Chris looking at me and his comment was, “Whatever you are doing with your hair, it seems to be working.” I took this as a compliment.

Another problem which many women face during the menopause is vaginal dryness. After seeing a recipe for a wedding night salve made from marshmallow leaves and seeds and a few drops of clove essential oil, I made up my own recipe for a sunflower oil based salve made from double infused marshmallow leaves, calendula and a touch of St John’s wort thickened with beeswax. Originally I included lovage, but it’s just as good without. It works wonderfully, but you do have to be careful about tell-tale handprints left forever on the sheets or pillowcases!

If you have access to a saucepan and fridge, you might want to think about creating your own water-based lubricant. This recipe comes from a long line of female herbalists and midwives who appreciate its properties and was shared by Rebecca Hartmann.

Simmer 1 tablespoon of flax seeds in 1 cup of water until it’s reduced by half (maybe 20 minutes). Strain immediately. (If you let it cool, it’ll be too thick to strain.) Store it in the fridge when you don’t need it as it will only keep for a couple of days unrefrigerated.

You could experiment with scents and flavours; just add herbs or spices to the simmering pot! Mint, cinnamon or fennel can be nice. Start with a small amount, too much of a strong herb or spice could cause burning in sensitive areas. Avoid essential oils for the same reason. Although it might be tempting, stay away from sugar, as it can lead to infections.

The basic lubricant should be condom-safe (it’s completely water-based), but if you do plan to use it with condoms, be sure not to add any ingredients that might damage the latex — i.e., nothing oily or caustic.

There is so much to say about the menopause – everyone could write their own book on the subject because everyone’s journey is different. One of the most important things to do is to learn about your body and take time to listen to what it is trying to tell you. Hopefully this will enable the journey to be travelled more easily.

Calming and uplifting herbs from Kiva Rose
Chevalier, A Herbal Medicine for the Menopause
Gladstar, R Herbal Healing for Women
Griggs, B The Green Witch: A Modern Woman’s Herbal
Edwards, G F Traversing the Wild Terrain of Menopause
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
Herbs for sorrow
Hoffman, D The Holistic Herbal
McGarry, G Brighid’s Healing:Ireland’s Celtic Medicine Traditions
Rogers, C The Women’s Guide to Herbal Medicine
Shaw, N Herbal Medicine : A Step-by-Step-Guide 1998 Element Books
Shaw, N Herbalism: An Illustrated Guide 1998 Element Books
Shaw, N & Hedley, C Herbal Remedies 1996 Parragon Books Services Ltd
Weed , S Healing Wise : The Wise Woman’s Herbal
Weed, S New Menapause Years
Wood, M The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using plants as medicines


Lyonesse said...

I think that if 'you're worth it' as that stupid commercial says, then perhaps we as a culture need to move back towards an acceptance of women, whatever their age, body shape and emotional state. I am not and have never been the kind of woman to conform to social stereotypes of what the 'ideal' body shape is, and I've finally realised that its time to give up on that dream, a realisation that made me take a step back and look at the damage I was doing to myself trying to be something that I am not. Maybe if we as a culture stopped putting pressure on ourselves to be some impossible ideal, and learn to see the beauty in all women regardless of age, hair colour, skin colour or body shape, we'll end up with a healthier attitude overall?
A wonderful post as usual, Sarah!

Fleecenik Farm said...

Thankyou so much for this post. I am 44 and I have just begun this journey. Let's just say it has been a bit of a rough start. I found a great multi vitamin with chamomile, raspberry and elderberry extracts that has restored an element of calm to my life.

I have been very busy this spring saving raspberry and strawberry leaves for tea this winter. But I know there is still more I need to learn.

Aimee said...

wonderful post. I have a few years to go until menopause, as I am not quite forty, but if the upheavals of adolescence are anything to judge by, then I am probably in for a rough journey! I think simply acknowledging the inevitability of change is half the challenge. I remember, for example, how difficult it was for me during my first pregnancy to embrace the changes that were happening to my body. I mourned the loss of my nubile, girlish self and grieved for the "pretty girl" I would never be again. The transformation from Virgin to Mother was a difficult one, and I assume that the transformation from Mother to Crone will be harder still.
Self love and self care are vitally important, and the use of herbal knowledge to nurture oneself seems like a particularly appropriate way to welcome the third stage of life and be born into a new identity as Wise Woman.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Lots of lovely and inspiring ideas here Sarah. I too hate that 'because you're worth it' campaign, not least because the company in question does a lot of very cruel tests on animals, who, apparently, are not worth it.
I was a bit shocked to see the wedding salve recipe you found contained clove oil, way too strong to use internally. Clove is one of the most potent essential oils, your version of it sounds much better!

angecinq said...

Hi I am past all that and never had a hot flush or anything you are meant to get. I do not drink alcohol smoke or eat red meat being largely vegie with some fish. Maybe that is why. I also do not use dairy foods or gluten foods. I have to watch my iron and B12. I have had 3 children and used to get a bit ballistic once a month at one time but my diet was different in those days

Amy Jeanroy said...

Blessings - I wanted to share with you how important this message is, and how much love radiates from your words.
Just tonight, I was speaking with a dear friend struggling with painful menses and actually considering a hysterectomy.
As I listened to her, I could hear her pain and frustration at what she felt was her body betraying her.
I was actually looking for Paul Bergner's exact Mag recipe, and stumbled upon this page.

Perfection. Thank you

Amy J
The Farming Wife

Stacy said...

This was a lovely blog posst