Well-Being for Women – Part Three

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Over the past few weeks I have been writing about some of the unique difficulties facing women as a result of their changing hormones. In the last of the current series of articles on wellbeing for women, we will focus on maintaining your wellbeing at 50 and beyond.

Some would say the menopause is a positive time: a transition from the stresses of building a career and raising children, to a time of wisdom and personal fulfillment.  But for many women the road is a rough one to say the least, fraught with a host of debilitating symptoms. The usual treatment for these symptoms is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT).  Many women who decide to take HRT expect to take it for a few years and then discontinue treatment when the menopause is over.  However, HRT simply delays the inevitable, and most women find that when they stop taking it, their symptoms are just as bad as they were in the beginning, if not worse.

Many women are now looking for a natural alternative to HRT, due to concerns about the safety of long-term use, such as the increased risk of breast cancer and stroke. Herbal medicine is a safe and effective alternative, which has been used around the world for centuries to ease women through the menopause.

The first line of treatment is to reduce the impact of declining natural hormones. Herbs such as black cohosh contain substances which resemble oestrogen, and are very effective for reducing symptoms such as hot flushes and vaginal dryness.  Other natural substances that can mimic oestrogen in the body are the isoflavones, which are found soya products, seeds (such as in linseeds) and wholegrains.  These foods may be incorporated into the diet to reduce menopausal symptoms. However, in order for these substances to be used by the body, they must be broken down by beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Therefore they are generally much more effective if taken with probiotics, or eaten in a fermented form, such as soya yoghurt, miso, tempeh or sourdough rye bread.

It is sometimes assumed that oestrogen-like substances in plants are associated with the same risks as HRT, but studies have shown that many of these herbs are perfectly safe, and even beneficial for women who have oestrogen-dependent conditions such as breast cancer.

The second task of herbal treatment is to address the symptoms.  The most common of these is hot flushing, which is often accompanied by sweating.  Sage dramatically reduces sweating, while hops is useful for insomnia due to night sweats. It is important to avoid foods such as caffeine, spices, and alcohol that can trigger hot flushes.

Other common menopausal symptoms include depression, anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion, poor concentration, memory loss, joint aches and low libido.  Following an in-depth consultation with a medical herbalist, several herbs are selected on the basis of each woman’s unique symptom picture, and blended in an individual prescription. Once the right combination of herbs is found for each individual, most women experience significant or even complete relief from symptoms within a few weeks.

Good nutrition is also an essential part of maintaining your wellbeing at 50 and beyond. Lower oestrogen levels after menopause are associated with increased skin ageing, thinning hair, and more seriously, an increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease; and the best way to help prevent these problems is by ensuring you are getting the right nutrients.

The most beneficial nutrients for the over 50s are probably the essential fatty acids, found in oily fish (such as mackerel, tuna, salmon, herring and trout), together with various oils such as starflower, evening primrose and flax oils. These have a very beneficial effect on the condition of the skin, hair and nails, and have been shown to increase bone density and prevent heart disease.  It is also important to eat a healthy diet which contains plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, to take plenty of exercise.

Finally, many women are also trying to cope with children or teenagers, while juggling a career and taking care of the home during this difficult time. They may also be struggling to come to terms the loss of their youth, or with adult children leaving home. Stress and anxiety have a very negative impact on the balance of hormones, especially after menopause. This is because the adrenal glands (which take over the task of producing oestrogen when the ovaries shut down) are primarily responsible for secreting the hormones that help us to cope with stress. Other therapies that can help with these problems, such as Aromatherapy massage, counselling or art therapy, may also be very useful to ease women through the menopause, and make all the difference during this challenging time.

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Wellbeing for Women – Part Two

Friday, March 16th, 2012

In last week’s article, I wrote about some of the unique difficulties facing women as a result of their changing hormones. It generated a great deal of interest, which is not surprising really, when you consider that it’s one area where orthodox medicine really has very little to offer in terms of a safe or effective solution.

Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives available for women suffering from the effects of hormone imbalance, and in this week’s article we will take a look at how to improve your physical and emotional well-being in the face of changing hormones, and the stresses and strains of life as a woman.

For many women, the few days before her period are the worst days of the month. Pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS is usually caused by a relative deficiency of the hormone progesterone in relation to the other hormones that govern the menstrual cycle.  This causes a wide variety of symptoms such as depression and irritability, sweet cravings, constipation, thrush, fluid retention, acne, and general aches and pains. There is often an additional sensitivity to the hormone prolactin, which is produced at this time of the month, causing symptoms such as fluid retention and breast tenderness.

The condition tends to become much worse in the years preceding the menopause, as progesterone levels begin to drop even further, leading to a relative excess of the hormone oestrogen. Many women also experience very heavy and prolonged periods at this time, together with other common symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, poor concentration, memory loss, and thyroid hormone imbalance.

The most useful herb for treating pre-menstrual syndrome is chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus).  This herb works on the pituitary gland to normalize hormone production and generally leads to increased levels of progesterone and decreased levels of prolactin.  When taken over the course of a few months it is extremely effective for reducing pre-menstrual symptoms, and also for balancing hormones in women in their mid to late 40’s who are approaching the menopause.  Of course this depends on the quality of the product and the dose taken.  Some over the counter preparations recommend taking the herb two or three times daily, however it is more effective to take the entire daily dose first thing in the morning (preferably between 6 and 7 a.m.) when the pituitary gland is most active.

A combination of herbs may be used to provide relief from stubborn symptoms.  For example, herbal diuretics such as dandelion leaf can help to reduce fluid retention and bloating.  Numerous herbs are also available which can treat other symptoms such as abdominal cramps, insomnia, fatigue, constipation, recurrent vaginal thrush, and migraines.  For symptoms which are numerous or severe it may be beneficial to consult a qualified practitioner of herbal medicine who can prescribe an individually tailored blend of herbs.

In addition there are a number of supplements available that can support herbal treatment. Magnesium and Vitamin B complex support the nervous system, and preparations containing high levels of vitamin B6 are particularly useful for pre-menstrual syndrome.  Essential fatty acids are also helpful for this condition, particularly brands such as EyeQ that combine Evening primrose and fish oils.

These supplements also help the body to cope with the effects of stress, which is a significant contributing factor in hormonal imbalance. Many women are trying to cope with children, while juggling a career and taking care of the home, often with very little support. Since the adrenal glands (which are responsible for secreting the hormones that help us to cope with stress) are also partly responsible for maintaining the balance of the female hormones, high levels of stress tend to make all these hormone fluctuations much worse. It’s not always just because of your hormones! Therefore, dealing with stress and other emotional issues with therapies such as massage, counselling or art therapy can be very helpful for improving your well-being.

Your diet can also have a surprising impact on your hormones. Hormone imbalance is exacerbated by exposure to oestrogen-like chemicals, which are found in meat and dairy products, food stored or heated in plastic packaging, and non-organic fruit and vegetables, which may contain traces of pesticides. It is therefore helpful to avoid these as much as possible, and to increase your intake of oily fish, wholegrains, and fresh, organic fruit and vegetables.

Excess oestrogen is broken down by the liver and removed from the body through the bowel. However, unfriendly bacteria in the bowel can reactivate the oestrogen, which may then be reabsorbed into the bloodstream. It may therefore be helpful to take a probiotic supplement, and avoid refined carbohydrates (such as cakes, biscuits sweets and white bread), which encourage a build up of unfriendly bacteria. Eating plenty of fibre helps to ensure that excess oestrogen is removed from the body and not reabsorbed.

For women who have reached the menopause, the picture is a little different, and in next week’s article, we will focus on maintaining your well being at 50 and beyond!

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Well-Being for Women

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

It has often been said that women are difficult to understand. It’s hardly surprising when you consider that even the slightest change in the delicate balance of the female hormones can make a huge difference to a woman’s health, energy levels and mood. And of course these hormones are fluctuating on a daily basis; going through major changes every month; and undergoing huge shifts during and after pregnancy, and for several years leading up to, and following the menopause.

For many women, the few days before her period are the worst days of the month.  For some this means little more than being slightly more irritable than usual, but for others it can signal a whole array of devastating emotional and physical changes. Many women feel emotionally vulnerable at this time and may find themselves becoming extremely irritable, angry or even violent.

The physical symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome are less well known but may be equally distressing.  The most common is fluid retention, which may lead to abdominal bloating, swollen hands and feet, and breast pain or tenderness.  In some cases abdominal cramps or lower back pain can occur before the period starts, and cravings for carbohydrates (especially chocolate) are also common.  In the most severe cases symptoms can include fatigue, constipation, muscle or joint pain, recurrent vaginal thrush, acne, swollen glands and migraines.

During pregnancy women are given a break from their periods, but not from the effects of fluctuating hormones. The first three to four months of pregnancy bring nausea and vomiting, constipation and fatigue, and for the unlucky ones, migraines and acne. The following five to six months, while more pleasant for some, bring haemorrhoids, varicose veins, heartburn and sciatica to many; and more serious problems such as underactive thyroid, gestational diabetes, or obstetric cholestasis to an unlucky few.

After the baby is born, another huge shift in the hormone balance occurs. Those that were present at high levels during pregnancy suddenly drop, leaving the woman prone to postnatal depression, which is a great deal more likely if she has little or no help or emotional support, not to mention the difficulties of coming to terms with a new body shape! Meanwhile, prolactin (the hormone responsible for milk production) sets about ensuring nutrition for the newborn; as well as sparking the nesting instinct, and for some women, obsessions about cleanliness or the amount of support they are receiving from their partner.

As the childbearing years come to an end, you might expect that the long-suffering woman would get a little break from the hormonal rollercoaster, but you would be wrong. In the years leading up to the menopause, the symptoms of PMS may become much worse. Many women also experience very heavy and prolonged periods and other common symptoms include depression, anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion, poor concentration, memory loss, low libido and thyroid hormone imbalance.

As more and more women delay having children until their thirties or even forties, it is increasingly during this difficult time that many women are trying to cope with young children or teenagers; and juggling a career while taking care of the home, often with very little support. Since the adrenal glands (which are responsible for secreting the hormones that help us to cope with stress) are also partly responsible for maintaining the balance of the female hormones, high levels of stress tend to make all these hormone fluctuations much more severe.

 

Even when the periods stop at the time of the menopause, there is no let up in the hormonal effects. As oestrogen levels begin to drop, hot flushes, vaginal dryness and lack of libido ensue, and it can take several years for the body to become accustomed to the new level of female hormones. It can also take time for a woman to come to terms with leaving her child-bearing years behind and children flying the nest.

Fortunately, there is plenty of help available to for women suffering from the effects of hormone imbalance, and over the next few weeks we will take a look at how to improve your physical and emotional well-being in the face of changing hormones and the stresses and strains of life as a woman. In the meantime, practitioners from the Lismore Clinic will be giving a talk on Wellbeing for Women at the Old School House, Ballinvella, on Monday 12th March at 8pm. The talk is being organised by Ballinvella Ladies’ Group, but it is open to all women who are interested in learning more about improving their wellbeing.

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