Coping with the Change

Monday, October 17th, 2016

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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Straighten Up and Move!

Monday, October 10th, 2016

This Sunday, 16th October is World Spine Day, which aims to raise awareness about prevention and treatment of back pain and spinal disability. The theme for World Spine Day 2016 is “Straighten Up and Move”, which focuses on the importance of physical activity and improving posture in maintaining good spinal health and preventing injury.

The spine is made up of 33 small bones called vertebrae, separated by the intervertebral discs, which are made up of a tough, flexible outer casing, filled with a jelly-like substance. The discs act like shock absorbers in between the vertebrae. The spine is supported by muscles of the back, which need to be strong in order to prevent damage to the spine due to injury, poor posture, or degenerative diseases such as arthritis. If the spine slips out of its correct alignment, these muscles go into spasm and become inflamed, leading to pain and stiffness.  The muscles, misaligned bones, or protruding discs may also pinch the nerves or blood vessels in the surrounding areas, leading to problems such as sciatica and headaches.

Research has demonstrated that poor posture and inactivity are major contributors to the development of back pain and other spinal disorders. According to the World Health Organization, one in four adults, and over 80% of adolescent population are not active enough. In order to strengthen the back muscles and avoid injury it is important to take regular exercise, which does not cause high impact to the spine. Walking, swimming and yoga are ideal, but take care to start gently, and build up gradually as your strength improves.

Try to maintain a good posture when standing and walking: Imagine there is an invisible cord attached to the top of your head which lifts you into a tall posture with your shoulders relaxed. Avoid hunching over the sink or desk by placing the washing up bowl on the draining board, and by doing paperwork on tilted surface. When lifting, bend your knees not your back, and keep your feet apart to maintain stability. Carry large objects against your body, and when carrying shopping bags try to balance the load equally in both hands. Bend your knees and not your back when doing jobs such as gardening.

Orthodox treatment for back pain usually consists of analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs. These are very helpful for relief of pain and inflammation in the short term, but they do not address the underlying cause of the pain, such as misalignment of the spine, and they are often associated with side effects such as gastritis and stomach ulcers when used long term. Fortunately, there are a number of natural treatments that can be very effective.

Acupuncture has been shown in clinical trials to be highly effective for reliving back pain. Herbs such as devil’s claw and willow have a natural anti-inflammatory action, cramp bark helps to ease muscle spasm, and St. John’s wort is second to none for treating nerve damage and irritation.  Useful supplements include glucosamine and chondroitin, which help to maintain the integrity of the tissues, fish oils which help to reduce inflammation, and magnesium which reduces muscle spasm.

Where back pain is associated with injury or misalignment of the spine, McTimoney chiropractic is a particularly gentle but very effective form of treatment, which helps to align the spine and relieve the pressure on nerves and blood vessels. Prescription orthotics can also be very helpful for relieving back pain where this is due to misalignment of the feet or legs; and muscle tension and spasm can be effectively treated with massage.

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