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Well-Being for Women – Part Three

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.