If you are a woman going through menopause, or beyond it, you may be wondering what’s the best way to stay healthy and youthful now and in the future. Perhaps you are suffering from hot flashes, insomnia, vaginal dryness, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety or depression, apathy, or simply a lack of your usual “joie de vivre.” Or you are wondering how to keep your bones strong, brain sharp, and heart healthy over the coming decades.
Until recently, conventional medicine’s answer was to “replace” the hormones “lost” at menopause. However, research found that it led to unacceptable increases in heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer risks. Thankfully, the medical community now appreciates that menopause is a natural transition and hormones do not need to be “replaced” for good health.
Doctors now recommend herbs, exercise, stress reduction, deep breathing, yoga, and other natural approaches. With prescriptions for HRT down 75 percent, breast cancer rates have started to decline, a good indication that less hormone therapy equals better health for women.
Menopause is Natural & Beneficial
After all, menopause is a natural transition. Your body is programmed to experience a drop in hormones at this life junction, just as it was programmed to increase hormones at puberty. Pregnancy and menstruation put nutritional, energy, and other demands on a woman’s body that are not easily tolerated in later age. Menopause is a supportive gift from nature to protect a woman’s health and longevity.
Then why does it seem today that menopause is the opposite—a cause of aging and health problems? Simply because our lives and our health are so out of balance. For many women, dropping hormones are “the last straw” for an overly stressed system. The key to menopausal health lies not in replacing hormones, but in restoring balance. If your body is in balance, your menopause will be smooth. If not, then troublesome symptoms will arise.
A Whole-Person Approach
The natural health system Maharishi Ayurveda uses a whole-person approach to restore balance without harmful side-effects. It understands that nature provided women with a hormonal back-up system to give the body enough hormones to smooth the transition and keep the body healthy afterwards.
The two components of this “hormonal back-up system” include:
• Phytoestrogens. These are plant-based substances that resemble your body’s own hormones and support your tissues with a gentle estrogenic effect that does not disturb your body’s balance or promote cancer. A wholesome diet filled with a variety of naturally occurring plant estrogens from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, and seeds is the one truly natural, genuinely safe HRT—just what nature intended.
• Your Internal Hormonal Back-up System. When your body is in balance, your adrenal glands provide a kind of “built-in” HRT by producing hormones that are converted by your body’s tissues into just the right amount of estrogen for your body needs at that time.
In order to keep your hormonal back-up system working properly, you need to manage your stress (because the stress hormone cortisol reduces the production and effects of estrogen), get enough sleep (melatonin affects hormone production), eat a good diet (lots of wholesome phytoestrogenic foods), and maintain good digestion and elimination.
Here are two recent examples from my practice, using the deeper, truly natural approaches of Maharishi Ayurveda to help ease menopausal symptoms.
Melinda, a 61-year-old school teacher, had suffered from hot flashes, depression, sleep problems, and exhaustion for over five years, despite trying “everything” without relief. Her evaluation revealed that poor eating habits had led to the buildup of metabolic wastes called “ama,” which was preventing her body’s own estrogen from interacting properly with her tissues, causing the hot flashes.
At her follow-up two months later, Melinda reported that within just three weeks of starting a lighter diet to balance pitta, the heat element, and supportive herbs from Maharishi Ayurveda, her hot flashes had completely disappeared. Moreover, her energy had returned, and she was not crashing on the sofa at 7:30 p.m. anymore. She was very pleased and committed to staying with her new healthier diet to continue her great results.
Susan, a 56-year-old homemaker, was four years past menopause and experiencing vaginal dryness so severe that she found just sitting down uncomfortable. Rather than opting for vaginal estrogen, the usual treatment for her symptom, Susan came in for a more natural approach. Evaluation of Susan’s pulse, a traditional assessment tool in Maharishi Ayurveda, showed overall good balance but a buildup of metabolic wastes that was blocking her tissues.
I advised Susan to avoid the heavy restaurant food she ate daily and cook fresh, organic vegetarian food at home for a month. I also recommended she take some herbal products to improve her digestion and clear her channels of wastes.
At her follow-up six weeks later, Susan reported that since following the diet and taking her herbs, the dryness was “no longer a problem,” and she didn’t feel the need for any additional treatment. Moreover, her skin was smoother and less dry, and she looked even more radiantly clear and beautiful than usual!
The Growing Trend of Bio-identical Hormone Use
Fortunately, there are effective natural approaches to creating health and balance at menopause. These approaches help a woman’s body re-balance itself naturally, without harmful side-effects.
There is one so-called “natural” approach, however, that is being widely promoted as safe by the media, celebrities, and many alternative doctors, but it is neither truly “natural” nor without potential harm. This approach is referred to as “bioidentical hormone” therapy.
Bioidentical hormones are identical to the body’s own hormones, whereas conventional HRT from synthetic or equine sources usually has chemical structures that differ from the body’s own.
Proponents of bioidentical hormones claim that the dangerous side-effects of HRT are due to the fact that these hormones are foreign to the woman’s body. And that “bioidentical” hormones are safe. However, the truth is, we just don’t know whether they are safe or not.
This important issue begs large clinical trials which hopefully will be done someday. But for now, it’s important that women realize something that their doctors may not be telling them: that bioidentical hormones have not been proven to be safe, and may well carry the same risks as conventional HRT.
Are Bio-identical Hormones Safe?
While clinical research on bio-identicals is lacking, two important biological facts suggest that the body’s own estrogens can be carcinogenic. For example:
• Women who start their periods earlier in life or end them later, exposing them higher levels of their bodies’ own estrogen for more years, have more breast and endometrial cancer than women who menstruate for fewer years.
• Women who are overweight after menopause produce more estrogen in their fat tissue and have higher rates of breast and endometrial cancer than thinner women.
The research is strong enough that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences named estradiol and estrone—two of the bioidentical estrogens that women commonly use—as “known carcinogens,” the Institute’s strongest rating.
Should You Take Them?
In practice, it’s up to a woman and her doctor to decide what is right for her health. And that may include bio-identical hormones for some time, for some women who are unable to gain needed relief through more natural and complete approaches. However, she should know that the risks may be similar to that of conventional HRT, and that giving hormones after menopause is not natural to the body, but a medical treatment.
Ideally, medical treatment of menopausal symptoms should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a temporary aid until the body rebalances itself. Whether a woman is currently taking hormones or not, it is important to take steps to correct the underlying imbalances in the mind, body, and lifestyle so that genuine health is restored. In my experience, this is ideally accomplished through a comprehensive approach such as Maharishi Ayurveda, which nourishes the whole person, creating a foundation for lasting health.
Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D., practices Maharishi Ayurveda and integrative medicine for women in Maharishi Vedic City, IA. Call (641) 469-3174 or visit www.drnancylonsdorf.com.
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