Managing Menopause: East Meets West

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Menopause is a universal biological phenomenon, but each woman’s experience of it is her own multi-faceted, multi-dimensional reality. How a woman perceives and responds to her experience of menopause may also be shaped by her culture and her views on aging.

How do you feel about your age? Aging is as much a state of mind as it is a physical condition. Your health at any point depends both on your physiological condition and your emotional attitudes about yourself and your life.

Statistically, Western women suffer greater menopausal symptoms than other women around the world. For many of us, menopause includes such symptoms as insomnia, fuzzy thinking, anxiety, hot flashes, and irritability and we’re typically given synthetic hormones to treat a myriad of symptoms. Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of education regarding nutritional changes or alternative and herbal remedies that may also help to ease symptoms.

Asian women, on the other hand, experience very few of the symptoms that Westerners experience and dread. Why is this? The Chinese refer to a woman’s midlife transition as a Second Spring—a paradigm different from our Western vision of midlife and aging. In Chinese culture, this is when a woman comes into her own, when the focus of childbearing and child-rearing years wind down and her inner beauty emerges. Unlike Western culture, where youth and beauty are worshipped, in Asian cultures, older women are elevated to a new status in society and respected for their wisdom and experience.

Food as medicine is a fundamental concept in Chinese culture and a fundamental principle in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Chinese Medicine has always been tailored toward restoring balance to the individual, not just to eliminating symptoms. TCM has also long recognized that you can’t treat one part of a person, you must treat the individual as a whole—the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual.

Not surprisingly, most research points to diet as the main reason for the lack of symptoms among Asian women. Some feel that the high intake of phytoestrogens and isoflavones (as found in soybeans) in Asian diets lessens hormonal imbalance. Others feel that a diet high in damaged fats and low in fiber, like the typical North American diet, leads to higher estrogen levels and sets us up for a larger drop when our ovaries begin to make less of it. The answers aren’t clear.

It’s interesting that our herbalist ancestors, though separated by thousands of miles, often selected the same herbs to treat the same conditions. North American Aboriginal and Chinese women both used angelica (dong quoi) to treat menopausal symptoms, Today, objective scientific studies confirm what for thousands of years ancient cultures already knew: that plants contain a wide range of ingredients including essential fatty acids, phytoestrogens, and antioxidants that can help us keep healthy at all stages of our lives—including menopause.

Knowing that changes in diet, exercise, stress management, and hormonal balance can help us to avoid or minimize menopausal symptoms gives us more control over our experience of menopause.  It’s not simply a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a smorgasbord of solutions that enable you to choose the right one for you right now.

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