If you’re a woman in your 40s or 50s, it’s likely that you have experienced physical changes associated with menopause. For some women, this transition is easy. For others, the onset of menopause can be much more challenging and may include symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, thirst and insomnia.
While Western medicine ascribes such changes to a shift in ovarian function and decreasing levels of hormones, Chinese medicine looks at the process a bit differently.
Menopause from a
Chinese medicine perspective
Some of the earliest references to gynecology in Chinese medicine describe the hormonal changes occurring in women at seven-year intervals and attributes the changes to the waning and waxing of the “directing and penetrating vessels,” special meridians associated with menstruation and reproduction.
These intervals, known as the “Tian Gui,” occur for seven cycles of seven. The second seven-year cycle (at 14 years old) describes the flourishing of female essence, and the final cycle (at 49 years old) describes the eventual decline of essence, or infertility. This schedule correlates with Western medicine, as the mean age for menopause is 50.
In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are largely responsible for the development and decline of female fertility. They are the source of essence, or life force, that we inherit from our parents and determine our constitution, physical development and how well we age. They also determine how gracefully a woman makes the transition through menopause.
Why women get hot flashes
Hot flashes are usually caused by a weakness in the kidneys, known as yin deficiency. In Chinese medicine, the kidneys have two major aspects: the yin and yang. The yin aspect (the feminine) is responsible for nourishing and moistening the body and has a close relationship to the blood. A lack of yin can cause symptoms including thirst, irritability and hot flashes. A body operating with deficient yin is akin to running a car without oil. Like the engine in your car, your body can overheat when there is a lack of cooling fluids.
Yin deficiency is due to a variety of factors, but the most common cause in the West is overwork. Pushing through tiredness, using caffeine as an energy booster and working beyond one’s capacity can deplete the blood and yin. In addition, menstruating over a 30- to 40-year period can weaken the blood. Add to this list the tremendous demands of childbirth and child rearing, and it’s easy to see how the yin can be depleted in a woman’s body.
The yang aspect of the kidneys (the masculine) is more energetic in nature. It is responsible for warming the body and providing the energy necessary for daily activity. Women with deficient yang in conjunction with deficient yin may experience symptoms such as coldness, fatigue and depression. It is not at all unusual to have concurrent yin and yang deficiency.
Herbs for menopause
In the West, we often use herbs singly. Good examples of single herbs used to treat menopausal complaints include Dong Gui, Sheng Ma (Black Cohosh) and Evening Primrose Oil.
In China, however, herbs are often used in combination to create a formula tailored to the individual. In this way a variety of complaints and symptoms can be addressed while creating a formula free of side effects.
Be cautious about taking a single herb to treat your complaints, as it is likely that a single herb can exacerbate symptoms. Chinese herbs can be extremely effective at addressing the broad range of complaints associated with menopause.
It’s best to get the recommendation of a licensed herbalist when looking for herbs to treat your symptoms. A safe Chinese herbal formula for menopause is Six Flavor Tea Pills (Liu We Di Huang Wan), available at Whole Foods or health-food stores. Note that herbs work more gently and slowly than do Western medications, so it may take up to two weeks to notice a change in symptoms.
If you need assistance, take action. Ask your health-care provider for ways address your menopause-related complaints.
Ted Ray, L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in private practice in Mountain View and Woodside. For more information, call 564-9002 or visit www.peninsulaacupuncture.com.