As a woman there is nothing more irritating than having a man roll his eyes and dismiss your behaviour as being “that time of the month”. From puberty through to menopause too often women’s thoughts, feelings and actions get dismissed as some kind of hormonal glitch.
While premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menopause in particular are “times of hormonal change” tweaking or over-riding our oestrogen and progesterone is a very limited, medical response. Whether it’s the pill (OCP) to “treat” PMS or “natural”/biodidentical or pharmaceutical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT/HRT) for menopause – these are temporary fixes that never actually change the underlying problem. While on medication the symptoms may be put on hold but in most cases they return with a vengeance once the drugs are stopped. For menopause that may mean that the tiring symptoms you experienced at 50 years old are even more overwhelming at 55 or 60. Bio-identical hormones when stopped also cause a bounce back of symptoms.
There are a number of more natural ways to ameliorate PMS and menopause through nutrition, lifestyle and specifically targeted herbs. When you work with your body as a whole, rather than target one small element of it, the treatment is more likely to bring a permanent, positive change.
One thing both conditions have in common is the impact of stress on “hormonal” symptoms. Stress hormones have a strong relationship our reproductive system, as our endocrine system doesn’t work in isolation. A severe shock can be enough to delay a period but for most women dealing with daily pressures can derail the smooth running of our menstrual cycle and worsen PMS and menopause. Likewise if our thyroid isn’t functioning properly it also interferes with the health of our reproductive system.
Another side-effect of stress is that it can deplete the body of vital nutrients like B6 and magnesium, both of which are vital in correcting the symptoms of hormonal imbalance.
What we eat has a major impact on conditions like PMS and menopausal symptoms. Food can act both as a medicine and a poison, worsening or improving how we feel. Junk food, refined flour, sugar, alcohol, caffeine and animal fats can strip us of B vitamins and calming minerals, which when depleted can sensitize hormone receptors in the body to ‘read’ our levels incorrectly. If you are ravenous or craving sugar before your period, classic symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia), a blood test may find that your blood glucose is actually in the normal range but for a few days the cells in your body are responding differently and sending a message that we desperately need more fuel.
Healthy woman (and man) diet
What we eat throughout the month influences our overall nutrient levels, so it’s about adopting a new way of eating rather than moderating diet at the time of symptoms.
• Organically grown/raised food wherever possible.
• Lots of unrefined plant foods e.g. raw seeds and nuts, beans and legumes, whole grains such as brown rice, barley, quinoa, and oats.
• Freshly sprouted seeds e.g. mung, alfalfa, lentil
• Oily fish.
• Less meat and dairy, choose quality over quantity. Choose lean kangaroo and beef for iron and protein rather than processed meats.
• Cut down on salt, especially hidden in prepared meals, stocks and sauces.
• Aim for at least 5 different types of vegetables and 2-3 fruits of different colours, every day.
• Keep hydrated with 2 litres of water a day.
• Cut out coffee. Caffeine, especially coffee, interferes with the absorption of nutrients. Coffee is also associated with some oestrogen related issues such as breast lumps.
• Rethink alcohol. Women metabolise it differently not just from men but also differently throughout our cycle. Unfortunately alcohol and healthy hormones just don’t mix. Alcohol will always make hot flushes worse.
Dealing with the symptoms
Stress, irritability and mood changes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to signs that our body is not getting the nutrients it needs. While the “recommended daily allowance” (RDA) of vitamins and minerals addresses the minimum requirements for healthy function it doesn’t take into account the other side of the nutrient equation. Sometimes we are using up our supply faster than we can take it in (for example when stressed, not getting enough rest or ill) or we are not absorbing the vitamins as well as we could (caffeine, stomach or bowel problems, alcohol etc).
Daily supplements for healthy women;
A multi vitamin with all the B vitamins (at least 50mg B6), magnesium, iron and calcium.
Vitamin D – 50 mcg natural D3/day
Vitamin E – 100 IU/day
Herbs for healthy women:
There are some great, specific herbs to assist keeping reproductive hormones on track. A qualified herbalist is the best person to prescribe the right combination to get you better faster. While most of these herbs are available over the counter, they may not be of the right quality, dosage and combination for you.
There is good evidence that Chaste Tree can help you beat PMS but it takes at least 3-6 months of taking the herb to do so. If you haven’t topped up your nutrient balance the effect will not last as long and the symptoms will return.
Black cohosh has been in the news lately. While very effective, in combination with reducing stress and changing nutrition, a herbalist is best informed to assess your liver health and monitor your progress while taking this herb. In almost every case that has been implicated in black cohosh related liver injury the herb has been obtained over the counter and not supervised by a herbalist.
Sage and peppermint tea: one teaspoon each, per cup – good for reducing flushes and sweats.
Red clover tea: 2-3 cups per day (contraindicated with ovarian cysts) as a source of phytooestrogens.
Chamomile, skullcap, peppermint, green oats and lime flowers – calming teas to assist with reducing stress.
Lets face it – finding balance in a modern life is difficult. On top of work and family life we are expected to keep fit, eat well, stay connected with others, continue to learn and still get eight hours of sleep a night. As the pattern of women’s lives have evolved in the West, menopause doesn’t always coincide with an empty home and more time to yourself – there are often younger children, teenagers, blended family, relationship changes and work pressures thrown into the new mix. Each one of those can be draining and leave little time for the pursuit of self-care. No wonder menopause has become such a big, money spinning industry.
Now is the time to put you first. Consider creating a more simpler life, prioritise even just half an hour every day or two for a brisk walk or more active exercise, schedule some early nights to get a longer sleep.
Read these tips on ways to lift our spirits.
Become aware of recurring themes – whether it’s the same issues each month (PMS) or every day, when we are out of balance our ‘theme tunes’ get an airing. Common themes tend to be about not feeling loved or supported. If you want to leave your partner or job – talk it through with a professional, rather than sit on it for another cycle.
Sex – we are primitive creatures and while we still ovulate there’s a natural libido peak at that time. Once ovulation stops – it’s the brain that creates the desire. Menopause frequently occurs in the middle of a long relationship, when we are leading busy, energy-sucking lives and may already feel tired. None of these is particularly conducive to a great sex life. Low oestrogen (also during lactation) can also cause less vaginal secretion – there are some good, natural lubricants available – use them, or your imagination to keep things slippery.
Be kind to yourself
This might seem obvious but as women we are experts at mentally beating ourselves up.
• If you are feeling overwhelmed by your health start with one small change.
• Choose the easiest change first – it might be taking a proper lunch break, so you don’t multi-task while you eat, trying oats for breakfast, making a weekly walking date with a friend or cutting out one coffee a day.
• Start with harm minimization. If giving up caffeine feels impossible drop it down to a mid-morning cuppa, choose the best tea or coffee available, drink it slowly and leave the rest of the cup when you stop enjoying every mouthful. With alcohol – use a smaller glass, nominate alcohol-free days, and arrange some socializing that doesn’t involve drinking.
• Put aside time every day/week for something you enjoy.
• Learn to say “no” when you want to.
• Take a good multivitamin.
Update: We covered a lot of extra ground on the show/podcast so I’ve posted some extra links on the site for those who are interested.