Today, many menopausal women are seeking safer alternatives to the standard “treatment” for menopausal symptoms, hormone replacement therapy (HRT). While this search for alternatives is certainly a positive beginning, it needs to be taken a little further. What needs to be considered is that hormonal health depends completely on the overall health of the individual, on all levels – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Naturopathic doctors offer safe and effective ways to support the transition into menopause by creating health with appropriate diet and lifestyle choices, natural remedies, exercise, rest and relaxation, and spiritual practices. Once a woman begins to work towards achieving optimal health and becomes healthier, she will likely find that any unwanted symptoms of hormonal imbalance can be handled very easily and effectively with nutrition, exercise, and botanical and homeopathic remedies.
Conventional Western medicine takes the “reactive” approach, not doing much about your health until symptoms or disease hit, at which point you begin the search for an effective treatment. Naturopathic medicine aims to take the “proactive” approach, by making health care choices that promote optimal health, and that are specifically intended to prevent disease from occurring.
To better understand hormonal health, we must look at some of the factors that influence it. The hormones that regulate the reproductive cycles and transitions, such as menopause, are produced by the organs of the endocrine system.
Our adrenal glands are part of this endocrine system, and their health is vital during the transition years to menopause. Firstly, the adrenals secrete both female and male sex hormones, the estrogens and androgens, and become the prime producers of estrogen and progesterone during the transitional years, when the ovaries “go on vacation”. Secondly, the adrenals are responsible for the “front-line” work of adapting to stress. In today’s world, most women have some degree of adrenal compromise. Women are generally working a full time job, raising children and juggling hundreds of other demands of daily life. Stressed-out adrenals compromise their function to secrete estrogens and androgens.
In addition to responding to stress, cortisol has many other functions in the body. It regulates other hormones, glucose metabolism, immune system, cardiovascular functions, the body’s use of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Therefore, our ability to adapt to stress depends on the optimal function of the adrenal glands.
Tips To Support the Adrenal Glands:
1. The most important and easiest way to keep our adrenals healthy is sleep maintenance. Going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning is the best thing you can do for your adrenals. The reason is that cortisol is secreted cyclically, with its highest secretion being early morning to gear us up for the day’s activities, and lowest in the evening when we’re supposed to be winding down for the day. If we are continuously going to bed at different times each night, our adrenals have to compensate and begin to secrete their hormones haphazardly, eventually wearing themselves out. The take-home message: develop a regular sleeping pattern to optimize cortisol secretion, and thus other hormone regulation. For the women approaching perimenopause, do this now to minimize the harm to your adrenals.
2. Under the advisement of a naturopathic doctor, consider implementing regular, short internal cleanses to give your digestive system and stress-response organs a much needed rest, and the opportunity to do some “house cleaning” and rebuilding. A bonus is that after a cleanse, nutrient assimilation usually improves.
3. There are many botanical supplements that help support the adrenals, and thus are called “adaptogenic” herbs: ginseng, ashwaganda, schizandra are a few examples. However, these must be taken only while under a naturopathic doctor’s supervision to really optimize their treatment effectiveness and potency.
Tips to Manage Stress:
1. Firstly, not all stress is bad. The right kind and amount of stress keeps the body toned, keeps the mind alert, and keeps us functioning productively. However, in today’s society, women especially are faced with an increasing amount of stress, physical, emotional, mental, that wears the body down, and directly affects the adrenal glands. The point is first recognizing what the stressors are: external, nutritional, emotional and digestive; then implementing actions to manage them well, and to get them out of the system, so that they don’t have a chance to affect the internal glands.
2. The nutritional content of the food we eat is often lacking, or destroyed by the time it gets to our tables due to food transport, the use of herbicides, pesticides and hormones, and the high level of food processing. Try to avoid packaged, processed foods, and replace them with organically-grown, fibre-rich whole grains, leafy vegetables, fresh fruits and hormone- and chemical-free animal products. Drink only unchlorinated water, and aim for a minimum of 2 litres a day (try not to drink water while eating meals to avoid diluting your digestive enzymes).
3. Today we spend much of the day in sedentary jobs that require extensive periods of sitting, usually in chairs that don’t support the back properly. Musculoskeletal structure and function have a profound influence on the rest of the body’s state of health. Don’t wait for joint pain or osteoporosis to start taking care of the framework. Exercise is not an option! Regular exercise benefits psychological health, improves sleep, balances hormones, slows aging, strengthens connective tissue and bones, supports the immune system, decreases blood pressure, increases energy levels, increases metabolism, enables better weight management, and reduces other stress-related conditions.
4. Emotional wellbeing is vital in decreasing stress. Schedule regular mind-clearing activities: meditation, deep-breathing exercises, prayer and contemplation. These exercises quiet the nervous system and keep the mind clear.
5. Take time one to two hours before bed to write down all the “to do’s” for the next day so that the mind will settle more easily. Fundamental actions can be taken to minimize the stress we take in and maximize the ways in which we handle it. Sleep, choosing the proper types of foods, exercise, adopting mental and emotional outlets are all important factors to consider. Remember that the adrenal glands take over during perimenopause and menopause, so let’s help keep them happy!
-Camille Nghiem-Phu, BSc, ND, 2008-
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