Hormones and Health: Menopause and Naturopathic Medicine

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Written by: Dr. Melissa Buches ND

The body’s hormonal changes define the stages of our lifecycle as human beings.  As children we grow and evolve into adulthood and the reproductive years, then Menopause ceases our ability to reproduce, and we carry out the final phase of the adult human being.  These transitions can be challenging times for the human body, as hormonal signals are strong, and have strong effects on the shape and size of our bodies.  Our environment can help mitigate the symptoms of the transitions of puberty, PMS, Menopause and male hormone imbalances.  As naturopathic doctors, we can help the patient understand what Is happening with their internal chemistry, and we have many treatment options to help them through this transition more comfortably.  Nutrition, lifestyle changes, exercise, diet, herbs,  bio-identical hormones and prescription medications can all be of aid during these times. 

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Menopause

Menopause is defined as the stopping of the period for twelve months, and the following years afterwards.  Perimenopause is defined as the time leading up to menopause, and can start in the thirties for many women.  It is often confused with, and may include, worsening PMS symptoms and changes in menstrual flow and regularity.  Menopause is the end of natural fertility, and typically happens at the age of fifty- one in the United States.  The hormones estrogen and progesterone, which drive the menstrual cycle, are no longer being produced by the ovaries.  To the body, this lack of hormones, can cause all of the symptoms of PMS, plus the addition of heavier and more frequent periods, hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, insecurity, hair loss on the head, hair growth on the face, sleep disorders, mental confusion and more.  For some women, they may not experience any symptoms, and other women may have severe, incapacitating symptoms of menopause.  Menopause increases the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease.

The journey through menopause is very unique to each woman.  There doesn’t seem to be any similarity to how other women in a family experience menopause.  Just because your mother or sister had an easy time, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have the same experience.  There are a variety of treatment options available to women, and of course, due to the vast symptomatology, treatment effectiveness varies from woman to woman.  Symptomatology also changes as the hormones decrease over time.  For example, a woman may have insomnia starting in her early forties, but by her fifties, may experience night sweats and hot flashes.  Symptoms can last for decades, whereas for others, it may be a brief few months.

The most common treatment for menopause is the use hormone replacement therapy, primarily estrogen and progestins.  These are often produced synthetically through an animal host such as a horse or a pig or synthetically in a laboratory.  These hormones are similar in shape as the body’s own hormones, but not identical.  In the past decades, more women are wary of the use of synthetic hormone replacement and the risk of cancer, and are choosing bioidentical hormone replacement to treat their symptoms.  Bioidentical hormones are defined as hormones that are biochemically exact to the hormones produced in a human body.  The true bioidenticals are produced from a plant source, however, by definition, they can be made synthetically in a laboratory.  Plant bioidentical hormones stay in circulation longer than synthetic hormones and exert a much weaker effect on the body.  Either of these hormone replacements can be taken in a variety of ways, including topically (gel, cream, oil, patch), orally, suppository, or injected pellets.  Whether a woman uses synthetic or bioidentical hormones, the ultimate goal in treatment is to assess the risk and treat effectively to make symptoms tolerable and to treat for the shortest period of time.

For many women with a strong family risk of hormone related cancers, hormones are not an option in treating menopausal symptoms. Hormone precursors of DHEA and pregnenalone, also offer relief of symptoms, and less risk factors associated with the end point hormones of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.  There are many herbs that help with the symptoms of menopause and are incredibly effective at treating a broad spectrum of the symptoms.  Many vitamins and minerals are also supportive in reducing severity of symptoms.  Calcium and vitamin D become very important in the prevention of bone loss due to decreasing hormone levels.  Lifestyle factors, primarily stress reduction, can significantly help a women navigate through menopause.   Exercise is the single most important lifestyle factor to help reduce the severity of symptoms and in the prevention of heart disease which is an associated risk of menopause.

Hormone levels along with comprehensive blood work, preferably, every year starting at the age of forty.  Laboratory testing of hormones can be done via blood or saliva samples. Women may become iron anemic due to heavier and more frequent periods in their forties and should be monitored closely.  It is also important to adjust the treatment plan according to the symptoms that change along the way.

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