Herbal Medicine and Menopause

Article by
Avril Casey.

Many women find great relief for symptoms of menopause using common herbal remedies such as red clover, sage and black cohosh. In this article herbalist and naturopath, Avril Casey, explains how naturopathy uses herbal medicines and other natural tools to bring our bodies back into a state of health at menopause.

Red Clover can help with hot flushes.

Red Clover can help with hot flushes.

What are Naturopathy and Herbal Medicine?

Naturopathy is a system of medicine based on the healing power of nature. Naturopaths encourage a holistic form of treatment, taking all aspects of a person’s being into consideration – physical, mental, emotional and social. We employ a wide range of natural tools such as herbs, vitamin and mineral supplements, aromatherapy, tissue salts, hydrotherapy, breathing exercises and meditation to name but a few!

Herbal Medicine involves the use of medicinal plants to bring the body back into a state of health – not just absence of disease but of vitality and well being. Many people chose herbal medicine to avoid the side effects of prescription drugs and because it can help to treat health conditions while also supporting and nourishing the body.

Menopause  

In the peri-menopausal years leading up to menopause, some women may experience symptoms due to fluctuating hormones. Some may have none, other than irregular periods. Every woman’s experience is unique but common complaints include hot flushes and night sweats, sleep disturbances, mood swings, vaginal dryness, lowered libido, weight gain, osteoporosis and ageing skin or thinning hair, or headaches or joint pain.

It is important to note that the menopause is a natural stage in every woman’s life; for a lot of women it is indeed very liberating. Women at this time are often engaging in activities they enjoy, focusing on their career, starting new courses and generally living their lives! It is my goal as a natural therapist to assist them to approach this time of change with energy and a sense of well being.

In the peri-menopausal years leading up to menopause, some women may experience symptoms due to fluctuating hormones. Some may have none, other than irregular periods. Every woman’s experience is unique but common complaints include hot flushes and night sweats, sleep disturbances, mood swings, vaginal dryness, lowered libido, weight gain, osteoporosis and ageing skin or thinning hair, or headaches or joint pain.

How Herbal Medicine Can Help:

Herbal medicine addresses not just the symptom but the cause of the imbalance so the treatment is very individual but there are certain aspects that will be considered for all patients within a holistic framework:

Phytoestrogens: Herbs containing phytoestrogens (or plant oestrogens) are used with great success in the management of hot flushes. These compounds are similar to oestrogen and bind to receptor sites, causing a weak oestrogen-like response. Phytoestrogens are also found in foods and should be incorporated into the diet. These foods include fermented soya (miso, soy sauce, tempeh), lentils, chickpeas, hummus, garlic, celery, linseeds, sunflower and sesame seeds, alfalfa, mung beans, beansprouts, sage, fennel and parsley.

Red Clover: this herb contains phytoestrogens called isoflavones and has been associated with a significant reduction in hot flushes when compared to placebo. One 12-week placebo-controlled clinical trial involving 30 women treated with 80 mg of isoflavones (Promensil) reported a 44% decrease in hot flushes for the isoflavone group.

Black Cohosh: another herb which has shown great efficacy in trials is Black Cohosh. Of the three hormonally active substances it contains, one of them suppresses luteinising hormone which is thought to control flushing and the other two have weak oestrogen-like effects. In one study, 36 women reported significant reductions in hot flushes, sweating, insomnia, nervousness, irritability and depressive psychosis after 4 weeks of treatment with highly significant reductions seen after 12 weeks[ii].

Sage: I also have to give a special mention to the herb Sage which is excellent for the treatment of excess sweating of any origin, particularly menopausal sweating: hot flushes and night sweats. It is also said to improve memory. It can be taken as a tablet (A.Vogel’s Menoforce) or as a tea which should be taken cold. Many women find it useful to make a litre or so of the tea, place it in the fridge and have it as their drinking water for the day.

Uterine tonics: These are herbs which have a regulatory effect on the uterus and a balancing effect on the reproductive system. One of the best well known of these is Dang Gui, sometimes referred to as the ‘female ginseng’. It is also used for a wide range of gynaecological conditions where periods need to be regulated and to improve fertility. In addition, it can help to prevent vitamin E deficiency (vitamin E is used to prevent hot flushes), lower blood cholesterol, protect the liver and may improve cardiovascular conditions. As an adjunct to menopausal treatment, it is always prescribed in conjunction with other herbs.

Vitex agnus Castus: another herb which is valuable for the treatment of menopausal symptoms is Vitex agnus castus (or chaste tree berry). Through its action on the pituitary gland, the master gland that communicates with the ovaries, Vitex may help to initiate regular ovulation and regulate the cycle. It may be of benefit to peri-menopausal women who experience pre-menstrual symptoms and irregularity.

Liver support: Because of its role in deactivating and therefore balancing hormones and converting oestradiol (carcinogenic) to oestriol (the safest form of oestrogen), it is important that you look after your liver. This amazing organ also breaks down fats and uses them for energy production, helps thyroid function, regulates body cholesterol and neutralises toxins.

Milk Thistle: the herb Milk thistle has been shown to regenerate liver cells and can help ensure optimal liver function. As such it makes an excellent addition to a formula for menopausal hormonal balance.

Nervines: some menopausal women may experience mood swings or feelings of anxiety, irritability or depression Indeed, feeling stressed is common to most people these days, without the added burden of sleepless nights or hot flushes! Nervine herbs can be of great assistance in calming the individual, balancing mood and promoting sleep. Some of the most commonly used include Hops (a sedative which can also help to reduce hot flushes), Skullcap, Valerian and Passiflora.

Adrenal tonics: Our adrenal glands are known for producing our stress hormones but did you know that they are also responsible for production of oestrone (a form of oestrogen) when the ovaries stop producing oestrogen? Stress management techniques and exercise can help promote good adrenal function. The herbs Eleutherococcus (Siberian ginseng) and Borage are both good tonics for the adrenal glands and may help improve energy levels and reduce the negative effects of stress on the body.

Van der Weijer, PH. 2002. ‘Isoflavones from red clover (Promensil) significantly reduce menopausal hot flush symptoms compared with placebo’. Maturitas Jul 25;42(3):187-93

[ii] Daiber, W. 1985. ‘Climacteric complaints: success without using hormones!’ Arztl Prax 35(65), pp. 1946-7

Sources of Information:

Bluherbal - Ireland's only Herbalist directory dedicated to finding your local practitioner - http://www.bluherbal.ie

The Irish Register of Herbalists - a professional association for Traditional Herbalists in Ireland - http://www.irh.ie

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