Herbs For Menopause
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What Is Menopause?
The term menopause is used to describe the time in a woman's life when menstruation stops naturally as the result of hormonal changes. These hormonal changes are characterized by drops in estrogen that begin to occur during a woman's peri-menopausal years (the 3 to 5 year phase prior to the start of menopause). Once a woman enters menopause (usually between the age of 40 and 50 years) she is no longer fertile. While it is a natural stage in the female life cycle - not a disease or an illness - menopause can be induced for other reasons. For example, women can enter menopause prematurely as a result of ovarian failure.
What Causes Menopause?
The onset of menopause is associated with decreases in the production of estrogen and progesterone - the hormones that regulate menstruation. Peri-menopause, characterized by a gradual reduction in the production of these hormones by the ovaries, occurs prior to menopause. During peri-menopause the ovaries begin to produce fewer hormones, signaling the start of menopause. As symptoms related to decreased hormone production are not always experienced during the peri-menopausal phase, the start of menopause might not be anticipated.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Menopause?
Menopause is said to officially begin once a woman has experienced a full year without a menstrual period. However, the signs and symptoms of menopause can occur prior to the start of menopause, during the peri-menopausal years. Signs and symptoms typically include one or more of the following:
Irregular periods: During the peri-menopausal years, irregular periods are often experienced. This is often the first noticeable symptom to indicate that a woman is nearing menopause, and can be characterized by an increase or decrease in the frequency of menstrual periods.
Decreased fertility: Due to the drop in estrogen levels that occur during the peri-menopausal stage, the chances of becoming pregnant are reduced significantly.
Vaginal dryness, pain and inflammation: Commonly experienced during the peri-menopausal years, vaginal dryness may be accompanied by itching and discomfort. Some women experience dyspareunia (pain during sex), and others might experience vaginal atrophy (shrinking and thinning of tissues, often accompanied by inflammation).
“Hot flashes”: A sudden feeling of heat in the face, neck or chest, sometimes accompanied by redness and swelling of the skin in those areas. Increased heart rate and sweating are common, and heart palpitations may also result. Hot flashes are commonly experienced during the first year after a woman stops menstruating.
Night sweats: Hot flashes might interrupt sleep, in which case they are called night sweats. Most night sweats last for only a few minutes, whereas hot flashes experienced during waking hours are often much longer in duration.
Sleep disturbances: Often caused by night sweats, sleep disturbances might also be caused by anxiety and insomnia. Women might find it increasingly difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep during their menopausal or peri-menopausal years.
Urinary complications: Menopausal and peri-menopausal women might experience a need to urinate more frequently than normal. Studies show that menopausal and peri-menopausal women are more prone to developing lower urinary tract infections such as cystitis.
Moodiness: Often associated with sleep disturbances, moodiness is a common symptom of menopause.
Decreased ability to concentrate: Menopausal and peri-menopausal women might experience problems with short-term memory, and might find it more difficult to focus on a task for long periods of time. 
Other signs and symptoms of menopause can include hair loss, changes in sex drive, accumulation of fat in the abdomen, and fat loss in the breasts.
How Is Menopause Diagnosed?
To determine whether a woman is experiencing menopause, a GP (general care, primary care physician) takes her age, weight, medical history, menstrual patterns. To provide a more accurate diagnosis doctors might suggest that their patient take a blood test, in order to measure her levels of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone). FSH levels rise during menopause but tend to fluctuate during peri-menopause. Thus, a woman with high levels of FSH might be experiencing peri-menopause (as opposed to menopause). To further increase the accuracy of diagnosis, a doctor might order another blood test to determine estrogen levels. A doctor might also test for hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid), the symptoms of which are very similar to those associated with menopause. Apart from a blood test, the most definitive way of diagnosing menopause is by evaluating whether or not the periods have stopped and for how long.
What Orthodox Treatments Are Available For Menopause And Peri-Menopause?
As menopause and peri-menopause are a natural part of the female life cycle, many women do not seek treatment or do not experience symptoms. Others are affected so profoundly that they have difficulty going about their daily lives, in which case a doctor's visit would be recommended. Available orthodox treatments include:
HRT (hormone replacement therapy): HRT works by regulating estrogen levels, which can alleviate many of the symptoms associated with menopause, which include vaginal dryness, itching and discomfort; urinary problems; loss of bone-density; hot flashes and night sweats. HRT helps prevent osteoporosis and reduces the risk of colon cancer, but increases the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer. Women undergoing HRT also have an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, or suffering a stroke. Research suggests that in women 65 and over, HRT might accelerate loss of brain tissue.
Low-dose antidepressants: SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) such as venlafaxine (Effexor), fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem), paroxetine (Paxil), citlopram (Celexa) and sertraline (Zoloft) are prescribed to reduce the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
Gabapentin (Neurontin): More commonly used as a treatment for epilepsy, anti-seizure medication is considered to be effective in treating hot flashes.
Clonidine (Catapres): More commonly used as a treatment for hypertension (high blood pressure), clonidine can be taken orally (in pill form) or worn as a patch on the skin. Side effects of clonidine are common and unpleasant. As with any medication, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers to consult their doctor before using clonidine.
To alleviate symptoms of menopause such as vaginal dryness, doctors often prescribe a hormone cream containing conjugated equine extracts (which are not bio-identical to the estrogen naturally produced by the human body).
Natural (bio-identical) treatments are another option. Many women suffering from symptoms of menopause such as vaginal dryness have found relief through the use natural estrogen products. Unlike HRT, locally-applied estrogen creams and/or vaginal rings can alleviate dryness and itching without causing large amounts of estrogen to circulate through the entire body. Compared to HRT, natural estrogen products are associated with fewer risks.
Other natural treatments include dietary changes and supplementation.
8 Herbs For Menopause
The following natural remedies and herbs have been indicated by various researches for menopausal symptoms:
Considered to be a natural source of estrogen, soy has been studied for its potential to relieve muscle pain associated with estrogen loss resulting from menopause. Studies show that soy might alleviate symptoms of menopause such as vaginal atrophy. A 2009 study suggests that the addition of soy products to one's diet and/or regular supplementation of SAI (soy aglycons of isoflavone) can be used effectively as an alternative to HRT. 
Dong quai (Angelica sinensis):
The root of the dong quai plant has been used for centuries by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Also used as a treatment for irregular menstrual cycles, infrequent menstrual periods, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), painful menstruation and menstrual cramps, dong quai is said to aid in maintaining the balance of female hormones. The results of vitro testing suggest that dong quai contains compounds which may alleviate menopausal symptoms associated with pain in the uterus.  Dong quai has been studied regarding its potential estrogen-like effects, but further experimentation is necessary before claims can be made. Dong quai is available in powder, tablet, capsule, and liquid form. Dried dong quai root can be purchased at some natural foods markets and specialty stores.
Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa):
Black cohosh has a history of use by Native Americans to relieve various conditions including amenorrhea and menopause, painful menstruation, and painful childbirth. Still used today as a support formula for menopausal and peri-menopausal women, black cohosh has received attention in the scientific community for its potential to alleviate symptoms of menopause. Black cohosh is reported to lessen the intensity of hot flashes and night sweats by supporting the balance of hormone levels. Filed under the name “black snakeroot,” black cohosh was classified as an official drug from 1820 to 1926 in the United States Pharmacopeia. By the 1930s, medicinal use of black cohosh had fallen from the mainstream in the United States but gained popularity in Europe, especially in Germany. In Europe, black cohosh is the most readily prescribed alternative to HRT (hormone replacement therapy), and the North American Menopausal Society (NAMS) recognizes its usefulness as a supplement for alleviating the symptoms of menopause. Although more trials must be carried out before definitive claims can be made, research indicates that black cohosh can aid in preventing and treating depression associated with menopause. 
Green Tea (Camellia sinensis):
Green tea contains the amino acid theanine which is said to bring relief from symptoms of menopause including hot flashes, night sweats and other sleep disturbances. Green tea can help to reduce stress and pain, and a few studies suggest it can improve brain function.  Green tea is associated with improvements in ability to concentrate and focus, increases in energy level, and relief from fatigue and anxiety. Green tea is also associated with relief from more severe symptoms. For example, the results of a 2012 study indicate that green tea extract might reduce the risk of menopause-induced overactive bladder. 
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis):
Native to North America, evening primrose also grows in Europe and the Southern hemisphere. The seeds of the evening primrose plant are rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid. Since 1930 evening primrose oil has been used as a natural treatment for eczema and other allergic skin reactions. More recent medicinal uses for evening primrose oil include diabetes, inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, and certain types of cancer. Evening primrose oil is marketed as a nutritional supplement, and is often taken as a means of alleviating fatigue, headache, mood swings, and improving the ability to concentrate. Studies show that use of evening primrose oil might be effective as a treatment for breast pain, mood swings, and anger, all of which are commonly experienced among menopausal women.  The results of clinical trials suggest that evening primrose oil might be useful in cases of PMS, which can occur during peri-menopause.  Regarding the effect of evening primrose oil on other menopausal symptoms, further experimentation is necessary before claims can be made.
Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis):
Native to Europe and Asia, valerian flower extracts were worn as perfume in sixteenth century and has a history of use as a medicinal herb for insomnia, convulsions, migraines, and body aches. Most scientific research on the subject of valerian root has concerned the effects of its compounds on GABA neurotransmitter activity.  According to the results of a 1989 study, valerian might have a similar effect on GABA receptors when compared to drugs of the benzodiazepine class.  Valerian root may be an effective means of alleviating menopausal symptoms such as sleeplessness, anxiety, hot flashes, and muscle tension. 
Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus):
Also called monk's pepper, chasteberry is native to Central Asia and the Mediterranean. Chasteberry has a long history of use as a remedy for menstrual problems and to increase milk production, and is still used today as a natural alternative to HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and pharmaceutical drugs for complications during menopause.  Studies show that chasteberry might be beneficial in cases of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), breast pain, and infertility, but further experimentation is necessary before conclusions are drawn. Despite evidence suggesting potential benefit for patients with cyclical breast discomfort, chasteberry should not be used by sufferers of breast cancer.  Because of its reported effect on hormone levels, chasteberry should not be used during pregnancy or while taking birth control pills. 
Mexican wild yam (Dioscorea villosa):
A species of tuberous vine, mexican wild yam grows freely in North America. Mexican wild yam has been of great importance to the development of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) because its constituents act as precursors to estrogen and progesterone.  A number of authoritative claims have been made about the benefits of mexican wild yam in terms of menstruation and menopause. For instance, wild yam is said to balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycle, and relieve ovarian and uterine pains.  The use of mexican wild yam by non-western cultures has been of scholarly interest and gives insight into its potential benefits. One notable example is an article published in a 1992 issue of National Geographic magazine that describes the importance of wild yam as a staple food for the inhabitants of a remote island. Investigators found that the island's inhabitants tended to have high libido, and symptoms associated with menopause were not experienced by women on the island. 
Maca, a root crop grown in South America, has been reported to have hormone-balancing effects, improve libido and provide post-menopausal support.
Menopause Symptom Management
Other natural methods to manage menopause symptoms that have been used include pelvic floor techniques such as Kegel exercises (a method developed by Dr. Arnold Kegel, in which the pubococcygeus muscles of the pelvic floor are contracted and relaxed repeatedly in order to build strength and give support to the bladder). Studies show that pelvic floor training can greatly improve the condition of women suffering from symptoms of menopause such as urinary incontinence. 
In order to prevent symptoms such as overweight/obesity and osteoporosis, experts recommend that menopausal and peri-menopausal women eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet that incorporates a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats. Refined carbohydrates(white bread, sugar, etc.) should be avoided. Another recommendation is to supplement with vitamins - especially calcium and vitamin D.
In many cases, symptoms can be managed by lifestyle changes. To prevent hot flashes and night sweats, sleep disturbances and mood swings, experts suggest regular exercise and avoidance of caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Yoga and mindfulness training, guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation  have been reported to help with symptoms. Research suggests that regular sexual activity can help to prevent symptoms of menopause.
Herbs For Menopause - References:
 Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD. Menopause (Perimenopause). http://www.medicinenet.com/menopause/article.htm
 M. Resnick, M. A. Espeland, S. A. Jaramillo, C. Hirsch, M. L. Stefanick, A. M. Murray, J. Ockene, C. Davatzikos. Postmenopausal hormone therapy and regional brain volumes: The WHIMS-MRI Study. For the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study. Neurology January 13 2009, Volume 72, Issue 2, Pp 135-142.
 Soybeans Reduce Effects of Menopause. Ivanhoe Broadcast News Monday, April 13, 2009; 4:15 AM http://www.healthcentral.com/diet-exercise/news-287456-29.html
 Hay-Smith EJC, Dumoulin C. Pelvic floor muscle training versus no treatment, or inactive control treatments, for urinary incontinence in women (Review). The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 1.
 Dong quai. 2011. University of Maryland Medical Center. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/dong-quai-000238.htm
 Mee-Ra Rhyu, Jian Lu, Donna E. Webster, Daniel S. Fabricant, Norman R. Farnsworth and Z. Jim Wang. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Cimicifuga racemosa) behaves as a mixed competitive ligand and partial agonist at the human mu opiate receptor. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2006 December 27; 54(26): 9852–9857.
 Compas, Colin. Green Tea and Memory. Vanderbilt University Psychology Department. http://healthpsych.psy.vanderbilt.edu/MemoryTea.htm
 Juan YS, Chuang SM, Lee YL, Long CY, Wu TH, Chang WC, Levin RM, Liu KM, Huang CH. Green tea catechins decrease oxidative stress in surgical menopause-induced overactive bladder in a rat model. BJU International. 2012 May 28. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22639915
 Cornforth, Tracee. About.com. Herbal Remedies for Treating Menopause. http://womenshealth.about.com/cs/herbsforwomen/a/herbswomen_2.htm
 Holzl J, Godau P. (1989). "Receptor binding studies with Valeriana officinalis on the benzodiazepine receptor". Planta Medica 55 (7): 642. DOI:10.1055/s-2006-962221.
 "Valerian (Valeriana officinalis L.)". Medline Plus.
 Beatrix Roemheld-Hamm, M.D., PH.D. Chasteberry. American Family Physician. 2005 Sep 1;72(5):821-824.
 Chasteberry. NCCAM: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/chasteberry
 Dioscorea villosa. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dioscorea_villosa
 Wild Yam. Medline Plus. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/970.html
 Rogers, Kristen. The Powers of Progesterone. Four Winds Nutritional Club. http://www.webnat.com/articles/ProgesteronePower.asp
Article researched and created by Kelsey Wambold, © herbs-info.com 2013
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