Overcoming the Discomforts of Menopause: What Chinese Medicine has to Offer

by Antonia Balfour, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac. & C.H.

More and more women are turning to Chinese Medicine for the treatment of menopausal symptoms, particularly after recent concerns regarding the safety of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that HRT may lead to an increase in the risk of heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, and blood clots. HRT has also been linked to gallstones and gallbladder disease. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are natural therapies offering significant relief from the debilitating symptoms women experience as they go through menopause without the risks associated with more conventional treatment.

When Roslyn Samet began going through menopause, she experienced major discomfort from hot flashes – not only at night, but frequently during the day, sometimes as often as once or twice an hour. “I really didn’t feel good about taking hormones,” said Samet. “Cancer runs in my family and I didn’t even consider HRT as an option. It seemed so unnatural to me… I just refused to do it”.

Instead, she turned to acupuncture and Chinese herbs for an answer. “The hot flashes were like a surge of heat, coming on all of a sudden,” Samet described. “And I would stay hot for a while, then suddenly become chilled. At night there was always a battle – putting covers on, then taking them off”. Other symptoms Samet experienced included a constant craving for sweets, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and restless sleep.

Her acupuncturist prescribed a regimen of acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy. “After beginning the herbs, I would feel the surge just beginning, then suddenly it would die down. The sensation was so diluted, I didn’t even feel hot flashes. It was miraculous.” Her other symptoms improved as well. And, she added, the Chinese medicine helped her lose some weight, or certainly keep her weight under control. “Once I had the acupuncture and herbs, I really didn’t feel like I was a menopausal person,” said Samet.

Chinese medicine views menopause as a period of natural transition in a woman’s life, but a time where the body’s energy and hormones are in a state of flux. This often results in various symptoms which can range in severity from uncomfortable to debilitating.

As a holistic system, Chinese medicine does not separate physical symptoms from those of an emotional nature. Instead, an individual is always looked at as a whole. Each symptom is looked at in relationship to all other presenting symptoms in order to find a complete health pattern. The goal of the practitioner is to bring balance to the patient — simultaneously treating both the physical and emotional aspects of the condition.

Perhaps the most unique feature of Chinese medicine is that each treatment is individualized according to the specific needs of each patient. This means that every patient with a certain symptom — let’s take hot flashes as an example — will be treated differently depending on their individual constitution. One patient may have hot flashes accompanied by weak vision, dizziness, night sweats, and restless sleep. Another patient may have low back pain, memory problems, and vaginal dryness along with the hot flashes. One of these women may notice that she feels melancholy and cries easily, whereas the other one may get angry and frustrated. Both these patients will be treated with different acupuncture points, different nutritional advice, and different herbs. In Chinese herbalism, custom formulas are written with anywhere between 6 and 18 herbs which address the full constitutional diagnosis. Many herbs have sedating and harmonizing properties while others work to promote the body’s innate ability to heal and recuperate.

Menopause is looked at in Chinese medicine as a period in which the energy of the Kidney is declining. It is important to note that the Chinese Kidney is not the same as the Western organ. In Western medicine, an organ is simply an anatomical structure. In Chinese medicine the concept of each Internal Organ encompasses much more. There can be an anatomical structure, but there is also a corresponding emotion, tissue, sensory organ, and element. In the case of the Chinese Kidney (which is capitalized to distinguish it as the Chinese organ), the associated element is water, the emotion is fear, the sensory organ is the ear, and the corresponding tissue is bone.

In addition, 12 of the Internal Organs correspond to the 12 main acupuncture meridians (or channels) that run through the body. There is “qi” (or energy) flowing through each meridian. If an Internal Organ is out of balance, the qi of that organ will be damaged.

Therefore, the Chinese Kidney shouldn’t be equated with the Western Organ – although there are some similarities.

The Chinese Kidney is said to store the body’s “essence”. During menopause, the “essence” of the Kidney begins to diminish. This leads to a decline in both the qi of the Kidney and the fluids which nourish and moisten the body. Symptoms of a deficiency of “essence” may include fatigue, memory problems, and thinning of bones. Many women experience joint pain and neck tension, while others begin to notice a weakness in vision or hearing.

Treatment always focuses on restoring balance and harmony. This is done by strengthening Kidney “essence” and building up the qi and fluids. If a woman is experiencing dryness of the eyes, skin and hair and has brittle nails or constipation, then much of the focus will lie in building up the body fluids. If she has dull thinking, weakness, and feels fatigued most of the time, treatment will focus on nourishing the qi.

Whatever discomforts a woman is experiencing, Chinese medicine offers a unique perspective and individualized treatment that takes into account all symptoms of the body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

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