Navigating the Maze, Part 1

Posted by on Jun 3, 2008 in herbal medicine | 1 comment

I always enter mazes with great anticipation. The thrill of navigating the corners and moving forward without interruption, the intellectual aspect of the “game,” and the forced retracing of steps when I hit a wall.

Maybe we should think about perimenopause like that? Anticipate, analyze, and step back each time we hit a wall.

I spoke with New York City-based acupuncturist and Chinese Herbal Medicine specialist Elaine Stern last week. We talked about common perimenopause complaints, what’s actually going on in our bodies, and with the proper guidance, steps that might be taken.

I learned a few things and hope that you will also. Please note that it is neither mine nor Elaine’s intention to provide medical advice or replace personal consultation with a private practitioner. Rather, we hope that our conversation will help you understand some of the the changes you may be going through.

p.s. Because our conversation was so lengthy, I’ve broken it into two parts.

What are the primary perimenopausal complaints that you see consistently in your practice?

There are a core group of complaints that are very common. Beginning in perimenopause, women start to have a lot more PMS, and more mood swings that worsen just before the period and sometimes don’t get better right away after, as they did previously. Sleep disturbances may occur, especially in the second half of the cycle. Note that these peripheral problems are influenced by hormonal changes.

What exactly do you mean when you say the problems are “influenced by” hormonal changes?

From the time women reach age 36 or 37, they begin to ovulate less often, i.e. instead of 11 or 12 times a year, maybe they’re ovulating nine or 10 times. By the time they get to age 45, they might be ovulating every two or three months. Women’s hormones, that is, estrogen and progesterone, have an important relationship with one another and keep one another in check. A decline in ovulation means a decline in progesterone production, leaving, for all intents purposes, an imbalance.

What happens as a result of this imbalance?

Women in perimenopause may have a low progesterone level, which leaves the estrogen in relative excess in comparison. If the estrogen is in excess in relation to progesterone, the body tends to retain water, metabolism slows, and the liver becomes more sluggish and this affects the digestive system. They may gain weight because they are not burning food as efficiently. Estrogen stimulates breast cells, meaning that breasts may feel more tender than usual. Additionally, it stimulates endometrial growth, so periods may be heavier. And because estrogen stimulates the nervous system, it can also cause anxiety.

What types of treatment do you recommend for women experiencing these types of symptoms?

I believe it’s important to consider three modalities: acupuncture, herbal medicine, and nutrition.

So, let’s talk about acupuncture. Why is it helpful and what are the drawbacks, if any?

Acupuncture is helpful for women in perimenopause because it has a very good effect on the regulatory system; it smooths things out so to speak. It can help lessen anxiety, promote the immune system and can even out digestive problems. It helps rebalance areas that are out of balance. But what it can’t do is reverse the process of moving towards menopause. And you have to go quite regularly to keep the effects going.

Meaning what? Do you have to continue treatments throughout the entire menopause?

Well, this is why I find it helpful to combine herbs and acupuncture. Because herbs stay in the system all the time, they can keep a woman at an optimal level or balance in between acupuncture sessions.

Speaking of herbs, the whole issue can be very confusing for lots of women. One study may say that they are effective,and another, that they’re not. And, there’s often a lot of product selection. Can you clear up the mystery?

It’s important to separate the idea of Chinese herbs and Western herbs. Simply speaking, Chinese herbs are based on a system of Chinese medicine diagnosis. So, they are prescibed in combinations that treat these diagnostic categories. In other words, there is no one-to-one correspondence between a single herb and a single symptom. Because they are almost always combined, you can’t simply pick something off the shelf.

Western herbs, on the other hand, tend to be targeted towards specific problems. And there are good ones available for menopause.

Can you touch upon some of those?

Well, for example, black cohosh is a terrific herb. It’s not as strong as hormones but its track record is very good. While there are some studies that show it’s not very effective and others that show it is quite effective, I think that that has to do with how the studies were done. The other issue is quality of product and the lack of regulation.

Then, how do you choose when you go to the drugstore or health store?

That’s one reason to see a practitioner. A good practitioner will have examined the studies and will understand a bit about the marketplace. In this way, she or he will be able to direct you to a good product.

But if you live in a rural setting and don’t necessarily have access to a good practitioner, what are your options?

Almost all the studies that have shown good results have been conducted using a particular blend. We refer to these herbs as “standardized” because they are created using a percentage of one or two specific ingredients that are essential to creating an effect.

Where can you learn more about which products have been used in studies?

I recommend looking at Medline or even searching for “standardized X extract” on the American Botanical Council websites. A simple rule of thumb is that the least expensive product is not always going to be the best. While it’s hard to generalize, if you can find the product that was used in studies, well, it’s a great start.

Tomorrow, I’ll post the rest of this interview, which includes more information on Western herbs, a brief discussion about nutrition, and some overall advice.

One Comment

  1. 6-2-2008

    interesting stuff! thanks!


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