Boston Women’s Journal - August/September 2005

Menopause - Not the Musical

A It seems like yesterday that I was a teenager and dealing with mood swings and the reality of experiencing puberty and fertility in the modern world. Now I am 50 and looking toward the close of my fertility cycle. I have spent lots of time listening to friends and clients speak about their menopause experiences, have learned about their symptoms and suggested natural treatments to ease the transition. For me, contemplating the loss of the menstrual grounding experience initiated this article. I would not wish my youth back, but do mourn its passing. I understand that menopause can mean many things to many women: from the sad end of fertility to feelings of liberation and entry into an era of the “wise woman.” What are some of the realities and myths, and how can the experience be better? As a baby boomer who has often said it felt possible to “grow old but not grow up” I, like everyone else, must face the music.

What is a “normal” menopause?

Menopause is the flip side of puberty. The body naturally slows down and changes, bringing the reproductive cycle to a gradual close. Hormone levels drop and ovulation and menstruation often become irregular as “perimenopause” starts, creating a transition period which can last from six months to several years. Perimenopause often starts between the ages of 40 and 50. As quite a few women know, you can still get pregnant during this time and “late life” babies are often a result of women thinking their fertile years had ended. Menopause officially begins when all ovulation has stopped.

Family patterns will often give a good idea of what you can expect. Most women have a gentle transition with hot flashes being the worst symptom, but sometimes women experience quite difficult times, even severe depression and mood swings and need help to manage their symptoms. Whatever stage you are in, there are natural and simple ways, using herbal treatments, to lessen the problems without the risk of artificial hormones. Some women find that sexuality may actually be improved with the burden of pregnancy removed.

Why don’t I know more about menopause?

In our mother’s day they didn’t even speak of “the change.” Every woman was on her own with the feelings or symptoms she had. Gone was the old knowledge of herbs and tonics that had helped us manage this passage for hundreds of years. Our parents still harkened back to Victorian attitudes of just taking whatever nature and the environment dished out, keeping their mouths shut and suffering through whatever happened.

What about Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)?

Things didn’t change much until the 1960’s, when women’s liberation and the sexual revolution made us feel (or fantasize) that we we could stay youthful forever. This could be obtained through the magic that gave us the birth control pill, hormonal drugs. Women were told “Just take these drugs and your skin will stay fresh, you will have stronger bones, and your heart attack risk will be lowered. And by the way, no terrible menopausal symptoms, bye-bye to hot flashes and mood swings. Talk to your doctor.”

These times, just now coming to a close, comprised an era of fighting nature and our bodies. Doctors recommended HRT and women took hormones, sometimes for as long as twenty years, to forestall a natural and inevitable process. Within the past five years we have seen significant research regarding the harm that may have been done by artificially pushing the envelope of reproductive youth. In fact the latest research shows possible increased cancer risk, and neither bone strengthening benefit, nor heart attack risk reduction. Many women have unwittingly taken a huge gamble with their health. There are certainly women who really suffered and needed HRT, but as with many treatments, it was widely over-prescribed. It is time for us to return to more natural ways of dealing with the process.

What now?

Now there are catalogs and magazines devoted to the “change of life.” I was recently at a family event and a cousin my age whispered to me how horrible the last year was, and how it almost caused her to leave her marriage of 30 years. A client of mine who has always used natural ways to deal with her health said she barely noticed a change. It felt like a rite of passage into the next, freer stage of her life. More alternative treatment are gently and kindly being rediscovered. Alternative practitioners are working with traditional medicine to find safe and easy ways to make the transition a joyous one.

I personally intend to celebrate and be proud of my new status as a “mature woman.” Achieving a good age and working hard are things we all can be proud of.