Contrary to popular belief, menopause isn’t just about estrogen.
In reality, there are many hormones involved, including several types of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and pregnenolone. Aging can affect other hormones as well, such as those that control metabolism and other body functions.
Another misperception about menopause is that it reflects a hormone imbalance. “Menopause is not a state of imbalance, and it is not a disease. It is a state of change,” said Debra Bell, MD, an integrative medicine doctor at Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.
Adding to this complexity, fluctuations in hormone levels affect women differently. In fact, the severity of menopause symptoms is not directly related to an individual’s hormone levels. That’s why Bell does not routinely check hormone levels when a woman is experiencing symptoms.
But this does not mean women have to simply endure menopause.
Bell said her goal is to help women go through this change with the least amount of symptoms. “What we do depends on what else they are doing in their lifestyle and what their symptoms are.”
While hormone replacement may have a role in helping some women, “I think it’s important to not just focus on hormone replacement,” said Bell. She recommends that women take a more holistic approach.
“Healthy living is the first step: exercise, sleep, good nutrition, avoiding excessive alcohol and caffeine. For many women, this is enough to keep their symptoms in check. For others for whom that’s not enough, there are many treatments that can help,” said Bell.
That includes dietary supplements, herbal preparations, acupuncture, mind-body techniques and more. For example, Bell often prescribes black cohosh and vitex to treat hot flashes, anxiety and other symptoms. “Herbals often work together synergistically, so we put different herbs together to address different symptoms,” she said. Before considering herbs or supplements, it is best to check with a health care practitioner.
Bell encourages women to view menopause as a new stage of life and to be open to adapting to it. “This is more about a process than a quick fix. We should be thinking about what we can do to be healthy at different stages of our lives.”
Going through menopause? Help yourself with these tips:
• Eat wholesome foods.
• Avoid sweets, alcohol and caffeine.
• Get regular exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day.
• Try yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques.
• Try acupuncture.
If you do not have other medical problems and are not taking prescription medicines, consider supplements or herbal remedies that are formulated to address menopause symptoms. These should be purchased from a reputable natural foods store.
Consult with an integrative medicine provider if:
• Your symptoms are very disruptive and make you uncomfortable.
• Your symptoms are affecting your sleep, your work life or your relationships.
• You have tried addressing the symptoms on your own without success.
• You are not sure if your symptoms are related to menopause or to something else.
Debra Bell, MD, sees patients at the Penny George Institute – Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis. For appointments, call 612-863-3333. See her profile at wellness.allinahealth.org/bell.