I’m here to write about women’s health. Yet first I’ve got to state, what is happening in the US in the last few weeks feels like an invasion from within. It is shocking.
Yet we Americans are not alone in this. Millions of people across the planet are suffering dramatic changes of a similar nature in their own lives. Hungary, India, Poland, Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and a number of the Arab Spring states are “all ruled by more or less democratically elected strongmen who are rewriting the very rules of government . . .all in the name of a return to national greatness.” (Ref: Pollitt)
Here in the US we now conduct our elections like sports matches. A winner is announced after a few hours, even when millions of votes have not yet been counted. The wisdom of this is suspect. Canada, with one-tenth of our population, does complete the vote tally by election night, all with paper ballots. (Barsamian with Nader) Yet at this writing, three weeks after the election, with ballots cobbled together electronically, by optical scanner, or with paper, less than one-third of all 50 states have officially certified their results. (click David Wasserman: spreadsheets) Vote audits are underway. If you want to call on the U. S. Department of Justice to request legal oversight on this, click here.
How divisions can arise: I have one blue collar friend who has been working on a large building project. Winter is coming here to New Mexico. Completion of the building plans was delayed for months when the white collar engineer responsible for it faced family crises and other challenges in his life. Now my friend and his co-workers are laboring in a frigid pit in snow, instead of doing the work in August, when conditions were kinder. My friend has a cough. The cold and dust are getting him. The white collar man has no idea he’s created suffering for the blue collar man. The blue collar man is very aware of it.
It is a diverse planet, and it’s the only one we’ve got. How can we maintain respect for each other and hold steady awareness? Often we have no idea what another person’s experience is. Simple respect for one another could have a significant impact on the quality of life here and abroad, the survival of the planet, and perhaps even the viability of democracy.
To hold with our own truth and integrity while seeing another’s reality is not always easy or convenient. Atul Gawande invites us fellow Americans to remember decency, reason, and compassion, regardless of the milieu in which we find ourselves swimming. (Gawande). May we hold with the values that nourish us in our daily lives and actions.
To shift gears, my colleague Deva Khalsa and I are offering a menopause training for health care professionals and yoga teachers here in Santa Fe and at a distance this coming weekend. There are a couple of openings still available on site, to register click here. We will be video recording it for future courses. As we’ve promoted this we’ve gotten input from women interested in working with their own bodies naturally. I’d like to offer this blog to them, women who are going through this major transition.
We grow up bathed in hormones. This is not just the hormones in meat, it’s the hormones in us. We make them. Before we’re even born, we’re making them. We even create hormones to help our bodies burrow into our mother’s uterine lining; we are the ones responsible for initiating this protected space. (Archer & Nelson, p. 385) As we near the onset of menstruation, hormones particularly kick in to support our development as women. Estrogen and progesterone together orchestrate our ovulatory cycles, the release of an egg each month. When hormones drop, we start to bleed. If they’re out of balance, we can feel it in a variety of familiar and uncomfortable ways. Hormones promote our sexual interest.
To explore the flavor of a couple of hormones in more depth: progesterone is a stabilizer. It serves to hold the uterine lining in place, helps protect against fibrocystic breasts, smoothes digestion, eases elimination, enhances normal blood sugar metabolism, counteracts increases in body fat, fluid retention, and blood clotting. It may lower the risk of breast cancer (Welch, pp. 21 – 22). In general it balances the actions of its sister hormone, estrogen. It has a calming effect on the brain, reducing depression and anxiety. It also enhances sleep. (ref) When progesterone levels drop, we may find ourselves (literally) weeping. This hormone also gently warms us up; our body temperature is highest during the progesterone predominant phase of our active cycles.
Estrogen is moist and succulent; it is a builder. It hydrates all of our tissues, including our skin. It is the catalyst behind vaginal lubrication. It builds the uterine lining. It supports breast and other female sexual development, as well as an even body temperature. There is not a single tissue in the body that does not contain it; receptor sites for estrogen occur throughout our tissues. (Welch, p. 19). While progesterone is calming, an appropriate amount of estrogen can be energizing.
In the dance of balance between estrogen and progesterone in our bodies, it is rare for progesterone to be in excess. Far more often it is estrogen that can get out of hand, resulting in water retention, breast tenderness, irritability, and weight gain. An interesting physiological point: estrogen can be made from progesterone. BUT the body can’t make progesterone from estrogen. What this means is that we’re more likely to have to deal with an excess or over balance of estrogen than progesterone.
Sadly, our primary stress hormone, cortisol, can also be made from progesterone. This has major implications when we’re under stress, to be described soon. Progesterone is a noble character. It can transform itself into these other pre-eminent actors. Yet we need it to be itself, to keep being progesterone, so that it can counter the actions of moist estrogen and stressing cortisol. How do we do this? Slow down and nourish ourselves, throughout our life cycles.
Progesterone and estrogen levels are usually fairly steady until age 35. Somewhere around this point, our biological dances start to subtly shift. Progesterone drops by 75% from age 35 to 50, leading the changes. Estrogen drops just 30% during this time, then decreases quite sharply in our early 50s followed by some potentially wild fluctuations in that decade of life.
The liver is responsible for processing hormones. Easing consumption of alcohol, drugs and fried foods can help it process the changes more smoothly. Getting steady enjoyable movement also helps the liver and circulation; it’s like taking our vehicle out on the highway to help clear the spark plugs.
Look at how you’re working with stress. Our culture is a push – push one. The archetype of the post-menopausal woman as the crone, the old woman in the woods, holds keys of wisdom. I’m here to testify that time in nature was (and still is) essential in supporting my own shifts as a mature woman. I completed menopause twelve years ago. At the time I was encouraged by a research study I’m no longer able to locate. It reported that up to 85% or women weather these biological changes with relatively gentle shifts, some hot flashes, definitely irregular cycles, some mood shifts, and sometimes some major changes in life perspectives. For 15% of us, though, this isn’t the experience. Overt symptoms can be much stronger. For many women, it is a time of re-orienting, giving up possible last dreams of mothering and considering what’s next.
At any point in life, our adrenals and ovaries can be pressed by stress. A stressaholic life style gobbles up our sex hormones and converts them to stress hormones. (Welch). Remember, cortisol can be made from progesterone. If this happens on any regular basis, when we find ourselves in perimenopause, it can deprive us of a crucial edge on sex hormones just when we need them most. It’s time to slow down, nourish yourself sanely, figure out what non-caffeinated beverages you like. Check out the amount of caffeine you’re routinely taking in. (Caffeine content of common foods & drinks from the U. of Washington – what this doesn’t include is diet pills, at 910 mg/pill). A side rant: As the economic crunch hit in 2007 – 8, Starbucks coffee sales went up. Their worldwide revenues are more than double what they were in the years prior to this.
If you’re a woman in her early thirties who has strayed on to this blog, take notice! Now is the time to start easing off the heavy caffeine habit and enhance your calcium rich foods (dark leafies, tahini, hummus, sardines, quinoa, teff, almond milk, extra firm organic tofu, and dairy). This will strenthen both your adrenals and bones, and ready your inner ovaries for a new level of function when you do arrive in menopause. If you’re fifty and wildly flashing, these are still good ideas.
There is a concept from Ayurvedic physiology that is crucial to our discussion here. I’d like to weave it into this Western perspective on physiology and hormones. As estrogen drops in our fifties and sixties, its moistening quality is less available to our tissues. We face dryness. From an Ayurvedic perspective, we are coming to the Vata stage of life when it is most important to nourish our plasma (what is known in Sanskrit as rasa). In Asian acupuncture, it would be said we need to protect our yin. In either case, we are looking to protect our inner moisture so that it is like a shining lake, not an irritated puddle.
As we look at what herbs can be useful in menopause, we will take into account both protecting inner moisture and maintaining a healthy balance of hormones. Remember that progesterone levels drop most sharply first, not estrogen. if you’re perimenopausal (still in that period where your cycles may be irregular, yet you haven’t skipped a whole year of them), you’re likely to find more relief in progesteronic herbs, like vitex, ashwagandha, wild yam, or vidari kanda. Each of these also builds plasma, they are rasayanas, building to rasa, rejuvenative.
Menopausal formulas containing estrogenic herbs like motherwort, dong quai, or black cohosh can work well in our late forties or fifties when menopause is occurring. This change of life is defined after the fact: we are actually in menopause when it has been one full year with no menstruation at all. Shatavari is the most used herb in India for menopause. It’s estrogenic, moistening and soothing, and useful in causes of fiery depletion, when plasma needs to be built.
How can you tell what you need? Observing your own body can give crucial leads. Swollen breast, shorter cycles, and excess fluid retention can indicate estrogen dominance. Here the progesterone supportive herbs can be helpful counterpoints, the aforementioned ashwagandha, vitex, vidari kanda or wild yam. Ashwagandha has the unique quality of building energy during the day, and deepening sleep at night. While it considered warming, it can calm hot flashes. Guidance from a trusted health care practitioner is valuable as well.
If you’re feeling hot, dry, depleted, with longer cycles, your body could appreciate shatavari or another of the estrogenic herbs. In general, remember, less stress, less need for hormonal support. In these times, have mercy on yourself. Give yourself the kinds of healing breaks you need to regain perspective and balance.
In the next blog, I’ll be working with how to use classic Ayurvedic herbal formulas to make healing tea blends. Namaste!
To register for the professional workshop this Dec. 2 – 3, click here.
Pollitt, Katha, “They’re With Him”, The Nation, December 5/12, 2016
Barsamian, David, interview with Ralph Nader on How We Can Change Society, “It’s Easier Than We Think”, The Sun, December 2016
Gawande, Atul, “Health of the Nation”, The New Yorker, Nov. 21, 2016
Archer, Pat & Lisa A. Nelson, Applied Anatomy & Physiology for Manual Therapists, 2013
Welch, Claudia, Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, 2011
Caffeine content of common foods & drinks, the University of Washington, http://www.fda.gov/downloads/UCM200805.pdf
Image: Ice #88! with appreciation to photographer Iza Bruen-Morningstar