Is it hot in here or is it just that perimenopause and menopause have transformed you into a reliable source of renewable energy, or a major contributor to global warming?
(I can see the second idea taking off in certain political circles, but before climate change is blamed on women experiencing perimenopause and menopause, that was a JOKE!)
Call them hot flashes (or power surges) in the day, night sweats when you wake up stuck to your pajamas (or the moments at 3am that convince you you're about to die), the heat women experience at midlife can be disruptive. Add that to mood swings, depression, panic attacks, brain fog, insomnia, skin problems, vaginal dryness, loss of libido, frequent migraines, digestive issues and a host of other perimenopause and menopause symptoms, and midlife sounds like one big party – the party where dancing is out of the question!
So what’s going on and why is a perfectly normal part of a woman’s life-cycle creating such a mess in women’s lives?
Honestly, perimenopause and menopause symptoms remain quite the medical mystery.
You’ve heard the connection to falling estrogen levels but ask a doctor why falling estrogen levels make women sweat, rage, scratch, forget, ache and weep and the doctor won’t have an answer.
Nonetheless, standard medical treatment since the 1960s has been hormone-based intervention in an attempt to “fix” estrogen levels.
Today doctors may also suggest life-style changes – a healthier diet and stress reduction – to help ease women’s symptoms. As I pointed out in this summary of recent research findings, doctors can no longer ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of perimenopause and menopause symptoms are not effectively treated by hormone therapy, and hormone therapy offers no benefit in disease prevention (despite what some doctors, including your own, might continue to claim).
As question marks remain regarding the treatment of perimenopause and menopause symptoms, and biodentical hormone therapies remain under-researched, there is an expanded focus not only on women’s “malfunctioning hormones” but also on women’s malfunctioning thyroid, adrenal glands and immune systems. Spend time where midlife women hang out (in real life or in the virtual world) and you’ll notice just how many women have been diagnosed with disorders. Add that to the number of midlife women being treated for depression and anxiety and you might be mistaken to believe that no matter how we look at it, women are destined to malfunction at midlife.
So are we?
The American Thyroid Association states that women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems; one woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime; and women over 50 are most likely to have Hypothyroidism. The causes of thyroid problems are largely unknown.
The American Journal of Pathology points to the disproportionately large numbers of women who are diagnosed with autoimmune diseases, such as Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis (which are growing among the population). While approximately 8% of people in the US have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, 79% of them are women.
So what is going on with women’s health?
In his fascinating review of perimenopause and menopause in his best-selling book Medical Medium: Secrets Behind Chronic and Mystery Illness and How to Finally Heal, Anthony William suggests that the symptoms that we associate with perimenopause and menopause (which often appear similar to symptoms from thyroid, adrenal or autoimmune disorders) were seldom mentioned in medical literature until the mid-20th century. He concludes that prior to this time women were able to view menopause in a positive light. (More about this later.)
When in the 1950s, a wave of women in their 40s and 50s, starting turning up at doctors’ surgeries desperate for relief from night sweats, hot flashes, anxiety, brain fog, joint pain and more, the medical world decided they were deficient in hormones.
And so the HRT revolution began and continues until today. Hormonal treatments have been updated to include bioidentitcal hormones, which although unlike their chemical counterparts are extracted from more pleasing compounds than the urine of a pregnant mare, are still marketed to women with the understanding that women need something that their bodies are naturally depleting – estrogen!
William argues that the true causes of peri/menopause symptoms that began appearing on such a large scale in the 1950s are the following:
Under-researched viruses, such as the Epstein Barr virus, which began to take root in populations born early last century and remained dormant until people reached midlife. When this virus became aggressive it created havoc in people’s thyroid and adrenal glands leading to peri/menopause-like symptoms.
High levels of radiation coming over from the fallout of the atomic bombs in Japan and from a shoe-fitting fluoroscope, an x-ray box that was used in shoe stores without restraint or regulation to determine the best shape of shoe according to the bone structure in customers’ feet. It was apparently all the rage from the 1930s to the 1950s and a particularly appealing activity for young children and women oblivious of the high health risk of radiation.
The prevalence of DDT in the 1950s (which back then was even considered to offer nutritional benefits), in addition to other toxins which exist all around us and can be passed from mother to child.
William argues that symptoms misattributed to menopause include: “night sweats, hot flashes, fatigue, dizziness, weight gain, digestive issues, bloating, incontinence, headaches, moodiness, irritability, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations, trouble concentrating, memory issues, insomnia and other sleep disorders, vaginal dryness, breast sensitivity, joint pain, tingling, hair loss or thinning, dry or cracked skin, and dry or brittle nails.”
William suggests that to cure these symptoms we should be looking at viral load, adrenal fatigue, hyperthyroidism, liver disfunction, toxicity and food allergies.
He also claims that HRT and BHRT offer some women help because they act like steroids, which means they are able to temporarily halt symptoms by suppressing the immune symptom response to viruses, toxins and nutritional deficiencies. But that this is not a strategy for well-being.
As to why women are suffering from symptoms and disorders much more than men, William points to our menstrual cycles. He argues that menstruation and likewise the shift out of our reproductive years leading up to menopause, takes its toll on our immune system by using up to 80% of our bodies’ reserves, depleting the immune system of the ability to act as it should.
William offers detailed dietary protocols to cleanse and detoxify our bodies, and to boost our immune systems. Through a plant-based diet of lots of fruit, vegetables and herbs, plus some meditative activities, William believes we can nurse ourselves back to full health.
William makes a convincing argument and points to a string of successful case studies to show how when women follow his recommendations, they are able to cure their symptoms completely. He's certainly not alone in the alternative health world when he sings the praises of a plant-based diet for healing and long-term well-being.
Turning the focus away from women’s hormones makes a lot of sense, after all, and as I have argued many times throughout this blog, why would the drop in estrogen during a natural part of a woman’s life-cycle create such a wide variety symptoms? And why is it that not all women across all cultures experience symptoms even though in all midlife women, estrogen levels drop?
And yet, William seems a little off the mark in terms of the history of menopause, and there is a major missing link that is not thoroughly expanded in his work.
First, let’s go back in history.
We don’t actually know how women passed through menopause throughout millennia because women were not considered to be the important subject of most medical literature; men were. We can only gather clues through detective work – peeling off layers of patriarchy, revealing the distrust and disdain of the female body that remain even until today.
In her book, Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of The Modern Menopause, Louise Foxcroft does just this and argues that menopause was thought of as a disease from the early 18th century (two hundred years earlier than William suggests). She quotes letters from midlife women to their physicians describing what we would recognize as hot flashes and other perimenopause and menopause symptoms. She also quotes an anonymous English physician from a passage written in 1734 describing the woes of his female patients at midlife:
“It will not be amiss to touch upon the Disorders that most Women labour under, when being between forty and fifty years of Age, their Courses begin first to dodge and at last to leave them; for then they are frequently troubled with a Severe Pain in the Head and Back, and about the Loins; oftimes also with Cholick Pains, Gripes, and Looseness, at other Times with Vapours to a Violent Degree; likewise feverish Heats, wandering Rheumatick Pains and general Uneasiness.”
Different terms, interesting spelling but it all sounds familiar!
This anonymous English Physician working centuries prior to the establishment of the British National Health Service, was surely treating wealthy woman, not their rural, much poorer sisters. We can also assume that the women writing to physicians complaining of what seems like menopause symptoms were wealthy and educated…and while by comparison privileged, they were completely lacking in rights.
What I have seen in my work with women is that symptoms at midlife multiply when there is a clash between what we expect life to deliver and our perception of reality.
It’s possible that these educated 18th century women had read, for example, Daniel Defoe’s essay, entitled The Education of Women, published in 1719 – the same year he published his hugely popular novel Robinson Crusoe. Almost 200 years before women would win the right to vote, Defoe wrote in his essay:
“The capacities of women are supposed to be greater, and their senses quicker than those of the men; and what they might be capable of being bred to, is plain from some instances of female wit, which this age is not without. Which upbraids us with Injustice, and looks as if we denied women the advantages of education, for fear they should vie with the men in their improvements….”
Perhaps the frustration felt by educated women in 18th century England was similar to the frustration felt by white, middle class women in the US in the 1950s. While women of color had far fewer options, during World War Two (the "We Can Do It!", “Rosie the Riveter” era) white women discovered new independence, higher salaries and freedoms as they filled traditionally "male jobs." A decade later, if they hadn't left the work force altogether and returned to their home in the suburbs, they had certainly witnessed their salaries slashed and status lowered, as they were forced back into traditionally "female jobs."
Similarly, the frustration from the 1950s can be compared to the frustration felt by women at midlife in the West today. We grew up believing we could have it all, yet too often find ourselves exhausted from chasing it all, feeling not enough, still caught in the web of patriarchal societal structures, and unable to let go of what should have been or should be.
Finding the instances through history where women wrote about menopause is hard but there are two interesting cases.
The Book of Margery Kempe is considered the first autobiography to be written in the English language. Margery Kempe (c.1373 – after 1438) was an English Christian Mystic who through her writing (or perhaps dictation) offers us a glimpse into a woman’s life in the middle ages. Her book documents not only what appears to be a severe case of postpartum depression following the birth of her first child, but also her “gift of tears” – an uncontrollable spell of crying that lasted from the age 41 to 51 (her perimenopausal years!). Even centuries ago, 51 was the average age of menopause.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098 –1179), a German Benedictine Abbess, mystic and healer, wrote, among other things, about natural history and herbal medicine. Unlike other writers of medical texts through the ages, Bingen was highly sensitive to the challenges women faced during their life-cycles. Bingen also had a transformative spiritual awakening at the age of 42. On menopause she wrote: “From her fiftieth and sometimes from her sixtieth year, a woman begins to feel irritation and dries around the openings of her body.”
The extent of the “irritation” Bingen refers to is left to our imagination, but her subjects in observations and treatments were from all walks of life.
Just as Bingen spent time using herbs to heal those around her, there are additional herbal traditions that have supported women for centuries through midlife change. Dr Christiane Northrup promotes the herb Pueraria Mirifica, derived from the root of a plant grown in northern Thailand, which she claims has been used by women in southeast Asia for more than 700 years.
What these examples point to is that although women might not have experienced perimenopause and menopause as so many of us experience it today, that is not to say that menopause hasn’t always been a sensitive time.
To suggest that menstruation and menopause “deplete us” hints at some kind of evolutionary mistake and an idea that women are the “weaker sex.” It also doesn’t match with other statistics, such as those that show how women surpass men in life expectancy across cultures.
I favor recognizing perimenopause and menopause as sensitive times in a woman’s life cycle – sensitive times designed for good purpose.
Just as during pregnancy and postpartum a woman’s body becomes sensitive to protect both her and the baby, so in midlife does the body become sensitive to protect us in the decades that follow our post-reproductive years. Midlife is a time to learn and reconnect with what we love and what is healthy for us. When stress, disappointments, yearning for things that are not and fears of what might be, arise at sensitive times in a woman’s life-cycle, they can create havoc as the body encourages us to move back into balance.
The missing link that William puts on the side-lines is found in our state of mind.
His focus on a plant-based diet rings true, almost intuitively, especially when he writes:
“If you were on a desert island and the only foods available were chicken, eggs or beef, by the time you were rescued two years years later, your health would be a disaster … Yet if you were stranded on that same island with nothing but avocados or papayas or bananas, at the end of the two-year period, your health would not only be fine, you’d be thriving.”
And yet, the fact that a country like Spain is set to overtake Japan to lead the table in life expectancy by 2040 and a country like Portugal has risen to fifth position, shows us that good health has many components beyond a vegan palate! Veganism is very foreign to both of these countries’ traditional diets.
William’s chapter What Not To Eat can unwittingly create fear of certain foods. The exact same fear that Anita Moorjani describes in her must-read, best-selling book Dying To Be Me – a book that I would highly recommend reading before reading Medical Medium. Especially if you’d like to eat chocolate ice-cream ever again, without guilt!
William covers stress during his discussion on PTSD and the impact of life-changing events on our health. Yet the impact of our everyday fears, the thoughts of "I'm not enough" that we take seriously, the ideas of what we should have become or done or be or do, are not examined. From my work with women, I have seen how dedicated women can be to organic and plant-based diets, while still experiencing perimenopause and menopause symptoms. And I have seen how when women go on holiday, literally or figuratively, and forget their diets, their symptoms can just disappear.
There is something else, the missing link, that holds the secret to our good health. It is a lightness for life, a love of our self, an acknowledgement of our own infinite wisdom, and an understanding that we are all innately healthy. When we connect with our lives in this way, we can cure our perimenopause and menopause symptoms almost instantly. This natural life force can work hand-in-hand with diets or practices or techniques that we adopt and yet it is stronger than them all. And as I’ve seen in my own life and with the women I work with, when we embrace our own magnificence in this way, not only do we return to good health, life is more joyful, too!
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