Menopause is the name for a natural process that all women experience, as their monthly cycle gradually comes to an end, most commonly sometime between the ages of 45 – 55. Perhaps due to popular stereotypes, we also tend to think of it as a pathological state that causes much physical and emotional suffering. In reality, many women may only experience relatively mild discomfort. But according to some estimates, roughly 15% of women will struggle with this transition, and their challenges are real and profound.
There are a wide range of symptoms that can accompany menopause, and each woman’s experience is unique. All women will notice a gradual changes in menstruation (often called peri-menopause) in the lead up to a full cessation (menopause is defined as year without a period). Cycles may become either longer or shorter. The length of one’s period can also change, sometimes dramatically. Likewise blood flow may suddenly become heavy or quite light with lots of spotting. These menstrual changes can be accompanied by mood fluctuations, sleep disturbance, hot flashes, night sweats, skin changes, urinary complaints, sexual dysfunction, and more. But regardless of the specifics and severity of one’s symptoms, Chinese medicine can help alleviate discomforts and facilitate the natural course of this physiological process.
What is Menopause from the Lens of Chinese Medicine?
It is important for women to recognize that it is often quite possible to manage the process of menopause. In order to understand how this may be possible, it is helpful to turn to the Chinese medicine understanding of the process and think in terms of “root” and “branch.” According to Chinese medicine, the root of menopause is a gradual decline in one’s Kidney Qi. The Kidneys are understood as the source of reproductive fertility, for both men and women, and this decline is an inevitable part of the aging process. But if this process is affected by any number of factors, such as chronic illness, surgeries (especially gynecological ones), diet and lifestyle, emotional stresses, environmental factors, as well as one’s constitutional proclivities, this can lead to serious imbalances in the “branch” organs, which in this case are the Liver and Heart.
Many of the classic symptoms of menopause are directly related to dysfunctions in the Liver and Heart. The Liver and Kidneys are said to share the “same source of Essence and Blood,” so a decline in the Kidneys will lead to a disturbance in the properties of the Liver. For example, the Liver can become “overactive” and unrestrained, leading to headaches, dizziness, irritability, and angry outbursts. Or the Liver’s property to distribute Qi can be constrained, leading to the emotional volatility and various discomforts, particularly in the flanks and abdomen. The Heart is also grounded in the Kidneys because the two are said to exchange Fire (from the Heart) and Water (from the Kidney). If this communication is disrupted, the Heart becomes deficient and is not longer able to properly store the Spirit. An unsettled Spirit will cause disrupted sleep, excessive dreaming, heart palpitations, anxiety, and lack of mental acuity. Broadly speaking, throughout this process, there is a tendency to create internal fire, rooted in the deficiency Kidneys, but presenting as excess, usually in the Heart and Liver. This is the basic explanation for the classic symptom of menopause: the hot flash.
How Do We Treat Menopause in Chinese Medicine?
Since the root of menopause is in the Kidneys, it would seem that the solution would simply be to supplement the Kidneys. But this approach rarely leads to satisfactory results and mistakes the physiological for the pathological. So in addition to considering imbalances in the Kidneys, Heart, and Liver, one of the keys to treating menopause symptoms is to also address the Spleen and Stomach, the key organs of digestion according to Chinese medicine. The reason why these two organs are so important is that they receive food and water and distribute its refined essence to all the organs. They are key to maintaining the abundance of Qi and Blood, which is the only way to slow the inevitable decline of all the organs, including the Kidneys. Spleen and Stomach can be important to menopause treatments for additional reasons. Liver Qi constraint can directly impair the function of these two organs. The Spleen is also essential for facilitating the communication between the Kidneys and Heart.
Menopause is a complicated physiological process, so it is not surprising the Chinese medicine explanations for it are also complex. Patients with the most severe symptoms will want to work closely with their acupuncturists to develop individualized therapies for their unique presentations.
Dr. Ruth Diez. Point Zero Healing Acupuncture-Oriental Medicine