First off, I have a confession to make…
I’m 43 and in menopause.
Yes, I’m young compared to the average age of 51 years, but it was not unexpected considering the health situation I had in my early thirties, which I will discuss in some later post. What is unexpected is that I’m not having the hellish time that my mother did. My symptoms are mild to moderate at most, but it’s the invisible changes in my body that have made me take another look at how to navigate this transition.
To HRT or Not to HRT
In September 2019, however, there was an eye-opening article published by Britain’s National Health Services, which stated that cancer risks from hormone replacement therapy, HRT, were significant even after HRT was over.
Women who had HRT (excluding the use of applied vaginal estrogen) for one, five, and 10 years had increased risks of breast cancer, blood clots, and womb cancer compared to those who didn’t utilize the therapy at all. As someone who lost her mother to cancer, that risk is not worth it, no matter how small the percentages are. As a result of this and some previous reservations, I’ve decided against HRT.
By 2026, it’s estimated that over a billion women will be experiencing menopause, and not all of them will have access to hormone replacement therapies. That’s why adaptogens, herbs that help the body handle stress and maintain balance, are viable alternatives to get them through. These herbs have been known for millennia, and are staples in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
There are at least three of these research-based herbs that can support a woman’s complete body through menopause.
Cortisol, which is made by the adrenal glands, helps the body to manage stress and metabolize sugar. Normally, it’s highest in the early morning and lowest during the evening and early sleep times. In menopause, cortisol levels rise during the overnight hours. One of the side effects of high cortisol is weight gain, which exacerbates that “middle age spread” some experience.
Ashwagandha contains compounds called withanolides, which are antioxidants that fight stress, depression, anxiety, and even cancer cells. One important benefit is that it decreases the expression of interleukin-8, IL-8, which is a vasodilator that’s triggered by estrogen decline. IL-8 is one of the pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body, and inflammation can be the harbinger of many chronic diseases.
This root, known as Peruvian ginseng, belongs to the mustard (brassica) family. It reduces anxiety and depression, helps with mood, sleep, and cognitive function, which can be an annoying, if not a crippling problem for some women. But, where this root really shines is by lowering sexual dysfunction, which takes the form of reduced sexual desire and genital pain during sex. Research shows that in healthy, menopausal women, it effectively tweaked sexual desire without impacting hormones.
One important note: while maca root is generally safe, those with estrogen-based cancers may want to avoid it because of it’s potential phytoestrogenic capabilities.
Rhodiola is a staple in Native American medicine for centuries to help women deal with their period, menopause, and childbirth. It’s a flowering perennial that’s shown great potential in reducing the Greene climacteric scale, GCS scores, that indicated the intensity of menopausal symptoms according to one clinical trial.
One study showed that rhodiola may be a good SERM. Selective estrogen receptor modulators don’t allow estrogen to become attached to certain cells, such as bone or breast cells, mitigating the brain, heart and bone issues related to menopause.
Another study showed how rhodiola reduced mental fatigue, which improves brain function, among physicians who were on night duty. After two weeks of continuously using the adaptogen, their cognitive function increased, making it not only great for menopausal women, but also for those who continuously work night shifts!
When discussing or even dealing with menopause symptoms, you can’t escape black cohosh. It’s a popular supplement, and it has been used in a few clinical trials. Results have been mixed, but the fact that some women swear by it and that test show that it does reduce GCS scores within the first two months make it an herb to consider using even before you go through menopause. What scientists did discover is that it acts like a SERM by suppressing the luteinizing hormone that stimulates the ovaries to produce estrogen. However, instead of using estrogen, it actually uses serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects mood, happiness, and anxiety.
One thing to remember about serotonin is that a majority of the chemical resides in the gastrointestinal tract. While it was thought that anxiety and depression were to blame for gut problems, such as diarrhea and constipation, there is research suggesting that the gut may be the influencer in the relationship . That brain-gut connection may be part of the reason why many swear by it.
In any case, how to deal with menopause is an individual decision, and should be fully investigated, especially when the global cost and availability of medical treatments is still a sticking point.
These herbs are usually widely available, but as with anything, you’ll want to check with your doctor first to make sure they aren’t interfering with any medications you regularly take, or that they don’t exacerbate any other conditions you have. Another tip is to monitor your body while taking these herbs and tweak when necessary.
Finally, do your own research about dosages and how to take these herbs (decoctions vs. pills vs. emulsions) so that you can have a better, more customized solution to support your body.