How is the traditional Chinese medicine approach to menopause different to the modern medicine approach?
The problem with researching traditional Chinese herbs and menopause is that its difficult to fit in a traditional diagnostic concept into a modern scientific paradigm. Western medical science has the view that menopause is specifically a change in hormones and hence the symptoms arise. Their treatment strategy is to supply the hormone that is no longer there being produced naturally. Many women and physicians alike have concerns about the side effects of hormone replacement therapy HRT.
The traditional Chinese medicine approach views that menopause is normal, and that is it is normal for the menstrual cycle to cease around the age of 49 but it it is not normal to experience discomforting symptoms such as heat flashes, depression, insomnia and dryness.
How is the modern approach to researching Chinese medicine and menopause flawed to begin with?
Chinese medicine has more than one cause of the symptoms associated with menopause and hence has more than one formula and numerous individual herbs used to address the symptoms.
A common herb for example is dang gui, angelica root that is an ingredient of a number of formula used in different menopausal formula. A Chinese herbalist would hardly ever just prescribe a single herb like dang gui for a menopausal woman but researchers then go out and study this isolated herb and conclude it is ineffective. It’s a bit like researchers getting the key ingredients out of a cake being flour, sugar, baking powder, butter and eggs and then getting ten people to eat a raw egg and compile the data. Ten of ten people didn’t like eating a raw egg so the researchers conclude eggs are no good.
If you are waiting for some research to confirm that Chinese herbs are useful for menopausal symptoms, you will be for a waiting a very long time for the papers to come out. In the meantime, millions of Chinese women are prescribed Chinese herbs everyday in China for their symptoms of hot flashes, depression, dryness and sleeping problems.
What are the causes of the symptoms associated with menopause according to traditional Chinese medicine?
Giovanni Maciocia in his text book Obstetrics & Gynecology in Chinese Medicine lists nearly ten causes of patterns of disharmonies contributing to menopausal syndrome. These patterns include disharmonies of the liver and kidneys, problems with the heart, imbalances with phlegm and conditions involving stuck energy and blood.
What examples of different formula are there?
We ask Ilana Sowter, a Melbourne based registered Chinese medicine practitioner specializing in women’s health what she commonly sees in clinic. Ilana says “It’s difficult to suggest that one common cause is more prevalent in my clinic. People often associate menopause with heat symptoms predominately, which is definitely part of the kidney yin deficiency pattern syndrome for which Zuo Gui Wan (Restoring the left kidney pill) is often my base formula as a selection of choice. But surprisingly, the opposite if you want to call it that, is kidney yang deficiency which has cold symptoms. These women have cold hands and feet, cold bottom and knees and often with oedema of the ankles plus heat at night with night sweating. A carefully balanced prescription would have warming herbs in it the combination that address the cold signs without aggravating the heat at night. The example here may require the prescription of a modified You Gui Wan, restoring the right kidney pill”
There are many other formula and combinations and getting the correct diagnosis is imperative to selecting the appropriate formula. The herbal prescriptions are also monitored and altered with regular follow up visits adjusting dosage and additions of medicinals according to individual needs of the patient. Unfortunately one size does not fit all unlike just dishing out the same Hormone Replacement Therapy to everyone.
Listen to the author’s radio show on Radio kidnappers on the 17th December where he interviews Ilana Sowter from Australia about Chinese herbs and morning sickness.