It was strange to my Taiwanese friend, but to me it was just another normal conversation. We were enjoying a summer barbecue when the 40-something-year-old women began comparing menopause symptoms. "Do you get hot flashes during the day, or just at night?" "I've been sweating through the sheets!" "Do you take anything? What works for you?" You know, the kind of support-group conversations women tend to share when together. My Taiwanese friend was caught off-guard, both by the young age of these women and the conversation. The truth is the majority of Asian women never experience the enormous amount of discomfort that American women seem to universally suffer during the menopausal years.
The difference between the way American women and Asian women deal with menopause is like night and day. It is the yin and yang, natural foods and herbs versus artificial hormones and drugs. How is it that womankind can be so diverse? Our two societies of aging women couldn't be more opposite. Let's examine the differences of how our two cultures manage this universal aging phenomenon.
The peri-menopausal years leading to the final menstrual cycle bring tremendous change to the female body. In Asian cultures, this change is understood as yin deficiency, which is commonly treated successfully with foods and herbs. As I discussed this with my Taiwanese friend, she was perplexed as to why American women don't understand what yin deficiency means and what the symptoms are and how to deal with them. This is common knowledge throughout Asian cultures.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, menopausal symptoms can get complicated, but essentially it's a deficiency in "Kidney Yin." The terminology is often used when referring to the aging of both men and women. The "kidney organ system," oversees our aging process and can easily become depleted or deficient. This kidney organ system in TCM controls both the kidney yin and yang energy and controls growth, development and aging. Yang is the energy of movement. It also represents daytime and heat. Yin is the energy of stillness, nighttime and coolness. Stress and aging cause damage to our yin, which can result in night sweats and insomnia as menopause approaches. Menopause can also exhibit as a deficiency of kidney yang energy. In this case, both yin and yang energy need balancing and nourishing. This philosophy is more than 2,000 years old and, unlike some Western medicine principals, there is no flip-flopping: this principal is not "in" one day and "out" the next.
So much for yin and yang. But the question that women really want answered is, "How do I get back to normal?" In other words, no more hot flashes, no more night sweats, no moodiness and no foggy thinking.
Traditionally, Asian cultures seem to have an inherent understanding that food and herbs can be added to the daily diet to help manage these changes when they first appear. They don't look to artificial hormone remedies known as HRT (hormone replacement therapy) as American women do. They nourish their bodies with natural plant-based foods, including herbs, just as their culture has done for thousands of years. Asian women use this approach thoughtfully and purposefully because they understand that the principals of nourishment work effectively and is all that is needed.
Some of the earliest Chinese herbal formulas, written on bamboo by Doctor Zhang Zhong around 200 AD, address this nourishment principal. Herbal combinations from this era are still used effectively today. One very famous yin nourishing formula includes rehmanniae, poria, discoreae, anemorrheanea, moutan and other herbs to replenish the kidney yin and yang. Legend has it this formula was an emperor's secret and the text was stored in a golden cabinet. Today, its history is encompassed in its name, "Kidney Qi Pill from the Golden Cabinet." These and other herbs have been studied extensively in the last century and therefore have documented pharmacological actions. These herbs are just a few of the many that supplement the kidney yin and yang energy with powerful chemical compounds, which today are known as saponins, polysaccharides and tannins. Many are antipyretic, antidiabetic and antihypertensive.
Prior to modern laboratory equipment and chemical analysis, the ancients depended on family doctors who passed down the wisdom of medicinal plants from one generation to the next. Some Chinese doctors today can trace their lineage to 30 and 40 generations. This wisdom of using herbal ingredients together, to work synergistically, encompasses thousands of years of trial and error. We are the lucky recipients of this incredible database of knowledge.
Food is the other main cultural difference between the way American women and Asian women manage menopause. In Asian cultures, certain foods have an important role as nourishment for kidney energy for all ages and both sexes. One vast difference exists between the standard American diet and the Asian diet: the Asian diet adheres to five different flavors eaten in each meal, the American diet does not. This variety of food helps balance an individual's kidney energy. Foods that are salty, bitter, sweet, sour and pungent are commonly eaten every day, if not in every meal. We have all experienced this when we eat in America at a Chinese restaurant, we usually eat several different dishes with different flavors. By incorporating healthy meals with a variety of flavors and foods, women can replenish their kidney energy and move through menopausal changes more comfortably.
Although less is understood in America, TCM has been practiced in Asia for centuries with truly remarkable results and without harmful side effects like those we commonly see from artificial hormones. Treating menopausal symptoms with Traditional Chinese Medicine and Chinese herbs have been practiced and perfected through centuries. Part two of this article will focus on some of the foods women can eat to help nourish their kidney yin energy and begin the process of getting back to normal.
How do you manage your menopause symptoms with alternative medicine?
For more information on Chinese herbs used for menopause support, go to PacHerbs.com.
Cathy Margolin is a California licensed Acupuncturist and board certified by the nationally recognized American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She combines nutrition, diet plans and the best of herbal medicine in her clinical practice in Los Angeles.