Women’s health is one of my favorite topics, personally and professionally, because it is one of the best examples of the changing shift in how our culture approaches health care. I have seen over the last several years a growing awareness that women’s health care needs cause us to address problems in a more holistic manner. Women and men are different animals, even if we are of the same species. I mean this tongue in cheek, of course, but it is true that the issues women face in their health care decisions are different from the ones men face. Although women are more likely to go to a doctor than men are, they also make up a much smaller portion of the research studies in modern medicine. Thankfully the tide is shifting within the medical field regarding this because information and research for women’s health issues is so obviously lacking. Treatments for a wide variety of issues that effect only women are becoming more specialized to meet women’s needs.
Chinese medicine, on the other hand, has long seen women as patients who have even more information by which to diagnosis and evaluate individual health. The fact that our bodies ripen every month with fertility and then, if not pregnant, expel this physical preparation, is a whole window of health information that men do not have. Our menstrual cycles and any variation in their normal processes, indicate the state of our chi, pronounced “chee”, or life energy, that flows within our bodies. Because chi, along with blood, are two of the most fundamental aspects of health in Chinese medicine, it is easy to see why if you bleed too much, too little, too often, very irregularly, or with significant amounts of pain, that that is important and vital information about the state of your overall health.
I am constantly amazed by the prevailing view that what we call Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, or PMS, is seen as normal and inevitable in most women. This loose term for a host of uncomfortable symptoms ranging from severe mood swings, food cravings, bloating, abdominal and/or back pain from cramping, and a generally foul disposition, is NOT normal, inevitable, or something to just bear!! It is possible to have a period that is none of those things!
Menopause is another great example. Every woman you know is going to experience menopause. Some of us do it smoothly without too much difficulty, but those women seem to be the minority. A majority of women will at some point, generally between the ages of 45 and 55, have to deal with the uncomfortable array of symptoms that characterize our “change of life”. These include; hotflashes, nightsweats, loss of libido, fatigue, increased dryness in all areas of the body, insomnia or some degree of sleep trouble, and especially emotional sensitivity. That’s a terrible list of symptoms when you consider that most women are guaranteed to manifest at least some of them! Why do we get these symptoms? What are our options for dealing with them?
The question of why we get these symptoms has different answers depending on which point of view we take. From a traditional Western scientific point of view a woman’s ovaries have simply aged. As they produce fewer young eggs to mature this causes the menstrual cycle to become irregular. Eventually the hormone cycle that causes ovulation doesn’t happen and so the amount of estrogen in the blood drops off. The fact that the estrogen in the blood has decreased dramatically is what then gives rise to the hormonal fluctuations that cause so many of those aggravating symptoms. For the last several decades the treatment strategy of Western doctors has been hormone replacement therapy (HRT). From this standpoint, the loss of estrogen is seen as a problem and replacing it makes sense. But what if it is appropriate and natural that women run out of estrogen and stop being fertile? We are finding that after several generations of women have taken these hormones that excessive estrogen in the system can greatly increase the chance of all sorts of cancers! This is not an ideal answer to the problem.
From an Chinese medicine point of view menopause is simply a natural part of women’s lifecycles. Interestingly, the Chinese medicine theory as to why women have menopausal symptoms is similar to the Western view. Yin and yang are two of the fundamental ideas in Chinese medicine. Yin is everything cool, dark, heavy, and has substance while yang is everything warm, bright, light, and electric. These two forces balance one another and keep everything in check. Women are more yin in nature and we slowly lose yin over our lifetimes, especially when we have our periods since blood is a yin substance. At first these two forces are equal in the body but as women age, and have less yin, the yang appears to be in excess. The main symptoms of menopause support this idea. Hotflashes and nightsweats are both expressions of unbalanced yang rising and bringing heat up to the surface of the body. Treating menopause with acupuncture and herbs is fairly straightforward; you need to nourish the yin of the woman. Some women respond more quickly than others but generally symptoms can be greatly diminished within a month or two.
There are many more examples, too lengthy to go into here. But don’t take my word for it! Find out more if you are having any problems and, if you’re a woman, definitely be sure to understand all your options for taking care of yourself. You are the only one who can do that.