Menopause is something which affects every woman as she reaches middle age. Over time, her periods will become less regular and eventually stop. This is because all women are born with a fixed number of eggs. This number naturally reduces throughout the course of her life until none are left. When this happens, she will no longer ovulate and her periods will stop.
As a woman gets closer to menopause, the dramatic changes which are happening within her body can cause symptoms to arise. These most common of these are:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Reduced sex drive
- Vaginal dryness
- Mood changes
Menopausal Symptoms in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The concept of menopause in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is very similar to the explanation we are familiar with. But before it is possible to understand this, we need to talk about a substance called jing.
Jing and the Aging Process
Every person, male or female, is born with jing, also known as “essence”. It governs a person's growth, development and aging as they go through life.
Jing gradually declines with age, which is what causes our bones to become weaker, our hair to turn gray and our teeth to fall out. This process is measured in cycles of eight years in men and seven years in women.
According to the Su Wen, one of the oldest texts on TCM, a woman becomes fertile at two by seven years (age 14). This is when she receives what is known as tian gui, or “heavenly water” (menstruation). At seven by seven years (age 49) it says that tian gui dries up and she is no longer able to bear children.
A woman's tian gui is closely connected to the state of her jing. Jing can be used up more quickly or slowly depending on a number of different factors. Genetics, diet and lifestyle all play a part, and the sooner jing begins to decline, the earlier menopause will happen.
While many women will experience menopausal symptoms, they can vary in severity and some women will have no symptoms at all. This depends on the overall state of their health and their jing as they enter this period of life.
The Conception and Thoroughfare Vessels and Menstruation
Jing is responsible for triggering and ending menstruation. However, throughout her child-bearing years, a woman's menstrual cycle is governed by two channels called the Conception Vessel and the Thoroughfare Vessel (ren mai and chong mai in Chinese).
When a woman hits puberty and receives her tian gui, these channels become powerful and are filled with qi and blood. This prepares her body for pregnancy and results in menstrual bleeding if it does not occur.
At menopause, these channels begin to empty. Tian gui dries up and menstruation can no longer occur. Because tian gui is related to water, this can cause dryness in the whole body; skin, hair and especially the vagina. Meanwhile, the emptiness in the Conception and Thoroughfare Vessels causes qi to become unstable and can contribute to menopausal symptoms throughout the entire system.
The Kidneys and Menopausal Symptoms
In TCM, the reproductive organs are classed as part of the Kidney system. The Kidneys are said to be responsible for storing jing, as well as being the root of all yin and yang within the body.
In many ways, Kidney yin can be compared to the hormone estrogen. From a western perspective, it is estrogen levels which decrease during menopause. In TCM, it is Kidney yin. Under normal circumstances, Kidney yin acts a bit like a cooling system, stopping Kidney yang from getting out of control.
However, when Kidney yin declines, this causes an imbalance and Kidney yang is allowed to flare up, causing symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. This is a pattern called Kidney yin deficiency.
It is also possible that a woman can be Kidney yang deficient at the same time. This will result in feeling chilly between hot flashes, with cold hands and feet, loss of libido and edema.
The Relationship Between the Kidneys and the Heart
In TCM, the Kidneys and Heart are closely related. According to five element theory, the Kidneys belong to water, and the Heart belongs to fire. They are responsible for nourishing one another, and keeping each other in check.
Therefore when the yin and yang of the Kidneys becomes imbalanced, it has a knock on effect on the Heart, causing it to overheat. This leads to symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, night sweats and palpitations.
The Relationship Between the Kidneys and the Liver
The Kidneys and the Liver also have an important connection. In five element theory, the Kidneys belong to water and the Liver belongs to wood. Just like in nature trees need water to grow, in the body, the Liver needs nourishment from the Kidneys.
When Kidney yin becomes deficient, this can feed through into the Liver, causing Liver yin to become deficient too. This causes an imbalance and allows Liver yang to become overactive, resulting in symptoms such as headaches, irritability and mood swings.
Other Causes of Menopausal Symptoms
As well as weaknesses in the Kidneys, Heart or Liver, a menopausal woman may have other underlying issues too. Some of these may have been present for much of her life, and can combine with and aggravate her menopausal symptoms.
Factors such as dampness, phlegm, qi stagnation and blood stasis can all contribute to menopausal symptoms such as weight gain, a stuffy feeling in the chest, abdominal bloating, depression, aches and pains.
Treating Menopausal Symptoms with Acupuncture and TCM
Menopause is an inevitable part of being a woman, and there is nothing which can be done to prevent it. However, its symptoms can be successfully managed by using acupuncture and Chinese herbs.
Once the root of the problem has been diagnosed, acupuncture and herbs can be prescribed. These help to restore the balance of yin and yang within the body, harmonize qi and blood, and help to reduce menopausal symptoms.
The most important treatment principle is to nourish the Kidneys and supplement jing. This can be done using acupuncture and herbs, but diet and lifestyle also play an important role. Jing can be preserved by sticking to a balanced diet, eating regularly, and paying attention to which foods are in season.
If you are suffering from menopausal symptoms, it is also a good idea to avoid fatty, fried or heavily spiced foods, tea, coffee and alcohol. These can all introduce extra heat into your body and cause symptoms such as hot flashes to worsen.
It is also important to get enough rest, and avoid smoking and recreational drugs which can further deplete your jing. Taking regular exercise is good, but try not to not to overdo it as this can also strain your Kidneys and your jing.
One practice which is said to be especially good for restoring jing is the ancient art of qi gong. This uses gentle movements coupled with special breathing to help restore balance and harmony throughout the body.
The best time to start paying attention to nourishing your jing is before your menopausal symptoms start. You might want to start thinking about this as early as your 30s. By making efforts to preserve your jing earlier in life, you reduce your chances of suffering from menopausal symptoms later on.