Chinese Medicine and the Menopause

Chinese medicine and the menopause
Can Traditional Chinese Medicine help with menopause? We speak to a leading practitioner and learn a very different approach to this time of life

For many perimenopausal and menopausal women, turning to complementary therapies is the way they want to manage their symptoms. Can Chinese Medicine help with menopause? With a very different view of this time of life to how it’s seen in the West, and different methods of treating symptoms, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has an approach to managing midlife that many women swear by.

“Far from being negative, Chinese wisdom reframes menopause as a deep energy shift,” says Katie Brindle, Chinese medicine practitioner and founder of The Hayou Method. Looking to Traditional Chinese Medicine to help with menopause can have benefits. “Menopause was traditionally celebrated as an important and positive time of a woman’s life,” says Katie. “If it feels at all possible, can you try to reframe it in your mind, to see it as a transformation that leads to a new beginning?”

Chinese medicine descriptions for the causes of menopause symptoms do not reflect the scientific language of Western medicine. Instead, they offer a different view. Can Chinese Medicine help with menopause? Understanding its approach and philosophy is the best place to start.

Your yin and yang are out of balance

“One way of describing yin is female energy and so its opposite, yang, is male,” says Katie. “The lives we live and the system we operate in are overwhelmingly yang: that is, fast-moving, noisy, bright lights, pushy and full on. This drains our bodies of yin energy. Menopause symptoms are essentially a severe imbalance of this internal yin/yang circuit.”

You’re creating too much heat

“This yin/yang imbalance creates heat in the body,” explains Katie. “In Chinese medicine, having your period allows your body to clear itself of excess heat. But when menopause approaches and that flow isn’t so regular, the body has to find other ways to clear the yang-induced heat.

“The main way the body clears heat is by using the skin. This is why menopause symptoms are largely skin and heat-related. In fact, Chinese medicine explains hot flushes, thinning hair, vaginal dryness and osteoporosis all as signs of too much heat.”

The strain on the kidneys

“In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are responsible for the ageing process, fertility, controlling the cooling of the body and your energy reserves,” says Katie. “They also control your yin/yang balance. So it’s vital to look after them in order to progress through menopause as smoothly as possible.”

Is there evidence for the effectiveness of TCM? If you go to see a Chinese medicine practitioner, you’ll likely be offered either herbs or acupuncture or both. This is what the evidence shows.

Evidence for acupuncture 

A Danish study of 70 women, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at the effects of acupuncture. Half of the women were given a treatment a week for six weeks and half were not. The women given acupuncture had fewer hot flushes and their sleep and emotional symptoms improved, as well as skin and hair symptoms, such as dryness and hair loss.

One issue with studies on acupuncture is that it’s impossible to give a controlled test, involving contrasting with a placebo rather than the drug being tested. It’s pretty obvious whether you’ve had a needle inserted into you.

Evidence for Chinese herbs

A 2019 Australian review of 19 studies looked at the effectiveness and safety of Chinese herbal medicine for treating menopausal hot flushes. The conclusion? That it’s both safe and effective.

Chinese medicine techniques to try at home

Katie is the author of the book Yang Sheng, a collection of Chinese medicine techniques you can do at home. They will help bring your body back into balance. You can find videos to illustrate them on hayoumethod.com, but here are some of them explained.

Gua Sha

This is a self-massage technique using a jade tool which has become known for its anti-ageing effect on facial skin. Originally in Chinese medicine, it was a whole body technique used for healing.

Using the tool, you simply press-stroke the skin in one direction. The resulting redness is the ‘sha’. Research shows that this produces a circulation-boosting, anti-inflammatory, healing response. It also helps switch your nervous system into rest mode and helps relax tense muscles.

In a 2017 Chinese study of 80 women in the journal Menopause, women given 15-minute gua sha treatment sessions once a week reported a reduction in hot flashes, insomnia, anxiety, low mood, fatigue and headache. 

How to do it: Apply oil, then use a metal gua sha tool to press-stroke your neck (downwards) and chest (out each side from the centre). Ideally, you’ll find someone to do your upper back, too.

Tapping 

Called Pai Sha in Chinese medicine, the body vibrations of tapping promote the flow of blood and qi around the body (the word for energy in Chinese medicine). This stimulates the fascia and muscles, as well as the nervous and lymphatic systems. You can try tapping with a special bamboo tool or you can use your cupped hand. Set a gong on your phone to remind you to do it for one minute every hour. 

How to do it: 

1 Tap down the insides of your arms then up the outsides. Then pat down the outsides and up the insides of your legs. 

2 Tap in a circle around your abdomen, then up in between your breasts. 

3 Tap gently on the insides of your elbows, armpits, the backs of your knees and the inside of your hip joints.

Acupressure 

This involves stimulating the same points as used in acupuncture, but without needles. There’s one particular acupressure point that’s recommended for the mood swings of menopause, called Xing Jian. You’ll find it a few millimetres above the web between the big toe and next toe.

Using either your thumb or the point of a gua sha tool, rub this point gently for three minutes, then press for five seconds. Finally, rub gently for one minute to release any pain. Switch to your other foot. 

One-minute breath exercise

You can use your breath to slow the heart rate and reverse the stress response, as well as clear heat. This is Katie’s one-minute Rescue Breath Ritual: 

1 Breath in through your nose and purposefully out through your mouth three times. This is to expel stagnant air. 

2 Take five slow breaths. On each exhalation, direct your mental energy to descend to your lower abdomen and imagine a smile forming from hip to hip. This sends a positive mental intention into the energetic centre of the body. 

Rest 

This is the number one way to support your kidneys, in Chinese medicine. Can you learn to do nothing, sometimes? Try to find time just to be still, to rest rather than think. Have short afternoon naps. Take a bath or read a book. Try meditation. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you rest more. 

What to eat

Chinese medicine has a very different view of nutrition to our Western one. It’s quite specific about the foods you should eat at this time: 

  • Include Miso soup, seaweed and bone broth in your diet a few times a week.
  • Drink enough water and salt your food only lightly.
  • Grains: Barley, buckwheat, wheat, black rice.
  • Vegetables: Fennel (Chinese medicine practitioners prescribe this to help regulate the menstrual cycle), beetroot, asparagus, garlic, kale, broccoli, cabbage.
  • Beans and pulses: adzuki, black beans, black lentils.
  • Fruits: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, purple and black grapes, watermelon, black raspberries, mulberries, apples, goji berries.
  • Fish: Scallops, oysters, clams, mussels, sea bass.
  • Nuts: chestnuts, black sesame seeds, walnuts, cashew nuts.

Is TCM compatible with HRT?

Many women are taking HRT and will also be interested in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The good news is that they’re not mutually exclusive. “It’s fine to take HRT alongside Chinese herbs and acupuncture,” says Katie Brindle. “This combination of Western and Chinese medicine is often used in China nowadays.

“HRT is fine to take alongside yang sheng methods too. You could look at it as HRT addressing the symptoms whilst herbs, acupuncture and yang sheng techniques focus on addressing the root cause.”

That sounds like a well balanced approach for all of us.

Always inform your GP if you are taking any complementary medicines.

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