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Natural Treatments for PMS and Menopause

by Monique N. Gilbert

Women pass through unique hormonal stages throughout their lives that dramatically affect their lives, relationships, and bodies. Puberty and the onset of menses; pregnancy and motherhood; and menopause and the end of menses are pronounced and distinct hormonal phases. The pharmaceutical industry offers a wide array of medications for each, but an emerging group of studies suggest that nutritional supplements offer safe, inexpensive, and natural alternatives to these age-old problems.

In a study by The Hartman Group, Inc., 61% of women agreed that they should take supplements formulated for their particular stage of life; 46% agreed that supplements could help to reduce the effects of menopause; 32% of women acknowledged using a product for menopause; and 64% of women were willing to try a natural product to prevent one of the most common side effects of menopause osteoporosis. 

Given this enormous interest in natural products, we will discuss their use in two prominent conditions affecting womens lives PMS and Menopause.

PMS

PMS affects 30-40% of menstruating women, peaking among women in their 30s and 40s. Common symptoms include depression, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, bloating, water retention, breast tenderness and food cravings. Most commonly, these symptoms occur during the second half of the menstrual cycle when estrogen and prolactin levels are high. Treatment is often directed at lowering estrogen levels to be more in balance with circulating progesterone. 

Diet and lifestyle can heavily influence PMS symptoms. It has been well demonstrated that women who regularly exercise, drink alcohol and caffeine in limited quantities, eat lots of vegetables and fruits, and consume fatty fish (with omega 3 fatty acids), are less likely to suffer severe PMS-related symptoms.

Nutritional supplements such as B6 (pyridoxine), magnesium, calcium and vitamin E have all been shown to lessen PMS symptoms. B6 promotes healthy levels of neurotransmitters and endorphins that can reduce breast tenderness, irritability and water retention. Magnesium has been linked to reducing nervousness and breast tenderness. Calcium can improve mood and decrease water retention. Studies show that vitamin E is helpful in reducing symptoms such as depression, anxiety, low energy, fatigue and food cravings.

In summary, women who suffer from severe PMS can significantly improve their symptoms by combining regular exercise with a good diet and proper supplements.

Menopause

Menopause typically occurs between the ages of 40 and 55. It can happen suddenly at any age as a result of the surgical removal of the ovaries. The onset of menopause is accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms as hormonal imbalances occur. Two thirds of American women suffer from hot flashes, especially in the two years after the onset of menopause. In addition, they may experience night sweats, insomnia, vaginal dryness and mood swings. After menopause, women are at increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is the treatment of choice for most women for the relief of menopausal symptoms. Initially, estrogen replacement therapy was universally embraced until it was discovered that it quadrupled the chances of getting uterine cancer. Subsequently, progestin was added to estrogen to reduce the risk of cancer. The estrogen/progestin combination relieves hot flashes and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. The effect on the risk of heart disease is less clear, and the American Heart Association issued a statement in 2001 that said it should not be used in women with existing heart disease because it may actually increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. 

Because of the risks and side effects of HRT, many women are choosing alternative approaches to dealing with their menopausal symptom, including diet, exercise, and nutritional supplements. For many women, the addition of soy to the diet or perhaps soy supplements could provide symptomatic relief. One recent study found a link between soy consumption and reduced hot flashes. Soy may provide long-term health benefits as well, as soy appears to protect against bone loss and provide cardiovascular protection. Soy contains Phytoestrogens, or naturally occurring estrogen-like compounds. These compounds are also found in other food sources such as legumes (pea family) and lignan containing foods such as cereals and grains.

Omega 3 fatty acids also help to alleviate symptoms such as dry skin and provide long-term protective cardiovascular effects. Natural sources of these omega 3 oils are salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines.

A variety of supplements offer both symptomatic and long term relief for menopausal women. Nutritional supplements such as folic acid and the B vitamins, along with calcium and vitamin D appear to provide long-term benefits to menopausal women by relieving symptoms and reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Black cohosh is a Phytoestrogen containing herb that has been shown in some studies to reduce many menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, night sweats, and anxiety.

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