Menopause. It’s a word laden with emotion, stigma and dread, and yet it’s a natural part of every woman’s life. We all, at some point in our lives, will go through menopause, so why does something so natural and unavoidable fill us with such a feeling of fear and dread?
We see our mothers battling with weight gain, hot flushes, painful and irregular periods, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and we’re afraid. Many of us are dealing with our own women’s issues: fertility problems, having babies (or trying not to have babies), and menopause is something we just don’t want to think about.
It’s a confusing minefield of information and misinformation that not even members of the medical profession seem to be able to get a handle on, never mind come to an agreement on the best way to treat the various symptoms of menopause.
For more than 30 years the answer for many women (and their doctors) was to treat menopausal symptoms with HRT, in particular boosting declining hormone levels with synthetic hormones. These synthetic hormones alleviated many menopausal symptoms, and appeared to protect women from cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, two of the leading causes of death in older women.
But recent studies have shown that using synthetic estrogens and progestin (synthetic progesterone) to treat menopause greatly increases the risks of developing breast cancer and endometrial (uterine) cancer in menopausal women. Studies have also shown that rather than protecting women from cardiovascular disease, these synthetic hormones actually increased their risk of coronary disease, as well as increasing the risk of blood clots, gall bladder disease and stroke. One particular report from the Women’s Health Initiative found that women taking HRT were 26 percent more likely to contract breast cancer than those not taking it. This report, released in 2002, combined with previous research highlighting the dangers of HRT, saw many women cease treatment completely.
Since 2002, many women have either taken no further action to treat the symptoms of menopause, or have been looking at alternative treatments. The question is though, how do we know what alternative treatments are available, how they work, and what the possible health ramifications of the treatment might be?
To provide some much-needed clarification, Dr Martin Milner - a naturopathic physician with 22 years experience in the field of menopause and its symptoms - has written The Menopause Revolution: Smashing the HRT Myth, a book aimed at cutting through the mystery surrounding both menopause and HRT.
The book begins by looking at exactly what menopause is, why it happens, when it happens, the stages a woman progresses through, the health risks associated with menopause, and coming out the other side. Unsurprisingly, until recently very little research had been done into menopause and its symptoms, because most medical research was based on men and men’s health issues. Menopause was simply seen as “women getting old”. Also, until the 20th century, many women didn’t live to an age where menopause was an issue – in 1900 the life expectancy of an American woman was between 45 and 55. So even though our life expectancy is now around 80 years on average, the age of menopause has not changed (still between 45 and 55) and women are living longer past the time when their hormone levels start to decline.
The book also offers information on exactly what synthetic hormone replacement therapy is, and how the standardized dosing of synthetic hormones for treatment of menopause, not unlike that of hormonal contraceptives, can be seen as a lowest-common-denominator approach to treating women. The problem with this kind of treatment, says Dr Milner, is that “hormone replacement therapy is usually based on commonly accepted dosages and rarely customized to meet individual needs. Menopause is like a fingerprint. No two women will experience it in the same way. Yet, most women are subjected to a ‘one size fits all’ approach to menopause treatment.”
This was just one of the statements throughout this book that grabbed my attention and made me want to read more. It tires and annoys me that as women we are not treated as individuals when it comes to our health needs. It annoys me that although hormone levels differ woman to woman - and our individual hormone levels fluctuate throughout our cycle - we are so often medicated as though close-enough is good-enough. From contraceptives to menopause medication, it’s as though we’re not worth the effort of finding the best treatment for us as individuals, and we should just be grateful that there’s something on offer, even though it probably won’t be “quite right”.
In the chapter titled Menopause Treatment: The Natural Hormone Therapy Approach, Dr Milner explains that not all HRT causes the horrific health outcomes associated with synthetic hormone replacement. The problems associated with synthetic HRT stem from the fact that the hormones used are not identical to the ones our bodies develop naturally. There are, however, natural hormones that are chemical replicas of those made by the human body, but they’re not widely publicized. The reason? You can’t patent natural hormones in the way you can with those synthetically manufactured in a laboratory. Also, natural hormones are prescribed in levels that are appropriate for the individual woman receiving treatment, rather than packaged in standardized doses. This means that many doctors do not have the expertise (or the inclination) to put together the right treatment plan for their individual patients.
The chapter goes on to look at the benefits of using natural hormones, how to use them and how they are administered, the importance of hormone level monitoring and the all important, how to obtain natural hormones.
Although a valuable medical resource that offers interesting and important information about the medical treatment of menopause, the book dedicates the final six chapters to health measures women can take upon themselves to promote health and well-being in their everyday lives, and not just for those going through menopause. With a chapter each on diet, vitamin supplements and exercise, one exploring the mind/body connection in relation to wellness and another on natural supplements specifically designed to alleviate menopause symptoms, the book offers great advice on many aspects of women’s health issues, both physical and mental.
The final chapter explains the importance of monitoring your hormone levels, and how to do it. This information, combined with the thorough resource section at the back of the book, provides a powerful tool in understanding your own body and what’s going on inside it.
This book has given me a whole lot to think about in terms of menopause. I’ve already bought my mom a copy, and I’ll be interested to see how many doctors in our area have the low-down on natural hormone treatments. The book has the contact details for U.S. specialists and is a great read for anyone going through menopause and an empowering and informative book for all women.
Read more about The Menopause Revolution