While some women sail through the menopause relatively symptom free, others endure a whole raft of physical and emotional symptoms, which may include hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, vaginal dryness, insomnia, weight gain, low libido, lack of energy, irritability, dry skin and headaches. If you are suffering menopausal symptoms, what can you do to maintain your well-being and ease yourself through this mid-life transition?
Menopause refers to a woman’s last menstrual period and occurs around the age of 50 years, marking the end of her reproductive years. Menopause is viewed by some in the Western world as an illness to be treated, whereas in many traditional cultures, it is considered to be a natural transition to a new stage of maturity and wisdom.
When a woman has not had a period for one year, she is said to be postmenopausal. The process usually happens gradually over several years, commonly starting in a woman’s 40s, and this is referred to as the perimenopause.
During this time, levels of the female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, fluctuate and decline and menstrual periods may become more irregular. By the time a woman reaches menopause, her supply of eggs is exhausted and ovulation ceases. Ovarian hormone production falls dramatically and is thought to be a contributory factor in common menopausal symptoms.
Many women turn to traditional herbal products for relief and black cohosh is one of the most valued and frequently used. Black cohosh is a member of the buttercup family and the best-known American species are the bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa). Cimicifuga derives from the Latin, meaning “to drive away”, as certain species are used to drive away bugs and other insects. Black cohosh has its origins among the North American Indians, where it has long been valued for a range of women’s health conditions, including menstrual pain and menopausal hot flushes, and for easing childbirth.
In 19th century America, black cohosh was used for fevers, rheumatism and sore throat, as well as for gynaecological disorders. Black cohosh supplements are derived from the rhizome (underground plant stem) and the root of the plant and the active constituents include phytosterin, isoferulic acid and fukinolic acid, as well as long-chain fatty acids and triterpen glycosides.
Although the exact mechanism of action is unknown, black cohosh is thought to exert oestrogen-like effects. In modern usage, it has gained popularity for relief of menopausal symptoms, such as night sweats and hot flushes, which can be two of the most distressing of symptoms, sometimes occurring many times daily. Preliminary research suggests that it might also have an effect on serotonin receptors, which may explain its benefits for the mood changes experienced during menopause, such as irritability and restlessness.