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The Wisdom of Menopause - 2001-07-09

Many middle-aged women throughout the world grapple with the physical and emotional challenges of menopause. At the end of their reproductive cycle, many women feel that they have outlived their usefulness. But a new book called The Wisdom of Menopause says this period can be a new beginning for women.

Obstetrician and gynecologist Christiane Northrup believes menopause can be a fulfilling and empowering time. In her new book, The Wisdom of Menopause, she says that, too often, women focus on the difficult physical challenges of this stage: hot flashes, mood disorders, depression and even osteoporosis which occur due to the decline of female hormones. But the doctor says these symptoms can be tempered by a positive state of mind. From her 20 years of practicing medicine and her own experience with menopause she has found that meditation is one way to help alleviate the symptoms.

"Meditation balances neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin," says Dr. Northrup. "We also know that every hormone in the body is a neurotransmitter. The hormones in the body affect the mind, the mind affects the hormonal levels in the body. So, if you are going through a period of hormonal transition, you need a way to help balance the wide swings of hormones and their effect on the mind and body. And meditation is a good way to do it."

Dr. Northrup says that meditation does not necessarily mean a period of quiet contemplation. She suggests that some women may prefer what she calls "moving meditation" activities - walking, swimming, even cleaning or cooking - in which women can focus their energies while also relaxing. But the doctor cautions that women may need more than meditation. She says it's important for middle-aged women to feel useful, to feel that they are growing and learning new things. To do this, they may need to reassess their past and present, and if necessary, make some life changes - get a new job, move to a new place, or learn new skills.

"When you have a mixture of exhilaration about this new thing that you are doing, plus some fear at the same time, then you know that you are creating something new and that you are moving toward health, she says."

Dr. Northrup has found that many menopausal women suffer fewer physical side-effects when they make such changes in their lives. She also found case studies from other parts of the world confirming this. "In Saudi Arabia and in the Arabic-speaking countries, in which women are in a traditional role where they've had many children and then they move into being the matriarch of the family, and caring for grandchildren and so on, their status actually improves and they do not have much in the way of menopausal symptoms. Also we know, in Africa, the Kun tribe is a tribe where women's status improves after menopause. They have more power,often more political clout."

Dr. Northrup points to the Native American Navajo culture as well. She says that women can become shamans, or medicine women, only after their reproductive years have ended. She says these women do not report significant menopausal side effects either.

Still, the doctor points out that apart from focusing on their emotional well-being, women must also take good physical care of themselves. Moderate exercise and a healthy diet are very important. She suggests a nutritious diet that is low in fat and high in calcium and soy.

"In China, in studies on Chinese women factory workers, only 17 percent of the women reported hot flashes going into menopause," says Dr. Northrup. "That's related both to the culture but also to the fact that their diet is so rich in soy."

Dr. Christiane Northrup cautions, however, that some women need more help to offset the symptoms of menopause, such as hormone replacement therapy. This is especially important for those who've had their ovaries surgically removed or have had chemotherapy or radiation for cancer. Each woman, she says, has to learn from her personal situation in order to achieve the mental and physical balance needed to deal with this challenging stage of life.