By Robin Rothstein, Licensed Acupuncturist
Does this sound like you? Then you may be approaching menopause or be somewhere in that process. The experience of hot flashes during the day and night sweats during sleep are frequent complaints of women going through this change, whether it’s through the natural cessation of the menses or the artificial cessation due to surgery and removal of the ovaries along with the uterus in a hysterectomy.
What is a woman to do with her sweaters and turtlenecks, short of donating them to the Salvation Army or putting them into deep storage and consigning herself to the misery of these 3-10 minute personal saunas while waiting for her poor confused and variable hormones sort themselves out?
Menopause is the natural, physiological process that marks the end of menstruation and fertility and the beginning of a woman’s later years. Some women view menopause as a medical ailment that needs to be treated, while others maintain that it’s a natural progression and therefore, it should be addressed from a natural angle. As an acupuncturist, I prefer to look at it as a natural phase of life, to be dealt with if possible (if the symptoms get too uncomfortable) with natural means such as acupuncture and possibly herbs.
The journey through this change of life may start as early as in your 30’s or as late as in your 50’s, and can take from two to eight years to complete.
During peri-menopause, a woman’s ovaries begin to have a decline in egg production, and they produce less progesterone and estrogen. Periods are not as frequent, and in time, stop completely. Once a woman has gone through 12 consecutive months with no menstruation, she is considered officially in menopause. The hormonal changes are what cause the menopausal symptoms. Women who have gone through menopause can no longer conceive. Hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, loss of libido, mood swings, vaginal dryness, heart palpitations, and fatigue are just some of the many symptoms of menopause.
Believe it or not, not all women suffer from menopausal side effects; however an estimated 75 to 85% of American women will at least experience hot flashes, which may continue for several years post menopause.
How can acupuncture help my symptoms? Acupuncture is done on an individual basis, meaning that there isn’t a “one size fits all” treatment. In other words, every patient is looked on as an individual in Chinese medicine and your practitioner will base her diagnosis on you as a whole person, not just your menopause symptoms.
Still, it is likely that most women would fall into a category that we call Yin Deficiency.
So, you wonder – what the heck is Yin Deficiency?
Well, most people are aware of the concept of Yin and Yang: meaning the idea of opposite sides of the same coin. For example: Yin is dark, while Yang is light; Yin is cool, while Yang is hot; Yin is moist, while Yang is dry, Yin descends, Yang ascends.
We need the cooling Yin to keep the hot Yang from raging out of control. In the case of hot flashes, the cooling Yin is deficient (in decline), and no longer able to restrain the Yang. Consequently, the Yang heat is unleashed, ascends out of control, and voila —who’s messing with the damn thermostat??
A 2011 study in Ankara, Turkey suggests that acupuncture can help to curb the severity of hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has studied Chinese medicine, which has a history of treating gynecological conditions that dates back over 2000 years.
The study was conducted by the Ankara Training and Research Hospital in Ankara, Turkey. Fifty-three post-menopausal women rated their somatic (hot flashes), psychological (mood swings) and urogenital (vaginal dryness) symptoms using the 5-point Menopause Rating Scale (MRS) before and after receiving treatment.
Traditional Chinese acupuncture was administered to twenty-seven of the women two times a week for 10 weeks. The remaining participants believed they were being treated with acupuncture, however, the needles didn’t penetrate the skin (sham acupuncture).
At the end of the 10-week period, the women who received traditional acupuncture had significantly lower MRS scores for psychological and somatic symptoms, but not for urogenital symptoms.
Most notably, the hot flashes registered the sharpest fall in severity. That was seen most clearly when comparing the resulting change from the first treatment to the last, suggesting that the effects were cumulative, and that acupuncture treatments build on each other to provide the best and longest lasting results.
How long until I will see results? I’ve often heard people say that they “tried” acupuncture and it didn’t work. I always ask how many treatments they had and usually their answer is “one.” Acupuncture is not a drug, and results are rarely instantaneous (although sometimes they are!). In other words, there is no magic bullet. In a culture like ours that expects instant gratification, that is not what most people want to hear!
A body that has held onto a condition for any length of time is sort of like a big boulder that has been sitting in one place in the dirt for a while. To get it moving is challenging. You push and push and push until suddenly it moves a little bit. Once it does that it can start to roll with a little push here and there, and then eventually roll all on its own as long as you don’t put obstacles in its way.
In general, we find that the longer a person has had a condition, the longer it takes to get a handle on it. An acute, short-lived condition should see improvement in most cases within the first 3 or so acupuncture sessions. A longer term condition – say more than 3 months in duration – will most often show signs of improvement within 5-10 sessions. Sometimes it’s worth having more than one treatment per week until there’s significant progress and then go to once a week until the condition is fairly well resolved. After that, come in as needed for a tune-up.
Dr. Arya Nielsen from the Beth Israel Medical Center Department of Integrative Medicine, who has been performing acupuncture for 35 years, said that after a series of treatments, women experiencing menopausal symptoms generally “start to feel much more relaxed — the anxiety is also associated with hot flashes.”
By the second or third treatment, she said, patients come in and say, “Actually I’m not hot flashing during the day anymore, maybe a couple at night, and then that starts to decline as well.”
Now—get some acupuncture – and then go get those sweaters and turtlenecks out of that box for the Salvation Army!!