Menopausal Health; Could Chinese Medicine Help You?
by Honora Lee Wolfe
Over the next decade, an entire generation of women will pass through the normal transition called menopause. While Western medicine typically offers hormone replacement therapy for the discomforts which may come with menopause, many women cannot or do not wish to take hormones. Traditional Chinese medicine has a great deal to offer these women. Instead of the standard hormone replacement therapy offered by most Western gynecologists, Chinese medical practitioners treat each woman individually, taking into account the whole pattern of each patient’s physical and mental-emotional symptoms. Treatment may include either one or a combination of herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, dietary suggestions, and/or specific exercises or lifestyle recommendations.
Gynecology in general is an area in which Chinese medicine shines. Its treatment is humane, without side effects, and relatively inexpensive for a wide variety of disorders. Chinese medicine may be used instead of or in conjunction with Western medicine for the successful treatment of menopausal discomforts. There are, however, many advantages to the use of Chinese medicine during menopause and for a variety of other women’s health complaints.
1. Chinese medicine is one of the most holistic medical systems available today. This can be seen in a number of ways. First, Chinese medicine does not separate symptoms of a physical nature from those of a mental-emotional nature. Classically, Chinese medical theory expects specific mental/emotional conditions to go along with certain disease patterns, and expects these emotional symptoms to respond to treatment as well as any physical symptoms. Further, in Chinese medicine each and every sign and symptom is understood and interpreted in relationship to all the others. While an MD might choose to send a patient with a variety of symptoms to two or three specialists, a good practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine sees and understands all the symptoms together as a single pattern. Any treatment prescribed is designed to work effectively with the entire pattern and all its symptoms. Done skillfully, Chinese medicine need not, indeed cannot, separate a person into segmented parts treating one symptom or part at the expense of another. It is designed to treat the person, not just the disease.
2. Chinese medicine has individualized diagnostic and treatment techniques. Because of it holistic view of the body/mind, it is more specific for each patient’s needs than is Western medicine. For example, five women may come into a clinic with hot flashes, but each of these women’s hot flashes is accompanied by a variety of different signs and symptoms, no two of which are exactly alike. Instead of each women getting the same hormone replacement therapy, each of these five women will receive an individually tailored treatment plan with different herbs, different acupuncture therapy, and different lifestyle suggestions.
3. Chinese medicine has no side effects. Because treatment is so specifically tailored to each person, if the diagnosis has been correct, the treatments prescribed by Chinese medicine should have no side effects. Any mild side effects that may arise in the initial stages of herbal treatment can be corrected by adjustments to the herbal formula and acupuncture rarely has any unwanted side effects at all. In contradistinction, most drugs listed in a Physicians Desk Reference (PDR) have at least some expected and normal side effects and many have potentially serious, irreversible ones.
4. Chinese medicine’s emphasis is on prevention. In Western medicine, diagnosis can only be made and treatment given if there are measurable material or tissue changes that show up in pictures or in blood or fluid tests. If a person complains of symptoms which cannot be measured by these means, Western medicine calls this a functional disorder, and it is usually undiagnosable and untreatable. For example, a person may complain of feeling as if they have a constant lump in the throat, feeling as if they must sigh all the time, feeling inappropriate anger, or that their lower body is as cold as ice, or that they are anxious all the time. To the Western MD, none of these symptoms may be clinically meaningful or treatable. However, to the practitioner of Chinese medicine, these types of symptoms have great clinical meaning. They indicate to him or her that energetic changes have occurred in the body/mind which, if untreated over a period of time, will lead to actual tissue changes, and therefore, more serious disease. This is significant because it means that a good practitioner of Chinese medicine can treat disease at a more fundamental level, which then prevents the onset of more serious diseases. This can be especially important in the treatment of gynecological disorders, so many of which involve functional, emotional, and from a Western medical point of view, often subclinical signs and symptoms.
5. Chinese medicine has a long history of successful treatment for gynecological disorders. While many Western medical treatments are quite wonderful, many of the newest Western medical treatments for a given ailment have yet to be tried over even one generation allowing measurement of any long term side effects, Chinese medicine extends back over 200 generations of doctors and patients and has over 30,000 volumes of medical literature. At times the swift and heroic treatments of Western medicine are useful and necessary in serious, acute, or life-threatening situations. For chronic, or functional disorders, however, Chinese medicine offers a viable alternative, indeed an effective and humane alternative in areas which Western medicine offers few options.
6. Chinese medicine offers self-empowerment. Because Chinese medical theories are based upon direct observation of nature, as opposed to the abstract, mathematical complexities of histology and biochemistry in Western medicine, it is easier for a patient to grasp an understanding of their disease process as seen and described by Chinese medical theory. Its explanations and metaphors describing the disease process come from the natural world, to which most people can easily relate. It is not conceptually distant and opaque. Understanding of how ones disease process has come about allows the possibility for direct intervention and lifestyle changes on the part of the patient herself. For example, if a woman’s discomforts are exacerbated by dietary factors or stress, she may be counseled by a Chinese medical practitioner to limit certain foods in the diet or to use certain exercises, meditation, or other means to control her stress. Such patient education and participation gives a woman the possibility to improve and perhaps eventually control her own health. This is one of the most important aspects of Chinese medicine.
Menopause: A Second Spring
Chinese medicine sees menopause as a normal and even an important transition which should be assisted to proceed smoothly, quickly, and without discomfort. According to Chinese medical theory, it is this transition which allows a woman to live another several decades in relative good health. For readers interested in reading more about Chinese medicine and menopause, please see Menopause, A Second Spring: Making a Smooth Transition with Traditional Chinese Medicine available from Blue Poppy Press.
About the Author
Honora Lee Wolfe has been involved in alternative health care since 1975. She was the founder and first director of the Boulder School of Massage Therapy and is the author of several books and audiotapes on women’s health and Chinese medicine including Menopause, A Second Spring: Making a Smooth Transition with Traditional Chinese Medicine. She teaches at acupuncture schools and conferences all over the US and has a private acupuncture practice in Boulder, CO.
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