Throughout the ages, in every culture, geographical location and religion, women have gathered. They gather to form community, to celebrate birth and to mourn death, to share recipes and swap skills. They also gather to teach and to learn and to guide the next generation.
The phases of a woman’s life include birth, childhood, youth, emergence of womanhood, pregnancy, menopause and eventually a return to whence we came. Cultures around the world have celebrated these momentous phases and changes from biblical times. I am sure that you have heard of the “Red Tent” which was a place to not only care for herself physically during her menstrual cycle, but a place to honor all that it means to be a woman.
In early cultures, the female elder was considered a wise woman. She was the healer, the teacher, and the one who imparted knowledge. She mediated disputes, had influence over tribal leaders, and cared for the dying as they took their final breaths. For many women in various religions and cultures, reaching the status of Crone was a major milestone. They felt honored to share their knowledge and experience and they embraced nature in ways that have since been for the most part lost.
It is with a grateful heart that I have witnessed the resurgence of natural medicines, of living green and from the land. These were the traditions, the knowledge and the experiences that were passed to me generationally, from Babas and Great-Babas, brought from the Ukraine and Romania to early Canada.
In the modern age, we have the luxury of science- and evidence-based natural medicine. It is a pure joy to mesh together the anecdotal methodology of my ancestors with current studies and research. This is part of what drives my heart specifically towards women’s health. To teach and be taught, to listen and to share, to hold and to be held, to be amongst a community of women honoring each other and holding each other up, is a privilege. It is a community unto itself that I cherish and as I round the corner to the next phase in my life, and take the winding journey through perimenopause to menopause and onwards to postmenopause, I can only hope to impart the wisdom my elders taught me. My dream is to pay tribute to all the beautiful wise women who have gone before me and to leave this world a little less cold and lonely for my being here.
Most women experiencing perimenopause or menopause notice a variety of symptoms due to fluctuating hormonal levels. Symptoms can be frequent and intense, or may not be present at all, but symptoms will come to an end once “the change” is complete and menses cease.
Common Menopausal Symptoms:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Body aches
- Sore breasts
- Mood swings
- Migraine headaches
- Decreased sexual interest
- Vaginal dryness
- Irregular or heavy menses
- Weight gain
- Swollen ankles
- Forgetfulness or “brain fog”
- Panic attacks
- Mental imbalance
Researchers in Rochester, New York found bone loss at menopause causes the release of lead into the bloodstream. This lead is stored in the long bones and, upon release, accumulates in soft tissues such as the brain. Surges of lead in the brain during menopause can cause brain toxicity affecting intellectual function, memory, and mood control. This may explain the cause of some menopausal symptoms (Greer, G., 2018).
There are some less common symptoms that may also appear during menopause. Some women experience acne and carpal tunnel syndrome. One third of women experience thinning hair, which may be due to the higher levels of androgenic hormones in the body (Greer, G., 2018). In many women, symptoms become so debilitating and severe they find it necessary to seek medical treatment. Many prescription medications are available to help deal with menopausal symptoms, but most come with substantial long- and short-term side effects.
“While references to menopause, its associated symptoms and treatments have appeared throughout history, it was only recognized as a syndrome with a common cause in 1816, when the term ‘la menespausie’ was first coined. It was not until the 1890s that it began to receive more attention in the published literature, possibly due to the increasing life expectancy which meant that more women reached menopausal age. Herbal remedies specifically for hot flushes also began to appear in the late nineteenth century texts. However, it is possible that prior to this time, menopause-related symptoms were not recognized as such and, therefore, not differentiated from the same symptoms occurring at other stages of reproductive life. Hence, they may have been treated accordingly, with herbal emmenagogues for amenorrhea, or remedies for menorrhagia, depression and hysteria that are listed in earlier works.” (Diana van Die)
Hot flashes and night sweats are the most common symptoms of menopause and can lead to insomnia, irritability, fatigue, and mood swings. They can be accompanied by palpitations and anxiety and can be followed by chills. They may occur nocturnally and during the day. Hot flashes are the most common complaint of premenopausal women. In the United States, 85% of menopausal women have hot flashes and 40% seek medical help (The Goldberg Group, 2002). In approximately 2/3 of women, hot flashes will last from one to five years, and of women experience flashes for up to ten years (Goldstein & Ashner, 1999). Many women report headaches and irritability as well as a host of other symptoms throughout menopause, which are often due to estrogen dominance because of the lack of progesterone their bodies are producing.
Historically, menopause was seen as a rite of passage rather than the dreaded change of life that is so common in North American culture today. It is also a subject that varies greatly throughout the world and is impacted not only by culture but also by geographical location as it impacts diet.
The first and only published report on menopause in Guatemala was a qualitative exploration of attitudes and symptoms of menopause among 27 Quiché, Tzutujil, and Cakchiquel Maya women in the Guatemalan highlands (Stewart, 2003). Although studies indicate similar physical menopausal symptoms to those experienced by women in the U.S.A., the Guatemalan women experiencing menopausal hot flashes, night sweats, moodiness and menstrual irregularities had a much more positive emotional outlook on entering into menopause, similar to the Maya women of Mexico (Beyene, 1986), which led to improved mental and physical well-being. Treatment for these symptoms included steam baths, lower abdominal massage by midwives, and herbs. No Western-style treatment was sought to manage menopausal symptoms. These Maya women also had little problem with osteoporosis in the post-menopausal period, which has been attributed previously to the typical Maya diet and work patterns (Michel, Veliz, Soejarto, Caceres & Mahady, 2006).
There are several essential oils and essential oil blends that have been clinically proven to be beneficial for easing menopausal symptoms. Hot flashes can be decreased by up to 50% through lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) inhalation (twenty minutes, two times daily) according to one study (Kazemzadeh, Nikjou, Rostamnegad, & Norouzi, 2016).
Likewise, herbs and herbal remedies act as phytoestrogens (plant derivatives that have a similar structure to estrogen and can bind to the estrogen receptor sites) and have an impressive effect on menopausal symptoms, as seen in the following study. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), in its herbal form was given orally using 100 milligram capsules twice daily over the course of ten weeks of trialing, with results that were considered statistically significant. “This small pilot study found that, on the basis of a menopause-rating scale, twice-daily consumption of fennel as a phytoestrogen improved menopause symptoms compared with an unusual minimal effect of placebo,” says Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of North American Menopause Society (NAMS). “A larger, longer, randomized study is still needed to help determine its long-term benefits and side effect profile” (The North American Menopause Society (NAMS), 2017, May 17). This study confirms the benefits of fennel in reducing postmenopausal symptoms. Studies such as this encourage further exploration into herbal medicines that provide effective management of symptoms with little to no side-effects.
The following definitions are excerpted from Mosby’s Guide to Women’s Health 2007:
PHYTO = PLANT
“Phyto estrogens are plant derivatives that have a similar structure to estrogen and can bind to the estrogen receptor sites. They are weaker endogenous estrogens and, through competitive inhibition, can prevent the receptor binding of more potent estrogens.”
XENO = FOREIGN
“Xenoestrogens are ‘foreign’ estrogens, substances that are close enough in molecular structure to estrogen that they can bind to estrogen receptor sites with potentially hazardous outcomes. Sources of xenoestrogens include plastics, pesticides, chemicals, and water systems.”
“Estrogen is a broad term used to describe the predominant female hormone. Estrogen has three major derivatives:
- Estradiol – the primary form of estrogen before menopause;
- Estrone – the primary form of estrogen after menopause;
- Estriol – a by-product of estrogen metabolism.”
‘Estrone and estradiol are created naturally in the steroidogenic pathways of the body (ovaries and adrenal glands). They are further metabolized by the liver and other tissues into approximately 40 metabolic products called metabolites, one of which is estriol.’ (Oyelowo, T., & Mosby, 2007).”
Many of the symptoms that women experience during their menopausal journey are associated with declining estrogen levels. As such, essential oil phytoestrogens may improve a range of symptoms, including mood swings, hot flashes, and irregular periods.
In one specific study (see below) the researchers based their study on previous clinical evidence that supported the proposal that several aromatic essential oils have phytoestrogen effects on menopausal symptoms in climacteric women. The essential oils clary sage (Salvia sclarea), fennel, cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), angelica (Angelica archangelica), and coriander (Coriandrum savitum) essential oils were reconfirmed as having phyto-estrogenic effects. These oils were evidenced as supporting menopausal hormone balance, decreased hot flushes, decreased depression and pain in the experimental group compared with the control group.
The same study set out to discover if lavender, rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens var. roseum), rose (Rosa damascena), and jasmine (Jasminum officinale) oils diluted in sweet almond (Prunus dulcis) or evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) oil, which are used frequently in the clinical field for improving various menopausal symptoms, should be recommended as phytoestrogens, to improve menopausal symptoms. The study was successful and provided statistically significant evidence that these oils applied via massage decreased the occurrence and severity of associated menopausal symptoms. There is further testing proposed to determine if these essential oils, with applications other than massage would be equally as effective (Hur, Yang, & Lee, 2008).
In terms of sexual functioning, a systematic review and meta-analysis states:
“Aromatherapy with neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) oil or lavender (mono-preparation) and combined aromatherapy oils of lavender, fennel, geranium and rose significantly improved sexual function. However, there was no significant change in serum estrogen level” (Khadivzadeh, Najafi, Ghazanfarpour, Irani, Dizavandi, & Shariati, 2018).
The effects of the inhalation of neroli were studied at length to determine if this essential oil has the ability to manage menopausal symptoms, enhance vitality and restore quality of life to menopausal women. This study in particular was thorough in its examination of a multitude of menopausal symptoms. “This study evaluated the effects of neroli oil inhalation on physiological and psychological symptoms in post-menopausal women and assessed the potential of oil inhalation as a nursing intervention.” Using a blend of 0.1% essential oil in an almond oil carrier, the research team was able to positively identify the following improvements in the participants’ lives (mean age = 55.81 years) according to the Menopause Specific Quality of Life Questionnaire (MENQOL): The total MENQOL scores significantly decreased, indicating that symptoms were interfering less with daily living and quality of life (QOL) as a whole.
While the control group (non-aromatic treatment) saw increases in most areas, the aromatherapy group saw the following:
- Negative impacts to sexual desire decreased significantly
- Negative impacts to systolic blood pressure (SBP) decreased significantly
- Negative impacts to diastolic blood pressure (DBP) decreased significantly
- Negative impacts to pulse rate decreased significantly
- Negative impacts to cortisol levels decreased significantly
- Serum estrogen levels remained the same
In my opinion, this study clearly shows that the inhalation of neroli essential oil by postmenopausal women can improve their vitality and their quality of life. It can increase sexual desire and reduce blood pressure. In addition, inhalation of neroli essential oil can reduce stress levels and stimulate the endocrine system. It is simply amazing that one essential oil can be used to relieve such a variety of symptoms related to menopause.
Lastly but certainly not least, is an incredible study that defies the current understanding of herbs and essential oils. This study provides evidence that common herbs, essential oils, and monoterpenes can, and do, potently modulate bone metabolism and are preventatives and healers for osteoporosis and associated bone loss.
In vivo effects of herbs, essential oils and monoterpenes indicate that when one gram of powdered leaves from sage (Salvia officinalis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris)—herbs rich in essential oils—were fed to test animals, bone resorption, the process by which the bones are absorbed and broken down by the body, was inhibited.
The following essential oils were tested individually to determine their bone resorption inhibition potential:
- Sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
- Dwarf pine (Pinus mugo)
- Juniper (Juniperus communis)
- Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
- Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
- Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
- Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis)
- Turpentine (Pinus palustris)
Of the ten oils tested, 70% inhibited bone resorption, with pine oil being the most potent and fennel, cumin and sweet orange being devoid of bone resorption activity.
To complete their research, individual chemical components of essential oils were studied. A blend of the four major monoterpenes occurring in the sage oil used (128 milligrams composed of 80 mg thujone, 24 mg eucalyptol, 14 mg camphor, and 10 mg borneol) was noted to inhibit bone resorption. The components were then tested individually for further evaluation. Thujone, eucalyptol, camphor and borneol were tested at the mirror doses within the blend: 80 mg, 24 mg, 14 mg and 10 mg respectively. All, with the exception of borneol, were found to inhibit bone resorption significantly. However, at the higher standard dose of 100 mg per day, borneol strongly inhibited bone resorption. Ɑ- Pinene, Ɓ-Pinene and Bornylacetate, the major components of the pine oil, also potently inhibited resorption independently, as did Menthol and Thymol.
Nine selected monoterpenes, components of the active herbs and essential oils inhibited bone resorption. A mixture of equal parts of these monoterpenes is also an active bone resorption inhibitor (Mühlbauer, Lozano, Palacio, Reinli, & Felix, 2003).
These findings will contribute to the future exploration of natural methods of boneloss prevention, treatment, and management for women going through the journey of menopause, as well as for others struggling with health issues like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Today women around the world are beginning to once more embrace the change of life. They are reclaiming the name of Crone in a positive way, and see it as a time to joyfully welcome one’s position as an elder within the community. There is a re-emergence of a lost sisterhood and Red Tent revival transpiring that is beautiful to witness!