Menopause & perimenopause
Ayurveda and menopause
At Women to Women, we’ve observed that one of the best ways to achieve a smooth transition through menopause is to know yourself — a learning process that involves recognizing your physical, nutritional, and emotional imbalances, while working to achieve a peaceful and harmonious state of being.
Similarly, the process of identifying imbalance and restoring dynamic equilibrium is central to the practice of Ayurvedic medicine, an approach to health developed some 5000 years ago on the Indian subcontinent — and still in use throughout the world today.
The word Ayurveda itself means “knowledge of life,” and to know Ayurveda is to comprehend the dynamic relationships between your body, mind and spirit, and how each relates to the world around you. While we will always know our own bodies better than anyone else ever could, when we reach an impasse, talking with an experienced practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine can be helpful. A great many women have found not just relief during menopause, but improved overall health and longevity by integrating conventional, modern approaches with alternative practices such as Ayurvedic medicine.
Your Ayurvedic constitution and dosha in menopause
There are many paths in Ayurvedic healing to the relief of menopausal symptoms. Among these, the tridosha system generally serves as a central guiding principle. In the Ayurvedic view of the human body, each of us is born with a fundamental constitution, or prakriti, that remains with us throughout life. Acting upon the constitution are three bioenergetic influences, or doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Though one dosha will always preside within the constitution, a state of health is characterized by dynamic balance between all three within the system.
These three doshas are sometimes described as the appearances or manifestations of natural forces at work in the body. Each dosha is defined or represented by two of the five natural elements: space, air, fire, water and earth:
- Vata, the space and air principle, is embodied by ether. It resides in the spaces of your body, filling empty airspaces and channels, and helps govern the function of the nervous system.
- Pitta, the fire and water principle, exists within your body mainly as bile and acid, and is most closely associated with the digestive and elimination systems.
- Kapha, or the water and earth principle, relates to the respiratory system and mucous membranes and governs the majority of our physical composition.
In contemporary Ayurvedic medicine, a treatment course is always individualized, and will generally be based on individual dosha imbalances (Ayurvedic vikriti) rather than treatment of specific symptoms. Yet if you have an excess of one dosha during menopause, the resulting imbalance in your body tends to produce a certain “type” of menopausal symptoms characteristic for that dosha’s predominance over the others. Recognizing which dosha dominates your system in menopause will help identify which treatments best match your constitution and are most likely to ease your symptoms.
Ayurvedic treatments may incorporate herbal-based medicine, purification practices, spiritual healing, yoga, and even elements borrowed from Traditional Chinese Medicine, among many other branches of healing.
Vata types — air and space
The ancient Indians viewed perimenopause as a movement into maturity, or the vata stage of life. This is a time of inner examination, vision and growth, and menopause and perimenopause symptoms are characteristically indicators of high vata dominance. During a vata-dominated menopause, you will likely be experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Mild hot flashes
- Poor skin tone
- Vaginal dryness
Ayurvedic treatment for vata-dominated menopause
There are numerous Ayurvedic herbs for treating vata-imbalance. Some anti-vata herbs, such as cumin, cardamom, fennel and ginseng, can be used freely in cooking and teas; others enjoyed in the form of incense; and still others taken in compounded medicines under guidance from an experienced ayurvedic medical practitioner. The herbs are sometimes mixed with oils, or the essential oils of a plant are extracted directly and used for a stronger effect.
Interestingly, certain Ayurvedic herbs for vata dominance, such as Astragalus (or milk vetch), Asian ginseng, Rehmannia (Chinese foxglove), and Ziziphus, are often used in Traditional Oriental Medicine as well. Perhaps it is because a state of vata dominance is so characteristic of perimenopause and menopause that both these ancient medical approaches — both remain the most ancient yet living traditions — developed parallel solutions.
Other Ayurvedic herbs to oppose vata in Ayurvedic herbal medicine may include Aloe vera (a native of North Africa), Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, or Indian ginseng), the bark of the arjun tree (Terminalia arjuna), cardamom, comfrey root, garlic, guggul (Commiphora mukul, or Mukul myrrh), hawthorn berries, licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), myrrh, saffron, and sandalwood.
Ayurvedic practitioners often suggest massaging the body with oils like sesame, almond and olive oil to reduce vata, as well as inhaling vapors from essential oils such as wintergreen, cinnamon and sandalwood, or the incenses myrrh, frankincense and musk for their restorative effect.
Dietary habits that decrease vata include frequent but small meals, prepared warm and mildly-spiced. Warm drinks and foods build strength, unlike cooling foods like salads. It is also suggested that you try to eat regular meals, avoid eating when you’re nervous or worried, and share your meals with people who relax you. Going to bed early can also help balance excess vata.
Pitta types — fire and water
Pitta is characteristic of the stage in your life that lies between young adulthood and maturity, the time that many Ayurvedic practitioners define as the productive, working period. Moving from the pitta stage into vata (from fire into air) occurs while a woman transitions from perimenopause into menopause. Again, the Ayurveda focus is on balance of life energies within us rather than symptoms, for there is always overlap between doshas and widely varying energetic imbalances can evoke similar symptoms in different individuals. Yet women whose menopause is dominated by pitta may generally experience any or all of the following symptoms:
- Angry outbursts
- Short temper
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Urinary tract infections (UTI’s)
- Skin rashes
Ayurvedic treatment for pitta-dominated menopause
Ayurveda suggests that a good way to calm your fiery pitta-dominant menopause is with coconut, sandalwood and sesame oils. You might also try massaging with clarified butter, or (ghee) or take it internally. (In India, where cows are regarded as sacred, folkloric accounts refer to ghee as the most precious substance on earth.)
You may also benefit from the very relaxing, pitta-balancing vapors of essential oils made from gardenia, honeysuckle, lotus and iris, as well as incense made from saffron, jasmine or geraniums. Ayurvedic herbal preparations that may be inhaled, taken in tinctures, or combined with the above oils to cool yourself down include Aloe vera, the bark of the arjuna tree or barberry bush, motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) and gotu kola (also known by common names such as Asiatic pennywort, water hyssop and brahmi).
The anti-pitta diet is also designed to cool, and is especially the type of Ayurvedic diet helpful during the spring and summer months for pitta-dominance. It consists of lots of cooling, heavy foods, eaten raw or relatively plain — not cooked in a lot of oil or heavily laden with hot spices — eaten at three regular meals a day. It is helpful to avoid alcohol and drink generous amounts of cool clear water to stay refreshed and hydrated. Sweet juicy fruits like grapes, pears, plums, mango, melons, and apples also serve this purpose. Ayurvedic practitioners also suggest summer vegetables like zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumber as good options, and encourage women to avoid pungent, sour, salty, and hot spicy tastes and hot drinks.
Kapha types — water and earth
The energetic qualities of kapha are characteristically associated with youth, or childhood. Its natural elements, water and earth, can manifest as a “heavy menopause,” where you’re feeling tired a lot, have difficulty concentrating or just can’t seem to shake that “heavy feeling.” Other symptoms may include:
- Weight gain
- Yeast infections
- Slow digestion
- Fluid retention
Ayurvedic treatment for kapha-dominated menopause
The physical manifestations of kapha dominance may include excess cholesterol and mucus, so Ayurvedic practitioners often recommend using mustard oil and linseed oil to dry out and avoiding all massage and cooking oils which are heavier. Inhaling the sharp essential oil vapors of cedar, pine and sage, as well as incense made from basil, frankincense and cedar is also said to help balance kapha. Ayurvedic herbs such as bayberry, cayenne, cinnamon, guggul, motherwort and myrrh may help ease any congestion and an overall sense of heaviness and fatigue.
According to Ayurvedic practice, lessening kapha through your diet means eating light, dry and warm, so it’s best to avoid sweet and cold foods, as well as oily or heavy foods like meats and cheeses. Instead, women with kapha dominance are encouraged to eat mild fruits as opposed to very sweet or sour ones, warm and drying whole grains such as millet and buckwheat rather than wheat, smaller legumes such as mung beans and red lentils, and pungent and bitter vegetables such as greens.
Tastes considered good for this category include bitter, pungent, and astringent, and those that are best avoided are sweet, sour, and salty. Any and all spices (but salt) are fine, including black pepper, turmeric and ginger. Women with kapha dominance often find they feel best when they avoid big meals, strive for a late breakfast, and make lunch the heaviest meal.
A combination approach — tapping into the healing wisdom of your body
When a woman reaches perimenopause, she can benefit from turning inward to renew her self-awareness and self-knowledge. We can come to know ourselves better by simply reflecting on the energetic forces that create balance as opposed to imbalance in our lives. Along with the above tridosha-balancing treatments and lifestyle changes suggested by Ayurveda, we’ve seen many women benefit from practices like meditation and yoga, as well as other relaxation techniques and gentle exercises.
As natural beings, we exist in a state of constant change, and regardless of the constitution we were born with or our menopausal type, there is rarely one simple solution. At Women to Women, we’ve found that a combination approach is oftentimes most helpful — our own phytotherapeutic formulation, Herbal Equilibrium, includes the Ayurvedic herb Ashwagandha to support the gentle restoration of hormonal balance in menopause.
But the key component to this is always nutrition — likewise the cornerstone of Ayurvedic healing and other integrative, alternative, and functional medicine approaches where treatment is specific to the individual. Restoring optimal nutrition in perimenopause and menopause can oftentimes provide the relief women are looking for without additional steps.
Yet some women do need and desire additional measures. Along with ensuring that a strong nutritional foundation is in place, we encourage women to educate themselves about all their options, including integrative and alternative approaches such as Ayurvedic treatments for menopause. Through this learning process we can acquire greater self-knowledge and understanding that will support balance and harmony in our lives.