Can complementary therapies help with menopause?

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With the increased popularity of complementary therapies for managing menopause, we wanted to know more. We asked Daniel Kay, clinical director at The Vale Practice in SE London, to tell us more.

 
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The symptoms of menopause, be they the well-known hot flushes, sleeping disorders, mood swings or the less documented links with joint and muscle pain, dexterity, depression and forgetfulness, are referred to as 'Climacteric' but commonly called menopause. The symptoms associated with this phase are a direct result of changes in ...pituitary, hypothalamus in the brain, the adrenal cortex in the kidneys and the ovaries.

In short, the way your hormones, mainly reproductive, (oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol - our stress hormone) are stimulated, released and processed so the body tries to establish a new balance. Normally our bodies are experts at adapting to all sorts of physiological change as long as we eat, sleep, exercise and smile. We fight, recover and adapt to most ailments, injuries and challenges to our general wellbeing from childhood through to old age pretty well. when something happens quickly, with bigger than normal changes, i.e. menopause, we could do with a little help.

Complementary (i.e. complementary to the normal western medical approach) medicine is well placed to help women adapt to changes in menopause, as the practitioners of various treatments and therapies are already holistically dealing with both clinical and sub clinical conditions of the human being in an effort to maintain or re establish homeostasis (define) Let’s face it, the biochemical processes that occur during menopause have been happening since puberty, it’s just the balance that is different, albeit dramatically for some.

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A recent study showed that a large number of women are turning to complementary and alternative therapies to manage perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms and although there is an opinion that any benefit may purely be placebo, there is also increasingly positive evidence to say that actually things like acupuncture, osteopathy, massage, reflexology and psychotherapy, can help to manage menopause symptoms with little or no side effects. 

Sometimes, an integrated approach to complementary medicine works well and sometimes women respond to individual therapies. Whilst HRT is often very effective, complementary therapies take into account the dramatic biochemical change of menopause through more indirect physiological processes. If you are not sure that HRT is your thing or want to complement it to iron out some of the lingering symptoms, the more indirect and holistic approach that complementary therapies can offer, may help. 

Here are some of the therapies that can be used for the effective management of menopause symptoms.

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Acupuncture

There's pretty robust evidence that acupuncture on its own, or combined with either Chinese, or Western herbal medicine, can help reduce the symptoms of menopause. A paper in the British Medical Journal on acupuncture in medicine discusses how it activates neurological pathways, affecting the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland which ultimately may alter hormone balance. This study looked at the positive effect of acupuncture on body temperature regulation and concludes; ‘The current data indicates that acupuncture can be considered as an alternative therapy in the treatment of menopausal symptoms particularly in hot flushes, in women who have contraindications for HRT.’

Bea Erler, an experienced practitioner and lecturer at The International College of Oriental Medicine (ICOM) had this to say; ‘Like puberty, menopause is a time of change in our hormone balance. Acupuncture helps to rebalance our hormone system by inserting fine needles into meridians (energy lines) which connect to organs  responsible for hormone balance. Peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms vary widely for each woman, so each woman is assessed and treated on an individual basis. Acupuncture treatment smoothes this time of change and helps to restore personal equilibrium in this new phase in a woman's life.‘

Massage

A therapy recognised for its stress relieving and relaxing effects on the body and mind, massage has been helping women manage their menopause for centuries and is probably the most widely available physical therapy across the globe. In a study looking at the  effects of  complementary medicine in managing menopausal symptoms, 81.8% of a women in a  group who preferred massage as an intervention, reported fewer and less severe hot flushes, insomnia, fatigue and anxiety. This study also found a reduction in cortisol levels demonstrating how therapies in general can be linked with stress reduction. A further study revealed a significant improvement in sleeping and anxiety disorders after a course of massage treatments.

Massage is a good example of how physical and mental  wellbeing can impact on the intricate balance of biochemical processes, ie.hormones, linked with menopause and of how a holistic approach is often the best way to try to relieve specific symptoms. 

Osteopathy

Has been around since the late 19th century, it’s mantra is that the body has an built in ability to adapt to change given the right environment and circumstances, to maintain good health. Osteopathy provides an expert helping hand when natural age-related processes (like menopause), injury or disease stop the body being able to do this. Osteopaths are regulated primary healthcare practitioners and are identified as Allied Health Professionals by NHS England. 

Osteopathic treatment is often very successful at rebalancing the body by using a variety of physical techniques including soft tissue release, manipulation, joint articulation and fascia and muscle stretching technique. As we know for many women, physical and mental balance is dramatically affected in menopause. Osteopathy can help to manage some of the more common symptoms, as well as the lesser known symptoms of joint and muscle pain that can happen when levels of the anti-inflammatory, oestrogen and the stress hormone, cortisol change. Studies have shown that oestrogen reduction can lead to an increase in chronic inflammatory joint pain and so accelerate the onset of arthritis. Osteopathy can help through managing good biomechanical movement patterns helping to stave off joint problems and consequent muscle tension and pain. One study looking at the use of osteopathic treatment for the symptoms of menopause showed a significant reduction in the number of hot flushes and headaches when women completed MENQol, the menopause specific quality of life questionnaire,

Osteopathy can be used as a stand-alone treatment or as an integrated approach alongside acupuncture, reflexology or other complementary therapies in managing menopause. 

Reflexology

Reflexology is a complementary therapy based on a theory that working on various pressure points on the feet, leg, hands, face and ears can have a therapeutic effect on different organs and tissues that are remote from the therapists point of contact. Treatment can help with relaxation, improve mood, release tension and help with sleeping disorders. Given this, it stands to reason that reflexology may be an excellent port of call for women experiencing the symptoms of menopause which often include a combination of mood changes, tension and poor sleeping. 

A randomised controlled trial in Iran in 2011 assessing the effects of reflexology on climacteric syndrome showed a reduction in hot flushes from between 4 - 9 per day to 2-3 per day, whilst also detailing a reduction in sleep related disorders. A trial in 2006 showed a significant difference in levels of; depression, perceived stress, blood pressure after reflexology whilst also showing an improvement in immune function.

The Association of  Reflexologists also promote self-treatment through a series of hand techniques that you can do yourself which could be a useful tool for many given the long duration of menopause for some women.

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Find out more about what Daniel and his team do at www.thevalepractice.co.uk