Going with the Flow!

Life is always in flux. So is the human body, more so the female body, as it is designed for the amazingly complex processes of conception and childbearing. An indispensible part of this intricate engineering is the monthly female menstrual cycle which continues throughout the reproductive years. Once the cycle comes to a close, fertility drops and the next key transition, menopause begins.

Since growth, decay and death are an inherent part of nature, how do we deal with these changes? Do we grumble, resist or fight or take them in our stride and welcome a new phase, fresh learning?

The wisdom of Ayurveda opens up for us a new window with which to understand life and living. According to Ayurveda, vata, pitta and kapha - the three doshas or bio-energies predominate in specific phases of life. The period from birth till early adulthood is kapha, involving growth, building up of cells and tissues, imbibing and learning. In the second phase, marriage, children and making a living take over. It’s a time of excessive activity, effort, competitiveness, ambition - working hard to achieve goals, accomplish aims and create the life one wants. These are the go-getting fiery pitta years. Then comes the letting-go phase, where the drive to attain diminishes; one mellows down, releases responsibilities of home and work and gives more importance to a contemplative life. This is the vata phase. When the doshas are somewhat balanced, one is healthy, both in body and mind. But if doshas are already aggravated in early adulthood, the imbalance causes lots of health issues in later years.

A look at the menstrual cycle

A woman is born with a fixed number of ova stored in her ovaries. The ovaries produce two major female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone during the reproductive years. Hormonal releases from the brain stimulate follicles in the ovaries to mature and produce oestrogen. Once oestrogen reaches a certain level, an ovum is released from the most mature follicle – a process called ovulation, which takes place around day 14 of the 28 day monthly cycle. The ovum enters the fallopian tube and is now available for fertilisation. Oestrogen and progesterone also prepare the inner lining of the uterus, the endometrium, for a possible pregnancy every month. When progesterone levels drop, this lining sheds over a few days and this is called menstruation. If the ovum is not fertilised, hormone production declines and the endocrine glands in the brain trigger the entire cycle all over again.

As women age, hormone levels begin to fluctuate. This makes the menstrual cycle irregular. When oestrogen and progesterone levels drop and the menstrual cycle ends permanently, this is called menopause. Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), once widely used in the West and now popular in India too, is supposed to be the solution to the problems of aging, such as preventing or treating osteoporosis and heart disease but the evidence is not strong enough; in fact, long term therapy may even entail the risk of breast cancer, stroke, heart attacks and endometrial cancer. Hence allowing a natural transition would be better. Though menopause is a global phenomenon, not all women everywhere experience trouble and discomfort during these years. For some, the transition is smooth; it may vary with diet, lifestyle, habits and stress levels and sometimes even location.

Ayurvedic Point of View

Ayurveda views menopause as a natural progression into the next phase, where one matures in body, mind, intelligence and wisdom. A healthy body can make the transition beautifully from pitta dominance to vata dominance, for it is intelligent enough. Problems occur when one cannot cope with today’s stressful, competitive lifestyles, deadlines and pressure to conform. Junk food, late nights, workaholic temperaments, sedentary habits, lack of a balanced routine and toxin build-up due to undigested food residues - ama, compound the problem. This aggravates the pitta, which can lead to mood swings, insomnia, hot flashes, night sweats, high cortisol levels, osteoporosis, digestive problems, poor memory, lack of focus, high blood pressure and dryness – classic symptoms of menopause. Ayurveda helps us to understand these in context of the doshas.

Vata imbalance – can cause dryness, mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, constipation, excessive worry, irrational fears, lack of focus, weak memory.

Pitta imbalance – can cause stress, skin problems like rashes and itches, skin diseases, irritability, hot flashes, anger, jealousy, competitiveness, stress, high blood pressure.

Kapha imbalance – can cause excess weight gain, greed, depression, increased cholesterol levels, edema, fluid retention, poor concentration.

Making healthy choices

Understanding and respecting one’s body, healthy diet and lifestyle, feeling emotionally secure and getting support from family and friends help to ease into the menopausal years. And making small changes goes a long way. Taking time off to pamper one’s self is a good idea. Daily abhyangam or self-massage calms nerves, busts stress, and is a great way to detox, relax and feel rejuvenated. Spending quality time in nature, going for a daily walk or sharing with friends is a good way to unwind. Yogasanas and pranayama tone the body, quieten the mind and enhance awareness. Deep breathing and nadi shodhana pranayama cleanse the body and increase oxygen levels, making for healthier lungs and clearer thinking. And there’s nothing like diving deep within – meditating and celebrating just BEING! The ancient practice of Yog Nidra, a multilevel relaxation meditation is a boon in today’s fast-paced world.

A healthy diet complements a healthy lifestyle – focus on warm, light and easily digestible foods like khichdi, daliya, nourishing soups and vegetable broths, fresh fruits, leafy greens, legumes, whole grains like barley, millet and quinoa, which contain phyto-estrogens and nuts, a good source of omega3 fatty acids. A daily teaspoon of ghee or cold pressed sesame oil lubricates the body from inside. Soy products like tofu and miso, cottage cheese (paneer), fresh milk and sesame seeds are beneficial too. Cooking with spices like coriander, cumin, ginger, fennel aids digestion and pacifies vata without aggravating pitta. Minimising tea and coffee intake, drinking water when thirsty, getting enough sleep, eating meals on time and having a light, early dinner are wise choices. Ideally meals should not be skipped and the main meal should be eaten around noon, when pitta is predominant. Ayurvedic nerve tonics like ashwagandha, brahmi and shankhapushpi help to relax the brain and ensure restful sleep. These should be taken under the guidance of a competent vaidya.

A time to ‘pause’...

A once-taboo topic, menopause is now making its way out of the closet as women are now ready to talk and share about it openly, discuss their health issues and ask for help if necessary, rather than suffering quietly in the confines of their home. Discussing it openly has helped lots of women gain confidence, rather than experiencing a sense of loss, regret or feeling a failure. On the contrary, this stage of life invites one to become more sensitive, humane, human. In fact, many women look forward to it!

Meno-pause is literally a time to ‘pause’ and take stock of one’s life. It need not be the end of an active life, for it is simply nature’s way of moving on, maturing in body, mind and hopefully intellect too. From the frenzied pace of balancing home, family and work, a woman can now take it easy – she owes it to herself. Thus menopause offers a welcome opportunity to make peace with the past and re-connect with oneself, let go of resentment, defuse long-held tensions, experience a sense of space and grace and breathe FREE!