Women and Traditional Chinese Medicine
When it comes to health care, women are almost always overlooked. For a case in point, take a look at just about any study published in a major medical journal. So many of the study subjects are men, often because women’s complex biology and hormones create confounding variables that many researchers do not want to unpack. For all the same reasons, though, women have special and specific health concerns, including issues related to puberty, the menstrual cycle and PMS, infertility and fertility, childbirth, post-partum depression, menopause, and post-menopausal life. These issues are often not just physical, because of the sophisticated interplay between hormones, the body, and neurotransmitters in the brain. Bottom line for women: If we’re not seeing a woman who knows women’s health, there’s a good chance of dissatisfaction.
If the stacking of the health care deck against women wasn’t bad enough, we haven’t yet discussed one other big problem with the usual system. That system is reactive instead of proactive, focused on correcting problems as they arise instead of on keeping women in balance and fit. The ebb and flow of hormones, and the constant juggling that modern women must do make balance crucial, because the body and mind both respond strongly to stress. The typical western medical intervention is to give women pills. Too often, those pills may correct condition “A,” but have side effects that exacerbate condition “B.” Fortunately, there is a female-friendly alternative that makes special sense for women. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is safe, effective, and natural. While TCM can promote anyone’s physical, mental, and spiritual health, its holistic and systemic philosophy makes special sense for women.
A TCM doctor will treat you as the whole woman you are, whether you are barely pubescent or well into your senior years. Western medicine is concerned with organs. TCM is concerned both with your organs and your energy. The concept of energy flow – qi in Chinese, pronounced “chee,” is at the center of the TCM approach. Qi permeates not just the body, but the universe. Without energy there cannot be life, and without qi there cannot be human life. Qi flows through the body, according to TCM, along pathways that are called meridians. They can be thought of as channels similar to the veins and arteries of the circulatory system, but as yet invisible according to western conceptions and measuring devices. When qi flows well, the woman feels great. When it get blocked or disrupted, health gets blocked and disrupted at the same time. Different meridians correspond to different organs and systems in the body. If heart qi is blocked, the lungs will not be affected, and vice versa, at least at first. Over time, though, blocked qi can have a cascading effect on the body.
Issues Specific to Women
Men have no idea what it is like to be one of us, with much of physical life governed by preordained hormones. The entire reproductive system is subject to the flow of qi through certain meridians, which also include the meridian and organ systems of the kidney, liver, and spleen. When qi is blocked for any of those organs, or there is a disorder involving those organs, women will feel unwell, and the menstrual cycle will be affected. If a woman is post-menopausal, she will feel just as unwell as she would have when she was 25, because other organs often take up the hormone-producing function of the ovaries. A skilled TCM doctor, presented with a patient who reports uncomfortable or painful gynecological issues including but not limited to menstruation, will work to correct the imbalances of qi that are at the root of these issues. Even fertility is subject to healthy qi.
TCM and the Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is not just reliant on qi, but can actually be a diagnostic tool for a TCM physician. So many women are subject to menstrual disruptions in any given month. Pain, spotting, irregular periods, cramps, libido disturbances, pain in the breasts, changes in appetite, and psychological symptoms ranging from annoying to debilitating are all part of many women’s monthly lives. Then there’s the too-common fatigue, bloating, and lethargy. So many women have become stoic about these symptoms, because western medicine offers them no relief besides the possibility of hormone-disrupting birth control pills. Few of these stoics would keep such a stiff upper lip if they knew that TCM routinely relieves this kind of distress. A combination of minor lifestyle change, herbal remedies, and acupuncture can help just about every woman anticipate her menstrual cycle with womanly pride instead of dread.
TCM, Fibroids, and Endometriosis
Uterine fibroids are non-malignant, non-cancerous masses that grow on the uterus. They have many unpleasant effects, such as painful sexual intercourse, very heavy and lengthy menses, bloating or pressure in the lower abdomen, and general systemic discomfort. They often present to women between ages 30 and 50, though fibroids have developed in pubescent girls. Endometriosis is a related condition that has a similar time of onset, and a feeling of fullness or pressure in the stomach. As for endometriosis, it results when uterine cells mistakenly implant outside the uterus. Endometrial growth can happen in all kinds of odd places, though most often the fallopian tubes, the uterosacral area, the bladder, and the rectum are implicated. Pain is rife, along with nausea, fatigue, and uncomfortable menstruation. As for sex, it is about the least thing a woman with endometriosis is going to think about.
If a woman goes to a western doctor for endometriosis or fibroids, the recommendation will inevitably be for drugs, including painkillers, and possibility surgery. TCM – a combination of herbs, lifestyle changes, and acupuncture – has been shown in several studies to relieve and even reverse these life-disrupting conditions.
TCM and Fertility, Pregnancy, and Childbirth
Fertility for women should be as natural as breathing, but too often it is the opposite, for reasons far beyond any woman’s conscious control. Genetic bad luck, the effects of environmental toxins, stress, and other external factors alone or in combination can make the creation and timely release of a healthy egg impossible. Fertility problems hit women hard, in every way. Couples go to great lengths to have a chance at conception, with expensive medical treatments which have only a so-so possibility of success. TCM offers the infertile couple better hope, apart from western medical treatment or in concert with it. Acupuncture, especially, has been able to balance qi and unblock its flow so that in vitro fertilization can be successful.
Many women have surprised themselves with pregnancies simply as a result of TCM treatment that addresses fibroids, infrequent ovulation, luteal phase deficiencies, and/or endometriosis without having to resort to expensive and uncertain IVF. TCM can increase blood movement into the pelvis, adjust the balance of key sex hormones like progesterone and estrogen, plus bolster the quality of the interior of the uterus. The de-stressing effects of acupuncture reduces cortisol in the body, and reverses blood flow away from the ovaries and toward the adrenal glands. The result is that conception is more likely to happen.
TCM and Pregnancy
Once a woman is pregnant, that pregnancy can be easy or hard. Those with easy pregnancies are fortunate, because the demands of the growing baby inside you will stress your body and your qi. TCM helps to maintain the health of pregnant women, and alleviates many of the following symptoms that so many accept as the price of carrying an embryo or fetus:
When it comes to actual labor, especially during the period of contractions before a woman and the baby are ready for the mother to “push,” recent investigation indicates that acupuncture applied in this period can relax the mother, lessen the requirement of any pain medication, and make the entire process more pleasant for her. In the post-partum period, TCM will rebalance the qi that has been blocked by the hormonal circus of giving birth, so that the mother can have the strength and positive attitude it takes to care for a newborn.
TCM and Menopause
Menopause, simply defined, is the moment when the monthly cycle of menses comes to an end for women because of a natural hormonal process. It is marked by a year without a menstrual period, and typically happens near age 50, with 95% of women reaching menopause between 45 and 55. Hormones start to fluctuate as early as age 35, in the time called premenopause. Hormone fluctuation and release becomes even more erratic during the time of perimenopause. Oftentimes, physical symptoms result. The most common are irregular periods, significant weight gain, mood swings, sleep disruption, vaginal dryness lack of libido, and the dreaded and discomfiting hot flashes. Psychological symptoms include mood swings, memory issues, anxiety, and depression.
Menopause is a life cycle milestone, but it need not be unpleasant. TCM’s focus on body balance through herbs, acupuncture, and lifestyle changes alleviate many symptoms, and can be used in concert with western medicine to maintain life quality as women move on into the years and decades that are still ahead.
TCM Medicine: a Balanced Approach
At the center of TCM treatment for women is a flexible approach that seeks to keep the complex female body in balance. Your doctor will do a thorough diagnostic workup on you that will have you feel like you are being listened to like never before. Once you are understood, the doctor will create a treatment plan specifically for you. In TCM, one size does not fit all, because the same disorder might be expressed differently in different women. It is safe to assume that acupuncture needles – very thin, perfectly sterile needles – will be inserted along certain meridians to rebalance your life energy qi. However, two women complaining of perimenopausal symptom will have overlapping, but not identical, acupuncture insertion patterns. Beyond acupuncture, your TCM doctor may well prescribe certain herbs, as well as make a few manageable lifestyle suggestions regarding stress management, diet, and exercise. Just like turning an ocean liner, a small adjustment at point “A” can have a great effect on the course at point “B.” Nothing will run counter to any care that you may already be getting from a western medicine doctor. Everything will be complementary and supportive. In fact, if you are in western medical treatment, it is good idea to share herbal prescription information with your western doctor to avoid contraindicated interactions.
TCM is not like emergency surgery. It can take anything from a day or two, to a few weeks, time for the body to show a woman the benefits of rebalanced qi. When those benefits come, though, they will be long lasting. Your issues of women’s health will become thing of the past, and you will awaken every day invigorated with new hope.
TCM Can Help with These Women’s Health Issues….