A Walk Down Epigenetic Lane for Healthy Bodies and Hormones
In part I of my series about the mind-body perspective in relation to hormonal balance, I explored how beliefs, emotions, and social influences impact our health. I highlighted studies that explored the concepts of interactions between our environment (epigenetics), food (nutrigenomics), and social relationships (sociogenomics) and their effects on our genes. With the advent of new technologies that can explore how our DNA can change its expression and function patterns based on these lifestyle factors, the old concept that genetics are our destiny for health has not only been challenged but has now been thoroughly debunked. (source, source)
Recent glimpses into the exposome has also swiftly set the stage for new discoveries on just how “pliable” we are in regards to making a difference in our wellness outcomes. The exposome consists of specialized tiny vesicles that are released from the membrane structures of many cells. Just recently, I was reading an article on this very topic published on GreenMed Info. It is entitled, “Epigenetic Memories are Passed Down 14 Successive Generations, Game-Changing Research Reveals.”
While the specific study the title alluded to was compelling, it was disappointingly referencing an earthworm study. Still, the post did not disappoint regarding content! The author not only went into great depth exploring the ins-and-outs of the research on epigenetics, but the concept of this new discovery of exposomes was further clarified. It seems these minute sacs of cell membranes are potential carriers of these “epigenetic inheritance” patterns via RNA. (source, source, source)
Sound complicated? It really is, but it’s cool!
For those who may feel overwhelmed by the above references, the bottom line is that we now have evidence that we don’t just inherit our genetics from our parents, but also their environmental imprinting. Furthermore, these epigenetic patterns are passed down into future generations.
Although much pressure is put on the females for optimizing their lifestyle to support a healthy womb, preliminary research has shown that one of the main mechanisms for exposome transfer of DNA material is passed down by sperm cells. So, men, you are not off the hook for your lifestyle practices preconception. Here’s more proof that both sexes are equally responsible now in different genetic and epigenetic ways. (source, source, source)
Now, let’s connect all this to the experience of menopause and hormonal health throughout the lifespan.
Menopause as An Individual Physical and Emotional Experience
In part I, when diving into sociogenomics, I explored more of this epigenetic influence at a broader level, moving from the cellular nitty-gritty details discussed above. I explained how relationships and cultural beliefs influence our genes, even to the point of impacting our brain which ultimately effects our behavior! This means that at a cellular level we become the sum of who we spend our time with.
This “fitting in” has shaped social behavior and may be linked to survival of the species, but it can have a downside as well. For those who want to “march to the beat of their own drum,” rejection can literally cause disease and dis-ease. I’ll explore that specifically as a separate topic in the future.
We now understand that there is legitimate science to convey the biological mechanisms of how beliefs, emotions, and relationships impact our health outcomes. In this article, I will present more evidence on how culture shapes and interacts with a woman’s biological, physiological, and psychological experience of menopause. I will do this by peering into different societies’ expectations and what individual women may experience.
The American Experience of Hormonal Transition… Hot Flashes and Unhappy Cycles
When searching for an overview of menopause online, I found a summary from PubMed Health, “Menopause: Overview.” I think it is a wonderful example of the symptoms that many women expect during this time of change in America. I give the author kudos for at least referencing the fact that individual experiences can vary (bolded text):
The balance of hormones in a woman’s body changes during menopause. Many processes in the body are regulated by hormones, and it can take some time to adapt to the changes. These changes are sometimes associated with menopause symptoms such as hot flashes (also called “hot flushes”), sleep problems or mood swings. There are a number of different options for relieving these symptoms. Women’s experiences of menopause vary greatly, and only a few have severe symptoms that last a long time.
Around their mid-forties, women’s bodies gradually start making less of the female sex hormone estrogen (also spelt “oestrogen”). Their monthly periods become less regular and eventually stop completely. A woman has reached menopause when she has had her last period. The word “menopause” might be misleading because it is not a “pause,” but an ending. Women can no longer get pregnant after menopause. The average age of menopause is 51, although some women might go through it much earlier, or a little later. Many women are happy that the hassle of contraception and periods are now a thing of the past. But the idea of no longer being “fertile” can also feel like closing a chapter in your life.
Menopause is often accompanied by other significant life changes: Children are becoming more independent or have already moved out, and some couples have to re-connect with each other. Some women make major career changes, and others may take a step back because their parents need their support. It becomes more apparent that your own body is gradually aging. So the hormonal changes are not the only reason why menopause is a time of physical and emotional change. (source)
The fact is, women in our culture do experience quite a range of varying symptoms. These range from no discernible signs to causing a major impact on their daily lives. This points to the fact that menopause is not just biologically based but is also environmentally influenced!
The Experience of Menopause Across Cultures
Common symptoms also differ based on culture. I covered this topic previously in my interview with actress Megan Cavanagh. I stated:
In Japan, they didn’t even have a word for “hot flash” until recently. In their culture, menopause is not portrayed so unfavorably. In fact, many women experience a cold shift in temperature.
Below I provide more evidence from cross-cultural studies that explore the biological, psychological, and sociocultural influences on menopausal symptoms. I’ve included several sources each with a brief introductory description, the full abstract and/or excerpts, and have highlighted in bold text some of the main points.
Cross-Cultural Studies on the Experience of Menopause- the “Biocultural” Evidence
1. The authors of this review of five cross-cultural studies demonstrated that menopausal symptoms are related to a combination of physical changes, cultural beliefs, and individual expectations.
Numerous physical and psychological symptoms have been attributed to the hormonal changes of menopause. Symptoms have also been attributed to loss of fertility, redefining of roles, empty nest syndrome, loss of femininity, and changes of status. Cross-cultural studies allow researchers to examine the contribution of physiological, psychological, and sociocultural influences to the experience of menopausal symptoms. Such research is complicated by differences between cultures in the definition of menopause, reproductive histories, symptom expression, and beliefs as to what constitutes status. A review of five important cross-cultural studies indicates that there are enormous differences in the experience of menopause among women in the same culture and among cultures. Menopausal symptoms seem to be caused by a combination of physical changes, cultural influences, and individual perceptions and expectations.
Source: Cross-cultural perspectives on menopause. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1996 Aug;184(8):453-8.
2. This paper demonstrates how cultural influences and attitudes shape how a woman experiences, perceives, and manages menopausal symptoms. The authors also advocate for active participation in management and self-care strategies to enhance feelings of control during this time.
Attitudes and sociocultural perceptions provide the context within which women experience menopause. Cultural influences greatly affect how women perceive and manage their menopausal symptoms. Cultures may be categorized based on way of life, including traditional, immigrant, and modern. Varying perceptions and symptom experiences are described, including modifiable and nonmodifiable factors that affect the level of distress women feel with menopause. Helping women actively participate in management of menopausal symptoms including self-care strategies will contribute to feelings of control of menopausal symptoms and overall health. By using the highest levels of evidence regarding management of menopause, becoming familiar with the cultural and psychosocial influences of menopause and then empowering women to make decisions regarding management, health care providers can improve their care of perimenopausal and menopausal women.
Source: Meanings of menopause: cultural influences on perception and management of menopause. J Holist Nurs. 2007 Jun;25(2):106-18.
3. This research assessed an indigenous community in Australia, the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to explore how women’s experiences of menopause varied across cultural contexts. The authors then reviewed evidence that variations in menopausal transition was a combination of social and biological factors, not one alone.
Considerable research shows significant variation across cultures in the menopausal experience. Biological, psychological, social and cultural factors are associated with either positive or negative attitudes, perceptions or experiences of menopause in various cultures. Comparative international literature shows that neither biological nor social factors alone are sufficient to explain the variation in experiences of the menopausal transition. However, a strong influence of culture on the menopause experience can be found. The variation in women’s experience of menopause indicates that different cultural groups of women may have different understandings and needs during the menopausal transition. While considerable literature exists for Australian women as a whole, there has been little investigation of Australian Indigenous women, with only two research studies related to Indigenous women’s experiences of menopause identified.
Interestingly, the authors pointed out how Canadian Aboriginal women, which viewed the transition as neutral or positive, experienced little symptoms in their daily life while going through menopause:
Native American Indians view the menopausal transition as a neutral or positive experience and post-menopausal women are considered ‘women of wisdom’ within their communities.  In Canada, the average age of menopausal onset in non-Indigenous women is 51 years , comparable to Australia. A literature review of Canadian Aboriginal women’s experiences of menopause showed that for this ethnic group the transition was perceived as a positive experience as it had little effect on their lives except to increase social freedom . While Aboriginal Canadian women had lower reporting of vasomotor symptoms, when compared to non-Aboriginal Canadian, this did not appear to be solely biological but rather an interplay of culture and tradition with biology . In Australian Indigenous culture, older women are granted an increased level of respect, the influence of this on menopausal perception is unknown.
Source: Menopause and the influence of culture: another gap for Indigenous Australian women? BMC Women’s Health. 2012;12:43. doi:10.1186/1472-6874-12-43.
4. Reuters Health News reported the results of an online survey that also demonstrated this connection between perception of menopause and symptomology:
Researchers reviewed results from an online survey asking 8,200 older men and women in North America and Europe how menopause impacted their sex lives and relationships and found similar complaints in different countries. But the magnitude of suffering for typical symptoms such as vaginal dryness, hot flashes and weight gain varied by nationality.
“In societies where age is more revered and the older woman is the wiser and better woman, menopausal symptoms are significantly less bothersome,” lead study author Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a professor in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive health at Yale Medical School, said by email. “Where older is not better, many women equate menopause with old age, and symptoms can be much more devastating.”
Many symptoms were more prevalent among women from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, and less common among women in Sweden and Italy, the study found. U.S., U.K. and Canadian men, however, were more likely to report symptoms in their female partners.
Overall, men ranked mood swings and vaginal pain during intercourse among their top five complaints related to menopause, while for women, disrupted sleep and weight gain were more important.
Source: Culture may influence how women experience menopause. Reuters Health News. June 2015.
5. This article reviewed recent research on the role of culture and menopause experience. The authors also explored a “biocultural” framework which would incorporate both biology and culture as parameters to use for more accuracy in reporting their impacts and interactions in future research.
The purpose of the present paper is to review recent research on the relationship of culture and menopausal symptoms and propose a biocultural framework that makes use of both biological and cultural parameters in future research. Medline was searched for English-language articles published from 2000 to 2004 using the keyword ‘menopause’ in the journals–Menopause, Maturitas, Climacteric, Social Science and Medicine, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Journal of Women’s Health, Journal of the American Medical Association, American Journal of Epidemiology, Lancet and British Medical Journal, excluding articles concerning small clinical samples, surgical menopause or HRT. Additionally, references of retrieved articles and reviews were hand-searched. Although a large number of studies and publications exist, methodological differences limit attempts at comparison or systematic review. We outline a theoretical framework in which relevant biological and cultural variables can be operationalized and measured, making it possible for rigorous comparisons in the future. Several studies carried out in Japan, North America and Australia, using similar methodology but different culture/ethnic groups, indicate that differences in symptom reporting are real and highlight the importance of biocultural research. We suggest that both biological variation and cultural differences contribute to the menopausal transition, and that more rigorous data collection is required to elucidate how biology and culture interact in female ageing.
Source: Culture and symptom reporting at menopause. Hum Reprod Update. 2005 Sep-Oct;11(5):495-512. Epub 2005 May 26.
Many interested in integrative health are already shifting their lifestyle and nourishment practices for better health outcomes. Essential oils’ lovers everywhere are also gaining advantage of their drops of epigenetic power to optimize their cellular health. However, few have contemplated the impact of the very thoughts they have as influencing their wellness challenges.
I hope you take some time to review the abstracts and contemplate on how perception, belief, and expectations of our culture may be effecting how you or someone you love transitions into menopause. Maybe you can share them with your own group of friends and you can all come together to reconsider your beliefs, which could then impact your symptomology… at the cellular level.
I have found in my practice that when this belief of chronic struggle is challenged, and the root cause of a women’s reproductive symptoms are addressed, many of my clients are pleasantly surprised that their hormonal transitions can go smoothly. We can then work together to ensure lasting and effective relief. Sometimes, relieving the stress that “menopause havoc” is around the corner is one of the biggest players to creating these lasting, smoother, transitions.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks for the images, Pixabay! 🙂