Balancing yin and yang
Just as optimal rainfall creates an environment ripe for all kinds of plants to thrive, optimal diet and lifestyle habits create an environment ripe for hormonal balance and resulting good health. While there are special herbs, dietary restrictions or lifestyle considerations uniquely applicable to balancing certain hormones, there are principles that almost everybody can begin with. I generally suggest a three-tier treatment strategy:
1. Make appropriate diet, lifestyle and stress reduction changes first.
2. Use natural herbs and remedies when extra support is needed.
3. Use surgery, pharmaceutical or even bioidentical drugs in an emergency, as a stopgap when physical, mental or emotional symptoms are unbearable.
Here are ways to find more balance and achieve optimal health:
CHOOSE WHOLE, DIGESTIBLE FOODS When we find ourselves exhausted, spent or spacey, we grab fast carbs, highly processed and super refined foods and other quick fixes to ground us so that we can proceed at full speed in our stressful lives. A much better choice, of course, is to reach for vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and dairy foods. Freshly cooked and minimally processed and spiced foods are most easily digested, which in turn helps return the body to balance. To know more specifically about which foods are good for you, the first consideration is which foods you can digest well.
GET INTO A ROUTINE In Ayurveda, a daily routine is a crucial part of optimal health. When our systems adjust to doing the same things at the same time every day, we learn to count on this routine—and the nervous system can relax. A typical Ayurvedic routine is a bit morning-heavy, but if most of these elements are worked into your day, you should see tremendous benefits: Wake early and at the same time every day. Clean your face, brush your teeth, clean your tongue and gargle with warm water. Drink a glass of warm water; this stimulates a bowel movement and cleanses the G.I. tract. Eliminate. Apply cool water to your eyes. Gargle with salt water and use a neti pot to irrigate your nasal cavities. Meditate, engage in quiet contemplation or read inspirational material for anywhere from 15 minutes to 60 minutes. Apply warm oil to your body. It’s ideal to massage it in for about 15 minutes, but even a simple application of oil is beneficial. (For a full description of Ayurvedic selfmassage, including contraindications and appropriate oils, see “Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Oil Massage” under the “articles” section at drclaudiawelch.com). Bathe and get dressed. Take a brisk half-hour walk, followed by five to 10 minutes of gentle yoga. Cook meals for the rest of the day if possible. Eat your meals at the same time every day. Spend the evening quieting your mind and body in preparation for bed. Go to sleep at the same time each evening.
GET MOVING Too little and too much exercise are both problematic. Too little allows qi to stagnate, and when that happens, we may suffer from irritability, depression, stiff muscles, poor digestion and other issues. When we exercise too much, our muscles consume available qi and nutrition, thereby starving our organs and depleting our bones. Strenuous exercise might be more appropriate in youth, when we have plenty of yin, whereas more gentle exercise may be more appropriate as we age. Similarly, where gentle restorative yoga may be just the ticket for the woman who has too much activity and stress in her life—no matter how old she is—it may do very little to support another woman who has a sedentary life. Listen to your body; if you’re feeling an overwhelming presence of yang, choose activities such as tai chi and yoga; if you’re feeling more yin, take a brisk walk or try a team sport that will get you sweating.
CATCH ENOUGH Z’S Sleep is one of the most natural, easy ways to support good-quality yin in the body. If you don’t get enough sleep or suffer from insomnia, stick to a regular bedtime routine and also try the following: If you can’t sleep, get up, have a mug of warm milk with a pinch each of nutmeg and saffron, and then go back to bed. Exercise at the same time every day, and outdoors if possible. Apply warm bhringaraj oil to the soles of your feet and your scalp before bedtime. If your bedroom is cold, wear a nightcap. If all else fails, you might try bio-identical progesterone for your insomnia. There is some indication that it can be of benefit without as many negative side effects as other prescription hormone therapies.
KEEP GOOD COMPANY Over the course of life, I’ve reflected on what exactly “good company” is. I feel it is those who inspire me, among other things, to be a truly kinder, more honest person. If our relationships are healthy, our nervous systems relax and stress isn’t produced. If our relationships are in disarray, it takes a toll on our emotions, stress levels and, ultimately, physical health. Just one stressful conversation can increase stress hormones for more than 22 hours! Research also shows that the effects of marital stress are stronger and last longer in women than men. So, finding ways to heal and build relationships becomes a priority for our health. And perhaps the most important relationship to heal is with ourselves. If I am not happy with myself, it is unlikely that I will find peace in my other relationships. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The rise of adrenal fatigue Basically, the body works the way a hospital does. Emergencies get priority. Comfort is nice, but it’s secondary to survival. This means that while the body enjoys the nourishing influence of yin sex hormones, it grants priority to the yang stress hormones that will help us survive a crisis. If we run low on either sex hormones or stress hormones, or both, and there’s not enough raw material available to make both, our bodies prioritize stress hormones. This strategy of putting the needs of our survival systems first might work as a short-term arrangement, but for many of us, it becomes a way of life. Herein lies the problem. Our adrenal glands have already had to work overtime to produce all the stress hormones that are triggered by our modern lives. Then they have to pump out more of other kinds of hormones to re-establish the balance between yin and yang in the body, which was thrown out of whack by all the stress hormones in the first place. Little by little, we deplete both our sex hormones and our stress hormones, and we overtax our poor adrenal glands. It is not surprising that they “burn out.” When that happens, our bodies cannot produce enough sex or stress hormones, and the stage is then set for difficulties and discomfort. This is true no matter what your age, but it is especially pronounced during and after menopause.
Excerpted from the book Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life by Dr. Claudia Welch. Available from Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.