What IS Normal when it comes to women’s health?

Apart from roughly the first 11 to 15 years of every girl’s/woman’s life, the rest of her life on this planet will see her (reproductive) hormones undergo constant changes. For some, the transitions will be smooth and go mostly unnoticed, but for others every little change will bring its own set of issues.

Apart from roughly the first 11 to 15 years of every girl’s/woman’s life, the rest of her life on this planet will see her (reproductive) hormones undergo constant changes. For some, the transitions will be smooth and go mostly unnoticed, but for others every little change will bring its own set of issues.

The human body is designed to auto-regulate and balance itself, and any sign of discomfort, no matter how minor, appears as a means to alert us to the fact that there is some imbalance. If you were run over by a truck or you just gave birth and are suffering from pains and aches everywhere, then the reasons are obvious. However, there are many times when the cause of those pains and aches is not apparent, and even further investigations (ultrasounds, blood tests, explorative surgery, etc) come up empty.  If I had a Euro for every time I heard a doctor say: “It’s normal, a lot of women have this.” I’d be rich by now.

Normal vs Common

The problem lies in what the definition of “normal” has come to mean in everyday language.  The fact is, the word “normal” is not interchangeable with “common”. Normal should not be a way to indicate that everything is ok even though it obviously isn’t. Normal actually is being pain free and not suffering with every minor change.  If you suffer from PMT then you are told it is normal, simply because millions of women across the globe suffer from it like you. Yet, if my blood sugar, my LDL cholesterol or my blood pressure is high then it is no longer labelled “normal”, even if the world is full of people with any or all of these three conditions! 

Is normal a question of statistics? In other words, if usually a girl gets her first period at age 13, but you get yours at age 11 or 15 then suddenly you are not “normal”. Really??? I am not a big mathematician, in fact I never liked mathematics much and I only took statistics at University because it was a compulsory part of my course in the first year, but one thing that I do know is that an average number is the sum of lots of numbers, some higher, others lower. Which means the majority will fall in the middle of that range but there will always be numbers above and beyond the average. Apparently doctors do not have to study basic maths. Either that or they forget that an average is just that, an average!  So you are not abnormal if your period starts at 11 or 15, it just isn’t the most common age!

Menopause and PMT

Let’s talk about Menopause for a moment. Did you know that statistics still say that the average age a woman goes into menopause is around 50-55? However, did you also know that many women are going into natural menopause in their early 40s and an alarmingly increasing number of women over the past decade have had the onset of menopause as early as in their 30s?  If you don’t believe me start googling and look up a few forums frequented by real life women and read for yourself.

Also, did you know that high percentages of Western women suffer to various degrees not just from PMT every month, but also during peri-menopause (the period immediately preceeding the onset of menopause and which can last for up to 13 years. Yes, you read that right, 13) with symptoms including cramps, mood swings, hot flashes and irregular periods?  Yet, these symptoms are almost unheard of in some Asian countries.  Should we then believe that just because we are Western we are “normal” and women in other parts of the world where they do not suffer from PMT or peri-menopausal symptoms are, by extension, “not normal”?  Let me remind you of what I said at the beginning: the human body uses pain to express imbalance. It follows then that in the absence of imbalance there should be no pain, no side effects, no unexplainable symptoms.  Just look at what Chinese Medicine, Native American Medicine and Ayurveda say about this. All of these go back thousands of years. In comparison Western medicine is a toddler.

What IS normal?

The most alarming thing is that Western society as a whole has become so used to it all, that when you announce you are entering menopause people automatically assume there will be hormonal problems accompanied by pain and discomfort.  The most common question I have heard being asked of a woman saying she is menopausal is “What are you taking for it?”.  Why should the assumption be that the menopausal woman necessarily has hot flushes and all the array of other uncomfortable and disrupting symptoms, and that she MUST therefore be on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) or some other kind of medication?

Menopausal women in Japan, and on the island of Okinawa in particular, do not generally (normally?!) suffer during this transition. One day their period simply disappears and they transition without any complications. They have no need for HRT.

Diet, HRT and Surgery

The question then comes naturally. Why? Let me answer that with a question, and a further note on the subject of hormones. How many times has your doctor asked you about your eating habits when you discussed hormonal or other ongoing health concerns? I would hazard a guess and say for most of you the answer is never. What you eat plays a major role in every aspect of your wellbeing. Food can cure, or it can harm. It can be used as a medicine, or you might have to have medicine as your food for the rest of your life. Since I do not believe that the Japanese are stress free, they still have pollution and use cosmetics full of parabens, SLS and other hormone disruptors, the only major difference is diet. However, Western medicine is still refusing to embrace this idea and address it.

The other thing to bear in mind is that the majority of doctors will quite happily prescribe HRT at the first sign of symptoms. This carries with it an array of other consequences. The widespread practice is still to prescribe only synthetic progesterone. Except in very rare cases, this will lead to further problems. First of all, synthetic progesterone is not the same as the one produced in the human female body. It would be better to prescribe bio-identical progesterone/hormones. Secondly, unopposed progesterone can tilt the balance in the opposite direction and lead to other complications. The prescription should include some oestrogen, too. The amounts will depend on the individual case, which leads to another problem, the administration is usually in standard dosages (whether in pill or other form), and doesn’t always take into account the individual and cyclical nature of hormone levels in women both daily and over longer periods.

There are also those doctors who still insist that you are not menopausal simply because you are not the right age (ie between 50 and 55 as per their scientific textbooks), even though you exhibit all the signs and/or symptoms. Things become even more complicated when, having tried other avenues such as HRT, the symptoms persist, and even after explorative surgery they can find no medical explanation for what is happening.

Take a friend of mine who went through a difficult menopause for years, then finally relief came and for over 24 months her periods stopped altogether. Then, out of the blue, she started bleeding again. Tests revealed no fibroids or other conditions that would normally cause bleeding. So what to do? The word Hysterectomy appeared in the horizon. But removing all the related organs will not be the solution to the problem. If anything it will make it worse, because regardless of whether or not the woman is at a fertile age, her organs will continue to produce hormones. In the same way that men also produce oestrogen (yes!) albeit different levels to those of women.  These hormones are ALL necessary for normal health (in the case of oestrogen it is necessary for good bone health, to name but one). The solution therefore lies in balance or to put it a different way: it lies in bringing the body back to normal. Yes, that’s right, N-O-R-M-A-L..

Bringing back balance

How do you bring balance back? Well, it is a combination of things. Natural remedies do exist and work.  Your first step should always be to look at your diet. What foods you are consuming, what effect those foods are having on your body type (we are all unique), and what foods help/hinder the body in the production of certain hormones.

Secondly, there are adaptogenic herbs readily available. Adaptogenic means that whether high or low levels of a certain hormone are present in your body, these herbs will bring them back to normal, or in other words, they will balance them. An example of such an adaptogenic herb is Chasteberry, also known as Vitex.. Commonly used in America as well as Europe and going back centuries (among other uses it was administered to male monks to help curb their sexual desire, hence the name). The Chinese have mixtures of herbs which are personalised to address the unique combination of imbalances that might occur (unlike Western HRT which gives you the same pills whether or not you suffer from hot flashes!). Ayurveda uses other plants and combinations which evolved over the course of thousands of years based on what was available in the part of the world in which it developed.

There are many other things that can be done to help bring back balance, but the above are the easiest place to start. Most importantly, next time you experience discomfort, ask yourself this: is this normal? Hopefully your response will be to go and find the source of the imbalance, and to try to address it naturally, rather than to embrace pain and discomfort.


Recommended reading:

- Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

- The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northrup, M.D.

- Woman Heal Thyself by Jeanne Elizabeth Blum.

- What your Doctor May NOT Tell You About PreMenopause (Balance your hormones and your life from Thirty to Fifty) by John R. Lee, M.D.

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