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Nourishing Women through Menopause and Beyond

by Susun S Weed(more info)

listed in women's health, originally published in issue 78 - July 2002

"In the Wise Woman tradition good health is flexibility, openness to change, availability to transformation, and groundedness. We nourish health/wholeness/holiness in each individual, ever aware of each person as holographically related to family/community/universe, in spiraling, ever-changing completeness."[1]

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The Wise Woman tradition is the world's oldest form of healing. Instead of fixing a broken machine (modern medicine) or cleansing the body-mind-spirit (alternative medicine), the Wise Woman tradition nourishes the wholeness of each unique individual - physically, symbolically, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, sexually, collectively and ecologically.

Nourishing women through menopause and beyond involves more than food. In the Wise Woman Way, herbs and stories are important agents of healing, too.

Stories change how we see the world and ourselves. Wise Women see menopause as a natural device for helping us live long, healthy lives, a prime factor in women's greater longevity,[2] an enlightenment, a passage to power,[3] where hot flashes are power surges, and the more we have, the healthier we are.

"Among many non-Western groups, the older [post-menopausal] woman enjoys increased status in the family and greater freedom in society at large. Menopause and the cessation of childbearing become positive events in a woman's life..."[4]

Wise Woman ways embrace menopause and menopausal women, rather than trying to fix them or balance them. Herbs are used to nourish and tonify, rather than to directly affect hormones or merely sedate symptoms. For instance, herbs such as nettle (Urtica dioica), red clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense), oatstraw (Avena sativa), comfrey leaf (Symphytum uplandicum x), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), dandelion root/leaf (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock root (Arctium lappa) are preferred over wild yam (Dioscorea species), black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), ginseng (Panax quinquifolium), dong quai (Angelica sinensis) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Furthermore, these nourishing and tonifying herbs are used in water and vinegar bases - not in capsules, concentrates or standardized tinctures.

From the Wise Woman perspective, hormone-rich herbs may be contraindicated for many menopausal women.

Wise Woman ways nourish women with foods especially suited to the requirements of their change, that is, foods high in protein, animal fat and minerals.

If either of these statements surprises you, and I am almost certain one or both do, then it is time for us to look at some menopausal myths.

Menopausal Myth 1

How many times have we heard that the menopause is caused by lack of oestrogen? It simply isn't true! We do stop making oestradiol, a very strong oestrogen, during menopause, but that doesn't mean we lack oestrogen, or that menopausal women are deficient in hormones. In fact, menopausal women have exceptionally high levels of many hormones, including oestrogens, androgens, luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone.[5]

Menopausal symptoms are rarely caused by a lack of hormones. Instead, they occur because a woman has difficulty creating and/or dealing with the increased hormone load characteristic of the menopausal years. If her adrenals are stressed by the demands made on them to produce extra hormones, she will be bothered by panic and sleeplessness, anxiety and emotional swings. If her liver is not able to metabolize all the hormones in her blood, it may 'overheat'. (According to traditional Chinese medicine, an overheated liver causes excessive hot flashes, short-term memory loss, sleep disturbances, heart disease, headaches and crying jags.) Many sources believe that an increase in luteinizing hormone alone is enough to trigger hot flashes.

If a menopausal woman's diet is not rich in protein, minerals and cholesterol - the building blocks of all hormones[6] - her heart, bones and glands will give up their nutrients, becoming stiff, porous and deficient in the process.

Menopausal Myth 2

Low-fat vegetarian diets rich in soy seem to be a craze nowadays, with the media pushing these choices as healthy, especially for menopausal women. But are they? Not by a long shot.

Menopausal women who consume high-fat diets, especially ones that are rich in animal fats, are healthier for many reasons. And those who eat a lot of soy are unhealthy for many different reasons. Let's look at the evidence for these statements.

High-Fat and Healthy

Menopausal women need more fat, and more cholesterol-rich animal fat, to help them produce more hormones, metabolize bone-building minerals, prevent breast cancer, enhance heart health, and maintain the health of their nervous system.

Hormones are specialized fats based on cholesterol. The more hormones we have to produce, the more cholesterol-rich foods/fat we need to eat.

One specialist quipped that women would be better off rubbing butter on their bellies than wasting their money on progesterone creams or wild yam products. "At least they could actually make hormones from the butter", he said with a smile. Men, who produce fewer hormones than women, need far less cholesterol than women. While some meat in the diet is a plus for health, animal fat is easily obtained from full-fat yoghurt and cheese, butter and eggs.

In a low-fat diet, stores of vitamin D drop and there is frequently a deficiency in vitamin E plus poor conversion of carotenes into vitamin A. Without these fat-soluble vitamins, calcium and other bone-building minerals cannot be fully incorporated into our bones, no matter how many pills we take or how many greens we eat. The calcium in full-fat yoghurt and cheese is used much better than the calcium in greens, unless those greens are cooked, as is traditional, for a long time with a piece of animal fat. (Nettle infusion contains its own fat-soluble vitamins along with its minerals.)

Greek women enjoy some of the lowest rates of heart disease and breast cancer in the world, and they consume lavish amounts of olive oil, goat's cheese and animal fats (up to 60% of total calories).[7] The more olive oil a Greek woman eats, the lower her risk of breast cancer falls.[8] In Sweden, a study of 61,000 women found that those who consumed meat, milk, cheese and butter lowered their risk of breast cancer. "For each 10 grams of monounsaturated fat [from dairy products and meat], the risk fell by 55 percent. For each 5 grams of polyunsaturated fat [from vegetable oil], the risk [of breast cancer] rose by 70 percent."[9]

Vegetable oils (that is, any oil pressed from a seed, such as corn oil, soy oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, flax oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil, for instance) actually promote heart disease: by altering prostaglandin production, by flooding the body with omega-6 fatty acids (a primary component of arterial plaque), and by playing a role in arterial damage and plaque deposition.

Low-fat diets rob women of the nutrients necessary for proper upkeep of the nervous system and the immune system. Women who eat as little as a quart of yoghurt a week have fewer urinary tract and vaginal infections, and far less cancer.

Soy Sorry

Organic, free-range meat, eggs and dairy products, especially when raw, provide an enormous amount of the nutrients most needed by menopausal women: cholesterol, protein, minerals and vitamins. Soy is no substitute for these real foods, and women who rely on it instead of good quality animal products do themselves harm. Soy milk, tofu and other non-fermented soy foods can decrease bone density, create thyroid problems and increase the risk of breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease and stroke.

According to Sally Fallon, specialist in lipid chemistry: "The highly processed soy foods of today are perpetuating...nutrient deficiencies all over the world."[10] Soy, like all beans, grains, nuts and seeds, contains anti-nutritional substances which bind to minerals and vitamins, chelating them out of the body. Cooking usually destroys these substances, but not those in soy. Only fermentation eliminates the anti-nutrients in soy. Unfermented and processed soy foods - including tofu, soy milk, soy burgers, soy dogs, soy nuts, fake meats, fake cheeses, fake ice cream, fake yoghurt, soy chocolate bars, texturized vegetable protein, for example - impair the absorption of calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.[11] Lack of these nutrients can decrease bone density, undermine the immune system and impair vision and memory.

Soy products depress the action of the thyroid by binding to thyroid hormones and chelating iodine. This is a special problem during menopause, when thyroid hormones may be naturally low. Women who consume large amounts of soy foods during menopause can create hypothyroidism. Traditionally, tofu is eaten with seaweed to counter this effect.

While the hormones in most plants are beneficial, and help to prevent breast cancer, those in unfermented soy (and those in liquorice, and perhaps those in dong quai) appear to increase the risk of breast cancer. When I was researching alternative cancer centres, I was struck by the fact that none of them allows any of their clients to eat unfermented soy foods.

Soy products contain an impressive amount of aluminium, up to 100 times the amount in milk. And soy foods lack certain fats that are critical to the functioning of the brain and memory. Japanese men who ate tofu more than once a week over a thirty-year period doubled their risk of Alzheimer's disease. And many menopausal women find that their short-term memory improves almost immediately when they avoid soy foods.

Soy beans are high in haemoglutin, a substance which causes clumping of red blood cells and increases the risk of stroke.

Instead of Soy

Miso and tamari (shoyu) are fermented soy products. They have an excellent record of promoting health and preventing cancer. More than 90% of the soy consumed in Japan, and much of what is eaten in China, is in the form of miso and tamari. I eat at least a teaspoonful of one or the other nearly every day.

If you are looking for phytoestrogens, a diet based on whole grains, lentils, lima beans, black beans, nuts, root vegetables, leafy greens, fruits with edible seeds, and lavish use of seasoning seeds and roots provides plenty, helps menopausal women stay healthy, and has been shown to lower the incidence of breast cancer significantly.[12],[13]

Red clover blossom infusion contains ten times more phytoestrogens than soy[14] and twice as many kinds.[15] Red clover has a solid anti-cancer reputation.[16],[17] I drink a quart or more a week (flavoured with mint as I dislike the tannic, black-tea taste of the red clover alone) to counter xenoestrogens (environmental chemicals) and help me maintain a high level of plant hormones in my blood and tissues.

A Case Study

CH came to me because her doctor told her she had low bone density and an underactive thyroid. A slender blonde in her mid-forties, CH had eaten little meat or dairy products for 15-20 years. She primarily ate grains, vegetables and fruit. In the past few years she has increased the amount of tofu, soy milk and other soy products in her diet. She also complained of lack of energy, dry skin and thinning hair. A daily regime of 1/2 to one cup of plain full-fat yoghurt, plus at least two cups of nourishing nettle or oatstraw infusion (see recipe for instructions on making a nourishing infusion) for six months raised her bone density by four points, restored the health of her thyroid and increased her energy. The addition of four tablespoons of olive oil and several pats of butter daily improved her skin and hair. CH enjoys the infusions so much that she intends to keep using them.

Nourishing Herbal Infusions

Nourishing herbal infusions, prepared by steeping 35 grams of dried herb in a litre of boiling water for at least four hours, are one of the most important means of nourishing menopausal women that the Wise Woman tradition offers. Nourishing herbal infusions are ideal sources of many nutrients, especially minerals.[18],[19]

Mineral needs increase dramatically during the menopausal years. But minerals are difficult to get, or to assimilate, from foods; and cooking, or lack of cooking, also influences their availability. The mineral content of most foodstuffs has declined enormously in the past 50 years; and minerals are virtually impossible to assimilate from raw or lightly cooked foods.[19]

But herbs are mineral powerhouses. (See Appendices.)

Mineral-rich herbs are tasty, easy to consume as infusions or vinegars, and add virtually no calories to the diet. When used as part of the daily diet, they are better at preventing bone breaks than supplements.[20]

Preparing a Nourishing Herbal Infusion

A tea is a small amount of herb brewed for a short time. An infusion is a large amount of herb brewed for a long time. In order to extract minerals, we must steep our herbs for a minimum of four hours.

I do it this way: Place 35 grams of dried cut herb in a litre jar. Fill to the top with boiling water and cap tightly. Allow to sit at room temperature for 4-9 hours. Strain and drink the resulting liquid. One cup of nettle infusion was recently tested and found to have 500mg of calcium. A cup of tea made from the same nettle contained 5mg of calcium.

My four favourite herbs for nourishing infusions are nettle, oatstraw, red clover and comfrey leaf. I use one at a time, drinking up to a litre a day of any one.

* Stinging nettle helps to build, restore and tone adrenal and kidney tissues and functions. Regular use of nettle infusion eases or eliminates night sweats and hot flashes, improves energy, stops thinning hair, improves cardiovascular health, creates healthy bones and moderates mood swings and anxiety attacks;

* Oatstraw is the grass of the plant that gives us oatmeal, and it has oats' same heart-healthy, nerve-nourishing properties. The taste of the infusion is mellow, but it spoils very rapidly. Any colour of oatstraw is fine, from green to gold to brown. All offer generous amounts of minerals and vitamins for good health;

* Red clover is my favourite cancer preventative. It is also a powerhouse of minerals and vitamins and phytonutrients. There is a slight possibility that red clover may increase menstrual flooding as it contains trace amounts of coumarin, a blood thinner, but I have never known this to happen, and suspect it would be a possibility only if the herb were ingested in capsules, one of the reasons I avoid them;

* Comfrey leaf is also called 'knit bone' and it is certainly a favourite of mine for strengthening bones, tendons and ligaments. Comfrey leaf infusion keeps mucus surfaces moist and helps keep vaginal and bladder tissues strong. It also contains special proteins needed for the production of short-term memory cells. Alkaloids in comfrey root make it unsafe for internal use, but comfrey leaves are free of these substances.[21-23]

Herbal Infusions for Healthy Hearts and Flexible Bones

"Heart disease correlates with mineral deficiencies. [The] rates are lower in regions where drinking water is naturally rich in trace minerals, particularly magnesium..."[19] Herbal infusions rich in potassium - such as nettle or red clover, seasoned with sage (Salvia officinalis) or mint - help maintain proper blood pressure. Those rich in calcium - such as nettles, oatstraw, red clover and chickweed (Stellaria media), seasoned with peppermint or thyme - protect the heart and arteries and help the heart maintain a steady rhythm. Those rich in magnesium and potassium - such as nettles, dulse, yellow dock or burdock - help keep blood pressure low.

Healthy bones need minerals, too. Not just calcium, but potassium, manganese, magnesium, silica, iron, zinc, selenium, boron, phosphorus, sulphur and chromium, at least, and probably several more. Regular consumption of yoghurt, cheese and mineral-rich herbs, combined with regular exercise, creates flexible bones highly resistant to breakage.[24] Tai chi and yoga exercises not only keep the entire body in flexible health, they also have specific effects on the hormonal system and may be instrumental in maintaining optimum postmenopausal levels of oestrogen and progesterone.[25],[26] Both oestrogen and calcium supplements (and foods such as tofu which contain calcium supplements) increase bone brittleness and increase the risk of fractures.[27]

The minerals in green plants seem to be ideal for keeping bones healthy.[28] "The closer people get to a diet based on plant foods and leafy vegetables, the lower the rates of many diseases, including osteoporosis."[29] If eating a cup of cooked greens every day is difficult, try drinking a cup of nourishing herbal infusion, or eating a serving of seaweed, or using medicinal herbal vinegars. But forget pills or capsules: mineral-rich herbs need to be consumed in dietary quantities to produce results.


Instead of treatments that leave menopausal women feeling that their bodies are failing them and must be supplemented and fixed, the Wise Woman tradition offers stories, ceremonies, foods and herbs that nourish their changes. Flexible bones, cancer-free breasts and strong hearts are created by lifestyle choices, not drugs, by nourishing herbal infusions and high-fat diets, not soy foods and hormonal herbs.

The Wise Woman tradition helps women welcome their menopausal changes, reassuring them that the menopause creates healthy women and healthy societies, and promising them that beyond the chaos awaits postmenopausal zest: the increased energy, power and abilities gifted to women in their 60s and beyond.

Appendices I, II and III present mineral data for 14 herbs used frequently in the Wise Woman tradition. Data are based on 100g dry weight and do not include all minerals found in each herb. Approximately 20% of the amount of minerals are extracted into 250ml of infusion if 35g of dried herb are brewed in one litre of water; approximately 4% of the total minerals are extracted into 15ml (one tablespoon) of vinegar if 400g of fresh herb are infused in 400ml vinegar.

Appendix I: Minerals in Herbs Used Mainly as Nourishing Infusions

* Comfrey leaves: calcium (1130mg), chromium (0.8mg), manganese (6.7mg), phosphorus (211mg), potassium (1590mg), selenium (0.57mg) and zinc (0.28mg);
* Oatstraw: calcium (1430mg), phosphorus (425mg) and potassium (352mg);
* Red clover blossoms: calcium (1310mg), magnesium (349mg) and potassium (2000mg;)
* Stinging nettle: calcium (6000mg), magnesium (860mg), phosphorus (447mg), potassium, (1750mg) and zinc (4.7mg).

Appendix II: Minerals in Herbs Used Mainly as Medicinal Vinegars

* Burdock root: calcium (733mg), chromium (2.0mg), iron (147mg), magnesium (537mg), manganese (537mg), phosphorus (437mg), potassium (1680mg), selenium (1.4mg), silicon (22.5mg) and zinc (2.2mg);
* Dandelion root: calcium (614mg), chromium (0.9mg), iron (96mg), magnesium (157mg), manganese (6.8mg), phosphorus (362mg), potassium (1200mg), selenium (0.86mg), silicon (4.7mg) and zinc (1.3mg);
* Garden sage: calcium (1080mg), chromium (0.3mg), magnesium (285mg), manganese (3.0mg), potassium (2470mg), silicon (3.1mg) and zinc (5.9mg). One cup of chopped fresh garden sage contains 270mg of calcium;
* Garden thyme: calcium (1350mg), chromium (2.0mg), iron (147mg), magnesium (436mg), manganese (6.4mg), selenium (1.6mg), silicon (20.2mg) and zinc (1.5mg). One cup of chopped fresh thyme contains 350mg of calcium;
* Peppermint: calcium (1620mg), manganese (6.1mg), magnesium (661mg), phosphorus (772mg), potassium (2260mg) and selenium (1.1mg). One cup of chopped fresh peppermint supplies 400mg of calcium;
* Yellow dock root: calcium (1000mg), magnesium (320mg), phosphorus (757mg), potassium (1220mg), selenium (2.5mg) and silicon (1.3mg).

Appendix III: Minerals in Herbs Used Mainly as Vegetables

* Amaranth greens: calcium (1210mg), phosphorus (324mg) and potassium (1864mg);
* Chickweed: calcium (1210mg), magnesium (523mg), manganese (15.3mg), phosphorus (448 mg) and zinc (5.2mg);
* Dandelion: one cup of chopped, cooked dandelion greens supplies 300mg of calcium;
* Dulse: calcium (632mg), chromium (2.7mg), magnesium (593mg), potassium (2270mg), selenium (3.3mg), silicon (36.8mg, and zinc (3.9mg);
* Kelp: calcium (3040mg), magnesium (867mg), manganese (7.6mg), phosphorus (249mg), potassium (2110mg), selenium (1.7mg), silica (7.6mg) and zinc (0.6mg);
* Kale: one cup of chopped, cooked kale supplies 200mg of calcium;
* Broccoli: one cup of chopped, cooked broccoli supplies 136mg of calcium.


1. Weed Susun. Healing Wise: The Second Wise Woman Herbal. Ash Tree Publishing. Woodstock, NY. ISBN 0-96-146202-7. 1989.
2. Perls T MD and Fretts R MD. Why women live longer than men. Scientific American. 8: 102. 1998.
3. Kenton Leslie. Passage to Power: Natural Menopause Revolution. Ebury Press. London. ISBN 0-090178360-7. 1995.
4. Greenwood Sadja MD. Menopause Naturally. Volcano Press. San Francisco, CA. ISBN 0-91-207874-X. 1984.
5. Carlson KJ MD et al. The Harvard Guide to Women's Health. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 1996.
6. Glanze Walter D ed. The Mosby Medical Encyclopedia. New American Library. New York, NY. ISBN 0-45-225671-2. 1985.
7. Carper Jean. Food Pharmacy. Bantam. New York, NY. 1991.
8. Trichopoulou A et al. Consumption of olive oil and specific food groups in relation to breast cancer risk in Greece. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 87: 110-16. 1995.
9. Wolk A et al. Archives of Internal Medicine. 12 Jan 1997; reported in Science News. 153: 37. 1997.
10. Hartley B. Is soy a ploy? A look at some claims and research. Healthy & Natural Journal. 4(2): 38-40. 1996.
11. Fallon Sally and Enig Mary. How safe is soy? NewLife. May 1996.
12. Clarke R et al. Estrogens, Phytoestrogens and breast cancer. Advanced Experiment in Medical Biology. 401: 63-85. 1996.
13. Ingram D et al. Case control study of phytoestrogens and breast cancer. The Lancet. 350: 990-94. 1997.
14. Reinli K and Block G. Phytoestrogen content of foods - a compendium of literature values. Journal of Nutrition and Cancer. 26(2): 123-48. 1996.
15. He X et al. Analysis of flavonoids from red clover by liquid chromatography and electrospray mass spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography. 755: 127-32. 1996.
16. Fotsis T et al. Fenistein, a dietary ingested isoflavonoid, inhibits cell proliferation and in vitro angiogenesis. Journal of Nutrition. 125: S790-97. 1995.
17. Pagliacci MC et al. Growth inhibitory effects of the natural phyto-oestrogen genistein in MCF-7 human breast cancer cells. European Journal of Cancer. 30A: 1675-82. 1994.
18. Pedersen Mark. Nutritional Herbology. Pedersen Publishing. Bountiful, UT. 1987.
19. Bergner Paul. The Healing Power of Minerals, Special Nutrients, and Trace Elements. Prima Press. Rocklin, CA. ISBN 0-76-151021-4. 1997.
20. Feskanich D et al. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. American Journal of Public Health. 87: 992-97. 1997.
21. Is comfrey safe for internal use? The roots of wild comfrey, Symphytum officinale, are known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can cause venous liver congestion. Two neonatal deaths are ascribed to ingestion of comfrey root. The leaves of cultivated comfrey, Symphytum uplandica, do not contain these alkaloids and appear to be safe for all women, even pregnant and lactating women. Four generations of people living at the Henry Doubleday Research Center have eaten cooked comfrey leaves regularly, including during pregnancy and lactation, and no liver problems have been seen in this population.
22. Awang DVC. Comfrey. Canadian Pharm Journal. pp101-4. 1987.
23. Gladstar R. The comfrey controversy. Journal of the Northeast Herbalists Association. Winter 1994.
24. Fallon S and Enig M. Diet and heart disease: not what you think. Consumer's Research. 7: 70. 1996.
25. Ohlig Adelheid. Luna Yoga, Vital Fertility and Sexuality. Ash Tree Publishing. Woodstock, NY. ISBN 0-96-146206-X. 1994.
26. Rodrigues Dinah. Hormonal Yogatherapy for Menopause. Editora Madras. Brazil. 1998.
27. Cumming RG et al. Calcium intake and fracture risk: results from the study of osteoporotic fractures. American Journal of Epidemiology. 145: 926-34. 1997.
28. Hu J-F et al. Dietary calcium and bone density among middle-aged and elderly women in China. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 58: 219-27. 1993.
29. Hu J-F et al. Bone density and lifestyle characteristics in premenopausal and postmenopausal Chinese women. Osteoporosis International. 4: 288-97. 1994.


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About Susun S Weed

Susun S Weed has been living the simple life for more than 30 years as a herbalist, goatkeeper, homesteader and feminist. In addition to being the author of four highly acclaimed books on herbs and women's health, Susun lectures worldwide as the voice of the Wise Woman tradition, personally supervises several hundred correspondence students, and is editor-in-chief of Ash Tree Publishing. She also directs the activities of the Wise Woman Center, her 50-acre home in New York State's Catskill mountains, where she trains Shamanic and herbal apprentices and plays with the fairies. Contact Susun at home: PO Box 64, Woodstock, NY 12498, USA;

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