Rather than something to be regarded as a burden — or an illness to be treated with medications — the years leading to menopause are a "path to the promised land of wise womanhood" and can be greatly eased with natural progesterone.

Rather than something to be regarded as a burden — or an illness to be treated with medications — the years leading to menopause are a "path to the promised land of wise womanhood" and can be greatly eased with natural progesterone.

That's the message of Ashland physician Jesse Hanley, author, with Dr. John Lee, of "What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Premenopause; Balance Your Hormones and Your Life from 30 to 50."

"Whatever a woman does, she should understand that premenopause is the most exciting time of life," says Hanley. "You are entering the wise-woman era — and PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) is your teacher. If a woman doesn't honor and pay attention to PMS, she misses the teaching."

Modern life has brought about a rise in the presence of xenohormones — artificial chemicals that have hormone-like and estrogen-like activities — "everywhere in the world," says Hanley. — in pesticides, fertilizers, plastics, in milk and meat, in the water and air."

The chemicals — and estrogen supplied in Hormone Replacement Therapy — exacerbate a host of problems, she says, including water retention, weight gain, irritation, migraines, swollen ankles, sleeplessness, mood swings, growths in breasts and uterus — and the stress and depression that come with these.

Problems with periods, such as clotting, excess bleeding, cramping and mid-cycle spotting, have been thought by the medical profession to be caused by lack of estrogen, but Hanley says tests usually showed estrogen was high and progesterone low.

Hanley calls the situation Estrogen Dominance Syndrome, and she usually prescribes an organic diet, getting off sugar-laced foods, taking a good vitamin-mineral supplement, taking the amino acid GABA and, most importantly, using topical natural progesterone, the hormone that counterbalances estrogen and brings calming.

Just as important are lifestyle enhancements and doing a lot of inner peace work, including meditation, alone time and journaling, especially when emotions come up in PMS.

"It's not all in your head, the swelling, the moodiness, the staring into the fridge," she says. "The answer isn't in the fridge. It's in your feelings. Pay attention to them. Start a journal and write in these times of heightened sensitivity. Ask 'why am I so angry?'

"The gift of PMS is finding out what you're not happy with. It's not believing other people when they say 'it's just your hormones.' "

Moving into premenopause, says Hanley, who lectures on the subject all over the world, is "like opening Pandora's box. It's our passage to wise womanhood. You must go through these things. You're going to be the woman who emerges on the other side of it. It's the path to the promised land and it doesn't come without some pain."

While often reviled as "the curse," PMS is a time, she says, when "what comes up is the truth, all the stuff we sat on and suppressed all our lives. It comes up gently once a month and, if not dealt with, comes up all at once in menopause. I call it 'the gift.' It happens so you stop ignoring yourself — so it's not all waiting in menopause."

Hanley's teachings aren't solely for women; she finds that men, when they hear her lectures, "come out in tears because no one ever told them that it's not their fault," a reference to the mood swings, depression and other behaviors.

Men are often eager to hear whether the passage ever ends — and Hanley reassures, "Yes, it does. It's not just about the hormones; it's about life. It's a transformative time."

Hanley, who moved to Ashland last year, retired as medical director of Malibu Health and Rehabilitation Center in Malibu, Calif., where she was in private practice for the majority of her 20 years in practice.

At the age of 32, inspired by her own recovery from chronic illness with natural methods, Hanley graduated from medical school at the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Simultaneously she studied Oriental Medicine and acupuncture at UCLA Medical School, integrating both models with nutritional and herbal approaches.

Hanley, who is also the author of "Tired of Being Tired; Rescue, Repair, Rejuvenate," is no longer a primary caregiver, but she will provide consults for patients and their doctors. She can be reached at drhanley@jessehanley.com or 541-708-0326. Her Web site is www.jessehanleymd.com.