When menopause robbed Gail Jones of a good night's sleep, she reluctantly tried drugs to boost her hormones.
The prescription soothed her symptoms for a time but ultimately couldn't convince Jones that pharmaceuticals were the best companion on the midlife journey of menopause — and beyond.
"I just didn't want to be on it the rest of my life," says the 61-year-old Medford resident.
Taking a cue from her mother — hale at age 93 — Jones turned to alternative therapies and exercise, namely acupuncture and yoga. While traditional Chinese medicine improved her sleep, yoga eased the aches and pains of menopause and restored a "certain presence" to her body, Jones says. Regarded for thousands of years as the foundations of health, the Eastern disciplines merged for a March workshop at Medford's Rasa Center for Yoga and Wellness.
"You have to stop the stress, relax the body and allow nature to do what it's supposed to do," says Teresa Bresnan, a Medford doctor of Oriental medicine who demonstrated acupressure at the workshop.
Acupuncture, herbs, diet and relaxation all help the body regulate its hormones, Bresnan says, explaining that estrogen and progesterone are produced in the adrenal glands, along with about 50 other hormones. Hot flashes — stereotypic symptoms of menopause — strike because the brain recognizes a hormone imbalance, Bresnan says.
Hot flashes affect many students in her yoga classes, says Rasa instructor Natalie Stawsky, adding that most menopausal women attend the center's "gentle" sessions instead of vigorous yoga formats that generate warmth.
"They don't need more heat in their body," says Stawsky.
Those and other gender-specific complaints inspired Stawsky to hold the March 6 workshop titled "Embracing Womanhood." With empowering women her goal, Stawsky plans another workshop this year on the topic of harnessing female energy and creativity.
"You are your own artist," Stawksy tells the 20 workshop participants swaying through a series of figure-8s. "There is no one else in the world doing this exact shape in this exact way."
Extending their arms like wings to their sides, the group forms two lines for support during "tree" pose. Palms pressed to the woman's next to them, students draw stability from the shared maneuver.
"Women are great at balance," Stawsky says. "We balance and juggle in our lives."
Balancing participants' nervous systems was the purpose of "gentle, nurturing" yoga postures singled out for the Saturday event. Forward bends that compress the abdominal area are believed to release toxins, Stawsky says. Deep breathing "cools" the body, she says, citing recent studies that endorse yoga, tai chi and other mind-body exercises for reducing the intensity and overall incidence of hot flashes. Positions that open the pelvic area create space around the female reproductive organs and can alleviate premenstrual syndrome, Stawsky adds.
Stawsky shored up the classic "bridge" pose with foam blocks under students' tailbones. With shoulder blades and elbows pressed into the floor, students attempt to raise one foot to the ceiling. Foot soles fitted together, knees splayed, their legs make diamond shapes while their backs recline against bolsters for the class's closing relaxation.
"It was really helpful to learn there are some things you can do to take care of yourself," says 55-year-old Martina Wearstler of Medford.
A registered nurse, Wearstler says Bresnan's explanation of the adrenal glands' prominence in female hormone production supplied some vital information that mainstream medical providers hadn't. Although Wearstler uses hormone-replacement therapy, she says she believes holistic methods also soften the impact of menopause.
"I think it was very complementary to it," she says. "Being able to use less medication is great."
Most hoping they can avoid taking synthetic hormones, about half of her patients cite symptoms of menopause as their primary complaint, Bresnan says. Those who maintain a wholesome diet and healthful lifestyle habits — reducing stress, in particular — find alternative medical therapies sufficiently treat menopause, she says.
A local expert in hormone balancing, Nisha Jackson also vouches for Oriental medicine, proper nutrition and strategies for lowering stress. Founder and owner of Medford's Ventana Wellness, Jackson began her medical career as a nurse practitioner specializing in female health who hoped to improve patients' conditions through diet.
Jackson eventually came to prescribe plant-based, "bioidentical" hormones but says she always evaluates patients' adrenal function. More commonly known for producing adrenaline, adrenal glands can't produce sex hormones when overwhelmed by stress, Bresnan and Jackson agree.
"We trash our adrenals from so much stress," she says, explaining that women wouldn't have such severe menopause symptoms if they took care of themselves in their 30s.
"The great thing about adrenals is you can get them back."
That's where complementary, alternative therapies and simple relaxation can stand in for prescription drugs, Jackson says. She makes frequent referrals for alternative therapies, some of which are housed at Ventana, an integrative clinic.
Never one to take a prescription, her mother swears by olive oil, red wine and lots of exercise, Jones says. Since following Jean Blanchard's example of aging gracefully and naturally, Jones has found more than relief from menopause.
"It becomes a way of life — yoga, especially," Jones says. "It is, to me, a healing process from within."