(Illustration by Kat Borosky; Graphic: TueNight)
Here are a few ways that classical Chinese medicine describes a women’s aging process once we get to, oh, about mid-century:
“Our rich essence wanes.”
“Our volume of precious fluids diminishes.”
But one of the starkest might have been from my favorite Chinese medicine teacher in grad school:
“Once you’re 49, your eggs are cooked.”
Cooked! The class laughed. To be clear, this teacher lived through the Cultural Revolution. She was a medical doctor and acupuncturist/ herbalist in pre-revolutionary China, and had to start all over when she came to the States, ultimately becoming an amazing acupuncturist and revered teacher of Chinese medicine. She had a full head of white hair and wore stretch pants unabashedly.
Every wrinkle is earned, each gray hair has a tale to tell.
And she did not mince words.
Back in my 30s I was among those amused in class. Now, in 2015, as I experience my own personal wanings and diminishings, it seems a bit harsh.
I became a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist almost 13 years ago, my specialty is women’s health and fertility, so lots of period, sex and babies talk. And after periods, sex and babies, there’s, of course, aging. I know firsthand that acupuncture and herbs can be miraculous for us as we age. One woman came in with what she described as a chronic low-grade anxiety. Through other stressful times in her life she managed this with exercise but now, in her late 40s, it wasn’t helping. After two acupuncture appointments she was hooked; now, over a year later, if her anxiety reappears, she comes in, spends 40 minutes on the table getting acupuncture and leaves feeling like a new women.
Another women, plagued by a rash that stumped several dermatologists, became a convert to Chinese herbs. Then there’s the CFO with hot flashes that haunted her, especially when it came time to address large groups. She comes in for acupuncture a few days prior to a big presentation and says she feels good as gold.
The symptoms are many and varied, as are the ways to treat them. So I’m not afraid of waning essence.
Fortunately, Chinese medicine also has a very thoughtful understanding of the changes we go through, explaining that every seven years we reach a new chapter. When looking at the transformation our bodies experience from ages seven to 14, this makes a lot of sense. And then age 21, 28, etc. Each bring us to a new era of womanhood, which is a whole lot more biologically logical than the big decade milestone birthdays that we’re used to celebrating.
We tick along, growing breasts, getting periods, feeling generally fecund without giving it too much thought. Then — whammy! — the seventh seven-year cycle hits.
Oh those glorious eggs! They were fairly dependable for three or four seven-year cycles. Of course they’re getting tired now. They can no longer reliably churn out estrogen and progesterone as they used do, but let’s take a moment to marvel at their accomplishments.
Some of those eggs have produced babies — a miraculous feat for what’s practically a dust particle-sized organism. They’ve helped give hair luster, made bones strong, hearts healthy and skin vibrant. Give credit where credit is due. We made it this far, and have thrived in the process. You don’t get to 49 without learning, loving, growing and accumulating some amazing stories along the way. Every wrinkle is earned, each gray hair has a tale to tell.
And hallelujah that we have another way of looking at what happens during this next phase. Were we to rely only WebMd’s perimenopause page, we’d mostly be balled up in a fetal position fearing whatever is next. I’ll gladly take the Chinese medicine poetry once again.
What’s better? Hot flashes or “sweating randomly because the heat is unrestrained and there is less cooling available?”
Anxiety? Well, “the heart becomes unmoored,” so of course we’re anxious.
Vaginal dryness? See above: “diminishing of vital essences,” which far and away beats estrogen loss on the ears, and in the vagina.
As the young kids say, “Whatever.”
Because no matter how you look at it, the changes come. There’s no way to make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.