Ask Dr. Sheila: Ayurvedic Stages of Life and Menopause

Ask Dr. Sheila: Ayurvedic Stages of Life and Menopause
Every month, Dr. Sheila, Chopra’s Chief Medical Officer will be answering questions from our followers. If you have a general question for her around health and wellness, please send us an email to askdrsheila@chopra.com, and your question may be the one she answers next month. This month, Dr. Sheila answers a question about the seasons of life and how they connect with Ayurveda and the doshas.

Ayurveda gives us unique descriptions of what happens in our physiology throughout the course of our lives. Just as the seasons change as we circle the sun, so do we move through various seasons of our lives. And just like the seasons of the year, these transitions come with predictable changes in our mind and body.

As we move from childhood to adulthood and then into our wisdom years, there are changes in our doshas and we experience this as changes in the qualities that dominate in our physiology. When we are aware of this, we can prepare to meet each season with more ease, instead of turbulence and discomfort.

Let’s explore the ‘seasons of life’ from an Ayurvedic perspective of the doshas:

I like to use analogies to the weather because these seasonal transitions in nature are something we are all familiar with. No matter where you live on the planet, you know, in general, what to expect as you go into new seasons. In one season of the year, there may be more heat or cold, there may be more or less rain, and the length of the days change in predictable ways.

Similarly, although we will all experience the seasons of life a little differently, there are some things that we will all experience, based on the dominant dosha qualities during that time of life. From childhood to puberty, we are in the Kapha stage of life. From puberty to age 50-60 we are in the Pitta stage of life. And we then enter the Vata stage of life.

Doshas and the Stages of Life

Regardless of an individual’s primary dosha(s), all individuals express more Kapha qualities as children. The dominant elements of Earth and Water allow for the growth of healthy tissues and a strong immune system. We are learning new information and creating cohesive memory.

At puberty, we begin to transition to the Pitta time of life, where we experience more of the Fire qualities and transformation in our body and mind. During this stage, some individuals express more Pitta qualities in their physiology by beginning the menstrual cycle. For all people, there is also building of muscle mass, skin changes, and, at times, intense emotions.

Then around age 50-60, we begin to transition out of the Pitta stage of life and into the Vata stage, where Air and Space qualities allow for the opportunity to have more expansive thinking and the ability to let go of things we have been holding onto so we can experience a lightness of being.

Each stage comes with its unique characteristics and effects on our physiology, and can also cause some turbulence as we transition from one stage to the other.

The Transition from Pitta to Vata

For individuals who experience monthly hormonal cycles, the transition from the Pitta into Vata stage is known as menopause, when individuals notice significant changes in their bodies and minds. This can be a time of emotional and spiritual growth as we reflect on our past and move creatively into the future. It is an opportunity to let go of what isn’t for our highest good and set intentions for ourselves.

This transition comes with a release of the accumulated Pitta energy from adulthood, so individuals can experience this as hot flashes, heavier menstrual cycles, skin changes, loss of muscle mass, and a change in digestion and metabolism, among other things.

As we move into the Vata stage of life, this can also be accompanied by symptoms of increasing Vata such as trouble sleeping, dryness, lightness of bones, and new food sensitivities. However, this transition does not need to be uncomfortable.

In fact, during this time individuals can begin to deepen their spiritual connection and connection to Self as they let go of some of the worldly responsibilities and move into more self-reflection, self-acceptance, and self-awareness. By recognizing these transitions, one can adjust their lifestyle practices to make the transitions more effortless.

That being said, these transition times can bring some challenges as the body and mind adjust to the next stage of life. This is when we can experience imbalances of the doshas as some are increasing and others are decreasing in our physiology as explained above. Many cultures honor this life transition with rituals and celebrations and help us accept the natural rhythms of life. If we can maintain balance through these times, we can celebrate ourselves and the changes that are occurring.

Staying Balanced Through Menopause

In order to stay balanced during this transition, and into the Vata stage of life, it is important to keep Pitta balanced to avoid some of the intense symptoms of Pitta release. We also can keep Vata energy grounded as it starts to accumulate.

Try these tips:

  • Start to create more downtime in your routine. Instead of filling your time with doing, carve out time to meditate and do breathing practices regularly.
  • Spend quiet time in nature.
  • Exercise for 20-30 minutes daily.
  • Begin to do some weight training and weight-bearing exercise to build up muscle and bone mass. This is in addition to regular walking or other aerobic exercises as well as movement for flexibility such as yoga or Pilates.
  • You may need to eat more cooked, warm food to aid digestion
  • Take note of any foods that are harder to digest than they used to be. It’s not uncommon for people to develop lactose intolerance or other issues as they enter the Vata time of life.
  • Eat a clean, plant-based diet with high fiber, whole grains, low sugar, whole soy foods, and limit salt, red meat, and animal fat.
  • Eat more of the foods that keep the hormones balanced and support the body naturally, such as cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale), beans and legumes, flax, and chia seed.
  • Use more oil on the skin as the tissue begins to dry.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and herbal teas throughout the day. One tea that can help calm the mind through this time is Tulsi (holy basil).
  • Get creative by trying new things such as art, music, or a new practice like qi gong, or explore some new energy work.

Improving Sleep During Life Transition from Pitta to Vata

Sleep issues are a common symptom during this transition as Pitta can keep you up, and Vata can interrupt sleep during the night.

Try these things to get good restful natural sleep:

  • Set a routine with regular sleep and wake times and be sure to get 7-8 hours of natural sleep. Although you may have gotten away with less sleep in the past, you will age in a healthier way by getting more deep restorative sleep.
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol which can interfere with sleep.
  • Deep breathing or Breath awareness before bed
  • Soothing music in the evening
  • Self-massage with herbalized oil (abhyanga)
  • Dim lights
  • Calming teas, such as chamomile and valerian
  • Aromatherapy, using essential oils such as lavender and sandalwood

Try these herbs to support natural sleep:

  • Ashwagandha
    • Effects may not be seen for several weeks; no reported toxicities
    • Especially effective for burnout and stress-related sleep issues
  • Valerian
    • Improves sleep latency and quality of sleep
    • Especially good for people with restlessness and insomnia
  • Passionflower (Passiflora)
    • Indicated for anxiety, restlessness, overwork, muscle tension/spasm
  • Melatonin
    • Good for jet lag, shift-work disorder

For other symptoms related to menopause, you can try the following after checking with your regular health care provider:

  • St John’s Wort - 900mg daily of standardized extract improves psychological and physical symptoms related to menopause
    • Caution if also taking meds that affect serotonin; can limit the effectiveness of certain meds (OCPs, digoxin, blood thinners, etc)
  • Black Cohosh - 20mg once daily can help with hot flashes, mood swings, sleep issues, body aches
    • Not recommended to take for more than 6 months
    • Rare risk of liver damage
  • Chasteberry (Vitex) - 500mg daily for irregular bleeding (too frequent or too heavy)
    • Can interfere with some medication such as birth control pills, or medications that affect dopamine, among others
  • Shatavari - 500mg daily for heavy bleeding or hot flashes.
    • Well tolerated with minimal medication interactions

A Journaling Practice for Life Transitions

This life transition is a powerful time to set some new intentions and move into more joy and fulfillment. Some questions to reflect on:

  • What brings me joy?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What is my purpose?
  • When have I had “peak” experiences or felt “in the flow”?
  • What makes me feel expanded and connected?
  • How do I express myself creatively outside of my work?

By doing this reflection and doing more things that bring us joy and meaning, we can honor each season of our lives.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, when we understand the changing dosha qualities within us, and have practices to keep them in balance, we can move through all of life’s natural cycles with grace and ease.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.

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