Solutions For Menopause: What’s vegan, What’s Not?
In my last article, I talked about menopause—the mysterious and often symptom-filled phase of life that includes perimenopause (the phase leading up to menopause); menopause (when periods stop), and post-menopuase (the time after you've been without a menstrual period for 12 months). These are naturally occurring life stages that most of us grow up hearing referenced only vaguely and euphemistically.
The list of potential symptoms associated with these phases—which I’ll collectively refer to as menopause—is long, and symptoms can be uncomfortable. There is no magic pill to resolve them all. Making matters worse is the fact that your doctors likely learned very little about menopause in medical school—so you’ll largely be left to your own devices to figure it all out.
There are solutions to alleviate menopause symptoms, but these often involve dietary changes and products that involve animal ingredients—so if you follow a plant-based lifestyle, then you’ll probably be wondering what potential solutions, whether pharmacological or nutritional, are vegan-friendly.
First things first, let’s talk about one of the most common solutions for menopause out there today: hormone replacement therapy.
What is hormone replacement therapy?
One of the key attributes of menopause is erratic hormone levels, specifically of hormones produced by the ovaries: estrogen and progesterone.
You might imagine, as I did, that your hormone levels simply decline steadily over time, but oh no—that is not the case. Once you get more squarely into the menopause and post-menopause phase, your body no longer produces high levels of these hormones at all, and that contributes to many of menopause’s uncomfortable symptoms including hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings. Hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, is designed to boost these hormone levels, supplementing what the body no longer creates in an attempt to mitigate symptoms.
HRT is one of the most commonly used solutions to address menopausal symptoms, and I assumed it would be non-vegan. I wasn’t ever sure, because I never checked. And you know what they say about making assumptions!
For the purposes of this article, I decided to do the kind of investigation I probably should have done eight years ago, when my symptoms first began.
Is there such a thing as vegan hormone replacement therapy?
Years ago, the prevailing hormone product being prescribed was indeed not vegan: it was made from the urine of pregnant horses. So I was partially right on that count.
The other issue with many HRT solutions is the delivery mechanism—often capsules or tablets that contain either gelatin or lactose. Gels and patches are going to be much more likely to have vegan options to deliver your hormones.
But provided you can find a vegan delivery mechanism, there are now plant-based estrogen products available. Most are based on the humble (and harmless) yam. Everyone needs different amounts of hormones, and if you need progesterone, a Mirena IUD or other similar device might be one of the few options for you.
While it’s excellent news that vegan alternatives are being developed, the situation isn’t yet perfect. Some plant-based “bio-identical” hormones are not adequately regulated and may not deliver as promised.
What are other vegan solutions besides hormones?
Menopause solutions don’t begin and end with hormone treatments.
Interestingly, scientific research seems to indicate that the placebo effect can be triggered by hot flash symptoms and that taking “natural” supplements can help achieve this effect. There’s a tendency to cast the placebo effect in a negative light, but as we learn more about how the body and the mind interact, there seems to be an evolution towards valuing the power of our mind to contribute to our sense of well-being and overall health. If we can safely trigger that effect, why wouldn’t we?
Some of the common herbal-based solutions touted for menopausal symptoms include the following—and all of these are vegan:
- Black Cohosh for hot flashes, with some studies indicating it is the most relevant and risk-free natural supplement for hot flash symptoms.
- Maca Powder is said to boost menopause-instigated reductions in sex drive.
- Magnesium, specifically for insomnia, but also early studies seems to indicate some effect on both PMS and post-menopausal mood and migraine symptoms.
- Plant-based “isoflavones” or “phytoestrogens,” such as those that are soy-based or derived from red clover, both of which potentially for reducing hot flashes.
Something to note with any and all of these supplements is that they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way pharmaceuticals are. Yes, they have regulations that apply to them, notably that they must be free of contaminants and that if they are going to make health-related claims they must have some research to back it up.
Yet unlike pharmaceuticals, herbal supplements are not submitted to the FDA before for independent review and validation. If you look at the labels of supplements, you’ll find they often steer clear of specific health-related claims, and they often leverage testimonials that cite subjective experiences instead of quantifiable results.
Turning to the community
If you’re suffering from a constellation of symptoms connected to your menopause journey, one good bet is to go to sites that feature a community of folks talking about what they’re experiencing, what they’ve tried, and what has worked for them. If you can be sure to remember that user-generated advice is not the same as medical advice, you will probably get more ideas (some of which you can bring to your doctor) on how to proceed.
A site I’ve often turned to is Menopause Made Modern, which aggregates information and advice on all of the major menopausal symptoms. And it shares a range of products and services and information rather than focusing on only one approach. So, for example, the section on hot flashes cites hormonal patches and cooling sprays and acupuncture and informational links so that you can do further research. No two people have the same combination of symptoms, so your solution toolkit needs to be bespoke!
If you’re trying to lead a life as a conscious consumer in all respects, then you are used to this process of investigating your options to find the solutions that work for both your lifestyle and your ethical framework. Menopause relief is no different.
But while doing the research for this article, I learned that there is more available to me than I was thinking. Too bad I learned this right when I was moving into post-menopause! But hopefully, I can spare some of you unnecessary delays in addressing your own symptom constellation.
Elisa Camahort Page is a speaker, consultant, and entrepreneur, best known for co-founding BlogHer. She’s the host of The Op-Ed Page podcast and This Week-ish newsletter, and co-author of Road Map for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy for All. Learn more at elisacp.com.