Emerging medical research indicates that an ancient health therapy may be the prescription for the future. Increasingly the menopausal problems of hormonal imbalance, often resulting in bone loss, are also affected by depression and stress. Change is stressful for all of us, even good changes, like changes of life. Maturity is a good thing, yet the stress of major life changes can result in stress and depression, which according to emerging research may further aggravate the uncomfortable symptoms of menopause. Is there any escape from this catch-22? Yes, although this may seem overwhelming in its scope, there may be great news. An ancient Chinese natural health therapy, known as Tai Chi, may help alleviate many of the aggravating symptoms of menopause in profoundly healthful ways.
Of course only your physician can help you decide what is right for your personal therapy as you enter the menopausal transition. However, you may find that you need to educate your physician regarding the benefits Tai Chi may offer you at this important time in your life. Or, perhaps if you ask around you may find a physician who has already educated himself or herself about the benefits Tai Chi may offer all women, but definitely has much to offer women entering menopause.
Emerging research indicates that Tai Chi can help reduce the incidence of depression, anxiety, and mood disturbance in regular practitioners. In a Prevention Magazine report entitled, "Tai Chi May Relieve Anxiety and Depression," Donal P. O'Mathuna, Ph.D., a lecturer in Health Care Ethics at the School of Nursing in Dublin City University, Ireland says that, ". . . . evidence there is suggests that the benefits of tai chi extend beyond those of simply exercising. The combination of exercise, meditation, and breathing all may help relieve anxiety and depression. . ." In its article entitled, "Tai chi," the Mayo Clinic staff at MayoClinic.com stated that preliminary research shows that practicing Tai Chi regularly may not only reduce anxiety and depression, but also increase bone mineral density after menopause. This was echoed by a report by Natural Standard and the Faculty of Harvard Medical School.
This is a very important finding, and begins to make even more sense, when you consider the National Institutes of Mental Health reports that the stress hormones found in depressed women caused bone loss that gave them bones of women nearly twice their age. Exactly why Tai Chi offers such benefit may be explained by a study from Australia's La Trobe University that found that Tai Chi reduced levels of stress hormones more effectively than some other forms of activity.
But, no matter how you slice it, research is indicating that Tai Chi may be a "very" effective multi-level beneficial therapy for women. A Chinese study reported in the December 2004 "Physician and Sportsmedicine" found that tai chi could retard bone loss among postmenopausal women significantly. Bone mineral density was measured before and after the study period. Both groups experienced general bone loss, but the rate of bone loss for the Tai Chi group was less than in the control group. In fact, the Tai Chi practicing group of women slowed bone loss by 2.6 to 3.6 times more. The study reported, "Bone loss was 2.6 to 3.6 times slower (p<.01) in the distal tibia in the [Tai Chi] exercise group compared with bone loss in the control group."
Back in 1999, before these studies began showing that Tai Chi may actually improve bone density, or at the least dramatically slow bone loss, the "Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery's" 1999; 7:19-31, reported that "…Coupled with drug therapy should be a comprehensive approach to exercise and fall prevention. Stretching, strengthening, impact, and balance exercises are effective. Of the balance exercises, tai chi chuan has proved to be the most successful in decreasing falls.." This was because falling injuries are a grave health risk for all aging Americans, but given the dangers of osteoporosis for women, an especially important concern. In fact the sixty leading cause of death for aging Americans is complication from falling injuries. However, research has shown time and time again in major medical studies, such as John's Hopkins, that Tai Chi can reduce the incidence of falling injuries by 50% in those who practice Tai Chi. So, even before emerging research began to show that Tai Chi may contribute to stronger bones in menopausal women perhaps by reducing stress hormone levels and providing a gentle weight bearing exercise, it was know that Tai Chi was a powerful therapy to reduce falling injury.
Now, there may be even more benefit ancient Chinese health therapies can offer to relieve the discomfort of life changes. Tai Chi is known as a general therapeutic form of "Qigong" (pronounced chee gung) exercise. Qigong means "energy exercise" or "breathing exercise" in Chinese. This indicates that Qigong combines gentle motion, or physical stimulation, with breathing techniques, and visualization/relaxation techniques to achieve substantial health benefits. There are over 7,000 Qigong therapies in the Chinese Medica (the Traditional Chinese Book of Medicine). Tai Chi, again, is a highly sophisticated general health Qigong practice, therefore this Qigong research may be relevant to the Tai Chi's applications for those in menopause. An interesting study at healthy.net, revealed that sex hormone levels may be balanced by the practice of Qigong exercises.
The report stated, "…female sex hormone (estrogen) levels tend to increase in men and decrease in women. Three studies indicate that qigong exercise can reverse this trend. The effect of qigong exercise on plasma sex hormone levels was determined for hypertensive men and women. The sex hormones levels were measured before and after qigong practice for one year…" Results showed that high estrodiol levels in men lowered to near normal, and low estrodial levels in women raised to near normal after qigong practice.
Medline Plus, a service of the National Instututes of Health's March 3, 2004 update discussed the problems with hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which had been the main treatment for menopausal symptoms. But in the update, Medline Plus, explains, "…the results of a major study -- called the Women's Health Initiative -- has led physicians to revise their recommendations. In fact, this important study was stopped early because the health risks outweighed the health benefits. Women taking the hormones did see some benefits. But they greatly increased their risk for breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots." The Medline article goes on to offer non-drug alternatives to reduce menopausal symptoms that included "yoga, tai chi, or meditation."
In a great article at webmd.com, Dr. Herbert Benson, head of hypertension studies at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital and author of "The Relaxation Response," goes further to suggest that Tai Chi's moving meditation is "…vitally important in PMS, infertility, hot flashes, insomnia,…" Dr. Benson's comments illustrate the vast multi-dimensional possibilities that Tai Chi offers everyone's health on so many levels. The purpose of this article is not to prescribe treatments for you, but to help you expand your dialogue with your health professional to explore more possibilities for your health. However, the purpose here is also to encourage physicians to begin demanding more focused medical research on what Tai Chi may offer their patients on many levels.
Currently all alternative therapies research is only about one half of only one-percent of the National Institutes of Health's budget, meaning that Tai Chi research is only a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction. Given the emerging possibilities of benefit Tai Chi is showing already with such limited research, this is inexcusable. Massive resources should be used to fully explore what Tai Chi offers, so that all hospitals can not only offer classes, but prescribe them. Tai Chi should be covered by medical insurance and national health insurance programs. The future is ours, by beginning to demand of our health system a natural and cost effective approach to our health and well-being. Share this article widely with everyone you know, but especially your health professionals, and your local media's health reporters.
By Bill Douglas
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Biography: Bill Douglas is the Tai Chi Expert, Founder of World T'ai Chi & Qigong Day (held in 50 nations each year), and has authored and co-authored several books including a #1 best selling Tai Chi book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & Qigong.” Bill’s been a Tai Chi source for The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, etc.
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