Menopause, and the years leading up to it (called perimenopause), can feel like a turbulent time for many women. The symptoms of fluctuating hormone levels can be short-lived for some, yet the transition may last for years for others. Though there are exceptions, this shift usually happens between the ages of 45-55 for most American women and is influenced by genetics, diet, and lifestyle. When a woman hasn’t menstruated for an entire year, she has officially reached menopause. And for some postmenopausal women, the physical and emotional changes may continue for an average of seven years.
During perimenopause, the ovaries begin to make less estrogen and progesterone. These two may be known primarily as pregnancy hormones, but they do so much more — helping to strengthen bones, build and lubricate vaginal tissue, improve cognitive function, regulate cholesterol levels, and support a healthy mood and menstrual cycle. Consequently, both menopause and perimenopause can be associated with symptoms like joint pain, lower sex drive, brain fog, mood swings, hot flashes, night sweats, and insomnia. Perimenopausal women may also notice their PMS symptoms worsen and could experience weight gain and infertility.
Though menopause is a natural phase of life, it can be challenging for many women. There may not be much we can do about the genes we were handed down, but there are still plenty of ways we can improve hormonal balance. Certain medicinal mushroom supplements, coupled with a healthy diet and lifestyle, can go a long way to ease the symptoms women experience as they move through this life change.
One glance at the cross-index of mushrooms and their therapeutic effects table in Paul Stamets’ MycoMedicinals booklet shows that reishi mushrooms are in a class by themselves. With their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, reishi seems to check nearly every box – from heart and immune health to stress reduction. True to their ancient title as the “mushroom of immortality,” their very long list of health benefits includes some specific to menopause.
Reishi supports the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis (HPA axis), which positively impacts our immune system, nervous system, and metabolism. In addition to regulating estrogen production, it increases our sensitivity to estrogen — allowing us to do more with less. When the HPA axis works properly, we are less likely to gain weight, lose bone density, or experience hot flashes. Plus, we are better able to bounce back from stress quickly.
Weight gain may also be connected to an imbalanced gut microbiome. One animal study showed that reishi acts as a prebiotic, helping to balance gut bacteria in a way that promotes excess weight loss (1). An unintended benefit of weight loss is a reduced risk of hormone-sensitive cancers (such as breast cancer) that like to live in fat cells.
Additionally, the polysaccharides in reishi are anti-tumorigenic and have a detoxifying effect — helping scrub away any surplus cholesterol and toxins from the body like a giant loofah sponge for our insides.
Reishi can also act as an antidepressant and has a calming effect that can improve sleep quality and regulate blood pressure (2).
Reishi, taken in powdered form, can be quite bitter. Try two 500mg capsules a day, or put a couple of drops of a dual extract tincture in your daily coffee or tea.
To learn more about how the gut microbiome can influence our mood, check out this article.
Traditionally used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) as a Jing (life force) tonic, cordyceps are revered for their ability to tonify and strengthen the lungs, nourish the kidneys, and support overall health and wellbeing.
Cordyceps are especially known for their energizing properties. Unlike coffee, this mushroom supplies a more even-keeled kind of vitality — an ideal remedy when hormonal imbalance saps our energy and makes us feel more anxious.
Though testosterone is a hormone typically associated with men, it plays an important role when it comes to a woman’s libido. As we age, testosterone levels decline along with sex drive. One study found that 27% of perimenopausal women and 52% of menopausal women report having a low sexual desire (3). Sexual health is an intimate part of a woman’s well-being, and medicinal mushrooms like cordyceps can support healthy estrogen and testosterone levels by inhibiting a group of enzymes called 5-alpha reductase (5-ARD). As a side bonus, women experiencing androgenic hair loss may notice decreased shedding as their hormones level out (4).
Shiitake are edible mushrooms belonging to the gilled species group of fungi and can be found growing far and wide. They can flourish anywhere from a field to a forest and in climates ranging from hot and sticky to cool and crisp. Shiitake mushrooms have gills underneath their caps designed to drop spores to the ground. Similar to polypore mushrooms like reishi, gilled mushrooms are packed with complex healing compounds. As a matter of fact, scientists see this as a clue that the two species could be related.
Shiitake has been extensively researched, and like many medicinal mushrooms, they boast a wide array of holistic health benefits. Lentinan is a bioactive compound found in shiitake mushrooms that has been used broadly in Asia as an anti-cancer drug (5). Another one of its active ingredients, called eritadenine, has been shown to lower cholesterol levels significantly. Shiitake is also rich in copper and selenium — minerals that support a healthy immune system and nervous system, strengthen bones, and protect our cells from damage.
Dietary and lifestyle changes can be powerful tools for improving hormonal imbalance. To bolster the effects of medicinal mushrooms, consider adding some of the simple strategies below:
It is important to remember that menopause is part of a woman’s natural life cycle and most certainly not an illness.
For women experiencing symptoms of menopause or perimenopause, medicinal mushrooms can be a great addition to a healthy diet and regular exercise. They help to balance hormones safely and can be especially useful for women with a personal or family history of hormone-sensitive cancers who prefer to forego the possible risks associated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Medicinal mushrooms are considered adaptogens for their ability to increase our resilience to stress and to bring the body’s systems back into harmony — as nature intended.