Menopause – the midlife hormonal rollercoaster
When my Mum was going through the menopause there certainly was no open discussion about it – closed subject, I don’t think I even knew what the word meant until I was into my 30’s and studying homeopathy. The taboo still exists but I feel great inroads are being made to bring this conversation out into the open.
Menopause is a journey all women will take at some stage in their lives – this journey is made up for four chapters – premenopause the years before, when periods and life progress as normal, perimenopause when things start to go haywire, when subtly changes start to occur in your body and on the emotional level. Menopause is when your periods stop altogether and is actually just the birthday of 1 full year without a period. In essence, Perimenopause is the body telling you your fertile days are coming to a close and menopause is the door closing on fertility. Post menopause is the years after.
Each distinct chapter is unique to each women and no two women will have the same host of symptoms. In addition, it is difficult to measure – there is no hard and fast rule or blood results to tell you which stage you are at, there are indicators that things are moving (like FSH levels changing) so it is really down to each woman to be tuned into her own body and the symptoms she is experiencing. For the clients I work with I often explain it is like an iceberg – there is so much going on under the surface, but it’s when we hit rough waters that we start to question whether it’s perimenopause or what is happening within our bodies.
The average age of menopause in Ireland is 51, but perimenopause can start anywhere from 45 onwards, typically ending at 55 years. It is important to remember this is a new chapter in our lives and it doesn’t come with an established start and end date like pregnancy.
Often people think once menopause starts symptoms will start but in my personal experience and from working with many women it starts well before – in perimenopause. To me it is all about perimenopause, this is the 4-8 years (it can be 12) during which hormones are rebalancing and many women get symptoms of menopause. Perimenopause is like the hormonal roller-coaster of teenage years except with the age difference – so enter the hormones that cause this upheaval.
Hormones ….we often underestimate the importance of these chemical messengers; They are like signposts directing our bodies’ functions every minute of the day. Perimenopause is their time in the limelight when they really show us their power. Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are the key ones at this stage and when the levels change that’s when the symptoms kick in, and whilst our bodies are designed to handle this change in hormones, lifestyle factors can make this natural transition harder. Also, as we age, we tend to be more nutritionally depleted and our absorption of key nutrients is not what is was when we were younger…all of this leads to the importance of a healthy lifestyle, keeping an eye on our weight, incorporating relaxation habit’s and being socially active.
Oestrogen levels change and reduce, and our bodies no longer produce eggs. This would be fine, if oestrogen was just responsible for egg production, but that’s not the case. Oestrogen affects nearly every cell in our bodies, and hence why we experience symptoms and also why no women will experience menopause in the exact same way;…one woman might get hot flushes (oestrogen) to beat the band, another might never get them but might suffer anxiety or palpitations (progesterone). As egg production is no longer required, oestrogen is now produced in other areas like the skin and adrenal glands. Hot flushes, nights sweats, headaches, mood swings, vaginal dryness, membrane thinning, urinary incontinence all these symptoms point to oestrogen deficiency. There is another shift too…Oestrogen is also the ‘nurturing hormone’, the one in ample supply after childbirth. At midlife this nurturing hormone is still around but its focus changes – we start to look at our lives and reassess – our needs come back up the front. It’s a whole new chapter.
Progesterone is the next hormone that goes out of balance in perimenopause. We always think of this as the essential hormone for fertility and the name itself means ‘promoting gestation’. In perimenopause these levels start to decline and can be responsible for weight gain, bloating, breast tenderness, mood swings, irritability and depression. Its role in our bodies goes even further and we now know it is very important for brain function and hence its other name ‘neurosteroid’. Being so important to the brain it comes from two different places, firstly cells in the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system all make progesterone from cholesterol. Secondly, progesterone that is moving around in our bloodstream has direct access to the brain and nerves.
The good news is, you can balance and promote progesterone levels through food. The best food sources are Vitamin C (fruit & veg), Zinc (cashew, pumpkin seeds), Magnesium (Cashews, leafy greens such as kale, pumpkin seeds, black beans, lentils and other legumes, cacao, mackerel fish and whole grain brown rice), Vitamin E (Sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts and in smaller amounts: avocado, sunflower seeds, red peppers, pumpkin, asparagus, butternut squash, broccoli and mango), Vit B6 (salmon, tuna, bananas, spinach, walnuts, beef, chicken, sweet potato, beans and prunes.), Fibre (Flaxseed, quinoa, millet, amaranth, teff, gluten-free oats) and finally the amino acid L-Arginine (Lentils and chickpeas, fish, such as salmon, tuna and trout, turkey, chicken, pork, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and dairy foods (if well tolerated).
Lastly Testosterone…it is often thought of as the “male” hormone which is correct, but we need it too. Surprisingly women produce three times as much testosterone than oestrogen before the menopause! Testosterone is made in the ovaries and also in the adrenal glands (the small glands near your kidneys). As we get older testosterone declines, with the result that your libido drops and in fact when you do have sex, it may not be as pleasurable as it used to be. There is also some research indicating that having lower testosterone can affect your mood and result in low mood and depression. Testosterone is also very important for bone strength, heart health, cognitive performance, energy levels and general feelings of well-being.
Remember however this can go both ways and for some women there may be a time when testosterone becomes dominant and they can have symptoms like acne, excess hair growth and even a deepening voice.
No wonder no one menopause experience is the same and no wonder there are so many symptoms.
This is a brief overview of the hormonal havoc that occurs triggering the many varied symptoms of Perimenopause, many of which cover the emotional, mental and physical realm – those in themselves warrant another article. My top tips for fighting the symptoms of Perimenopause are as follows:
Exercise, exercise and more exercise, movement is key. Whether its dancing, swimming, walking, running…whatever works for you it’s essential on all levels to keep moving.
Food, as we age our nutritional intake decreases so we really need to watch blood sugar levels, keep them steady (avoids moods swings) and nourish our bodies by good fresh food.
Nourish your gut – it’s the backbone of immunity for all your body and very important at all ages. Eat fermented foods, get those prebiotics and probiotics into your diet as much as you can.
Brain health is key as you enter your 40’s, nourish your brain and keep it active and engaged. This is imperative to help prevent brain fog and associated symptoms that can arise in perimenopause.
Be kind to your liver – it is essential at this stage and often forgotten. Nourish it with foods and support it, it is the hydro dam for your hormones and needs support at all times.
Self Care, anxiety and depression can happen at this stage and it is crucial to be kind to yourself, practice good self-care and take time out. These are often the ‘sandwich years’ when your raising a family, dealing with aging parents and the toll can be great – time out for yourself is a must.
Keep social, say Yes to all invitations, try avoid routine and push yourself out of your boundaries. Try new things, meet new people, share your story, and talk to your friends about what you are going through.
Above all empower yourself, learn what is happening to your body, look at ways to guide you through these chapters and come out at the other end smiling, and a wiser women from the experience. The menopause should not be feared, it should be embraced as another of life’s journeys where you learn more about yourself and you emerge stronger after it – we are living longer now so we need to prepare to ensure the best years are ahead.
About the Author:
I’m Catherine, and I have a lifelong interest in health and wellbeing. Then perimenopause arrived and my interest moved up a whole new level. I understand first-hand the rollercoaster ride that is perimenopause – I’m on that path myself! In the quest to feel better, I’ve researched and experimented with many ways to optimise energy, vitality and emotional wellbeing.
As a health and wellness coach, I help women overcome their challenges and I share my knowledge and what is working for me and for others. I will empower you to find what works for you – as every woman’s journey is different.