As a woman living in America in this day and age, I have been trained to fear menopause. Now that I am 40, I can’t help but to start thinking about how it will affect me.
If you are a woman in western culture, (or even a man who lives with her), chances are, as you enter your 40’s and 50’s you may be fearing, fighting or hoping to flee “the change of life” aka-menopause – and the several years that come right before it (as known as perimenopause).
In our youth-obsessed culture, it can be a time of great stress, self-doubt, loss of confidence and physical and mental anguish. The list of symptoms is long and often daunting. There appears to be no escape from the inevitable sentence to years of agony, hot flashes, weight gain, moods swings and depression that lies in the future of every woman.
All of this while men grow more distinguished with age. WTF!
There has to be a better way for us gals. Right?
I am excited to report:
Menopause DOESN’T have to suck!
In fact, for many women around the world, and some here in the West as well, menopause can be a good thing: a time of awakening, growth and joy.
Believe it or not, something to look forward to.
Let’s look on the bright side, you will no longer be subjected to inconvenient monthly periods and the cramping and bloating that come with them. That is worth something.
And the best part: for the first time in your adult life you’ll enjoy new sexual freedoms without the risk of becoming pregnant. At least that is something to look forward to.
I know, you are thinking, “Sure, free love is awesome – but what about all those unavoidable shitty menopause symptoms?”
They be actually be avoidable aftertall..
Menopause Around the World
Menopause, defined by the World Health Organization as “the permanent cessation of menstruation which marks the end of a woman’s reproductive years.” A biological event shared by every woman around the world, menopause itself is universal, however, research shows that the experience of menopause are not.
Menopause in western culture is viewed as the loss of youth, and is commonly associated with symptoms such as weight gain, hot flashes, mood swings, and depression. All things that are pretty negative. No wonder we are not looking forward to it.
Surprisingly, women in other cultures report a very different experience.
A study of menopausal women in India revealed most reported no symptoms other than a change in their menstrual cycle.
In Asia, similar studies were done where women reported mild joint and muscle aches, but any mention of hot flashes, weight gain and moods swings were extremely rare.
Mayan women experienced no symptoms other than cessation of menses and infertility,
Nigerian women’s only symptom (besides cessation of menses) was joint pain.
Lebonese women reported fatigue and irritability as their main menopausal complaint.
Overall, the women agreed that menopause was a generally positive experience for them.
Clearly, while the same biological processes are taking place in menopausal women around the world, very different physical, mental and emotional experiences are being observed. So, now I can say with a little more confidence that menopause, indeed, does not have to suck!
Lifestyle and Mindset
The Western view of menopause is very biomedical. Symptoms are frequently attributed to the changing hormone levels associated with menopause. These include hot flashes, night sweats, menstrual irregularities, and vaginal dryness, as well as other symptoms such as depression, weight gain, headaches, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating. Treatment options commonly offered by Western medicine include: Hormone replacement therapy (HRT), antidepressants, blood pressure medication, and anti-seizure medication And for some women – the treatment is all of the above.
Since all women experience relatively similar endocrine changes at menopause, from this biomedical view, it would seem that symptoms will also be similar across the board. However, the difference in symptoms associated with menopause reflected in the findings from cross-cultural studies indicates the possible influences of diet, lifestyle, and mindset on menopause-related physiology and symptom presentation.
Modern science tells us that hormone levels are largely influenced by how we eat, sleep, and exercise, so it makes sense that lifestyle would account for a wide range of differences in the way a woman experiences menopause.
In addition, diet and lifestyle have a huge influence on the overall health of a woman leading up to and as she enters the peri-menopausal years. A healthier woman will have a less troublesome time with menopausal symptoms, while women with chronic conditions and underlying dysfunctions are more likely to suffer symptoms with greater severity.
The other factor that clearly shapes the experience of menopause for a woman is a mindset. How she perceives menopause in her mind, and how her culture views aging, can have a huge impact on how a woman feels mentally and physically as she goes through the change.
In Western cultures, menopause is viewed in a negative light, as the end of youth, and the beginning of old age. Women fear it, and we live in a culture that can sometimes treat this natural process like a “disease.”
However, in many cultures, menopause is a time of new respect and freedom for women. In Eastern cultures and around the globe, although women may experience some uncomfortable symptoms, they tend to looked forward to menopause, as it provides new freedoms and status in the community.
In India, women who were veiled and secluded before menopause could publicly visit and joke with men after menopause, Asian cultures equate old age with wisdom and respect, and in Africa, women enjoy free time and social opportunities that were not accessible during their childbearing years.
Is it simply a coincidence that those who view menopause as a positive experience report less physical symptoms, do they simply not mind the pain and discomfort because of the rewards that it brings, or is it a combination of a positive mindset and a healthy lifestyle that spares them from the dreadful experience that so many Western women fear?
How to Make Menopause Magical (or at least manageable)
We have established that menopause does not have to suck, so what steps can you take right now to ensure that your experience with “the pause” is a positive one?
While there are a number of things that you can do to relieve your menopause symptoms, it is even more important to understand is that the habits you adopt today will impact how you experience menopause and aging in general.
While menopause in and of itself is not a disease, it does bring with it increased risk factors for cardiac issues, insulin sensitivity, osteoporosis and others. The best thing you can do to avoid many of the unpleasantries of menopause is to optimize your health now that you can have the best possible experience through menopause and beyond.
Find your balance
Maximizing your hormone balance early on will minimize your discomfort and health issues later. Estrogen and progesterone are the hormones that we need to keep balanced as women. Estrogen is the hormone that make you wonderfully feminine – it is what give us females curvy hips and full busts – but more (or less) is not necessarily better.
Low estrogen is not just a menopausal condition. It can be caused by premature ovarian failure, smoking, high levels of stress, low-fat diets and exceedingly low body fat.
At the same time, excess estrogen can be just as problematic. Though we think of declining estrogen as the hallmark of menopause, it’s actually common for women to experience surges of abnormally high estrogen levels during the menopausal and premenopausal periods, as well as earlier in life. An excess of estrogen, coupled with a deficiency of progesterone, is to blame for a lot of female troubles.
Estrogen dominance can start as early as the onset on menstruation, commonly characterized by painful periods, and some women will develop the estrogen dominance syndrome much later in life, as a result of diet, liver impairment, or exposure to environmental toxins.
If you currently experience PMS, or any of the symptoms above,
it may be an early warning sign to get both your estrogen and your progesterone levels in better balance by consulting a natural health practitioner. Doing so early on, will put you in a much better place to handle the hormonal fluctuations that come leading into menopause.
A simple urine or saliva test can measure your hormones and let you know if there is work to be done. In my practice we use a more extensive urine test along with blood work to identify the cause of a hormonal imbalance, then I create a natural, holistic protocol that will aid the body in the natural restoration of steroid hormone balance.
Female hormone imbalance can contribute to such common problems as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), perimenopausal difficulties, infertility, miscarriage, osteoporosis, breast cancer, heart disease, fibroids, endometriosis, menstrual difficulties, mood disorders and ovarian cysts.
In addition, since estrogen helps our cells respond better to insulin, a plunge in this hormone can cause an unwelcome increase in insulin, which can lead to metabolic syndrome and diabetes, not to mention the undesired result of bodyweight shifting from the hips to the waist.
Conversely – low progesterone symptom include depression, mood swings, low libido and vaginal dryness, as well as headaches and hot flashes.
So it is important to maintain balance. If you suspect your hormones have gone haywire, feel free to contact Dr. Michelle for a free consult.
Take Care of Your Adrenal Function
Most people are aware that a woman’s sex hormones are produced by her ovaries, but don’t give credit to the hard-working adrenal glands as part of the hormone-producing team. If you’ve been burning the candle at both ends for years, you may find that failure of one member of the hormone team can influence the others resulting in a less-than-pleasant experience prior to, during, and after menopause.
The adrenal glands are the only source of testosterone in women, and after menopause is the only source of the female hormones, estrogen, and progesterone. These and other adrenal hormones play a major role in menstruation, sexual function, physical and psychological well-being, and the aging process, among other things. When these hormones are low, a number of unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms can occur. It has been observed clinically that many women experiencing adrenal fatigue also experience PMS and tend to have greater difficulty during perimenopause and menopause. In other words – give those adrenals some love now, and you will thank them later.
When women enter perimenopause and menopause, the ovaries slow their production of estrogen and progesterone, and the adrenal glands have to pick up the slack for menopause to proceed smoothly. If the adrenals are already fatigued, it may be more difficult to meet this extra demand for hormone production. In fact, the adrenals may become even more depleted as a result, creating a vicious cycle and a stress cascade that can affect other areas of your health. Pronounced morning fatigue, chronic tiredness, or brain fog may be a tip-off that low adrenal function needs to be addressed.
A discussion on adrenal health just isn’t complete without looking at your sleep habits. Make sure that you’re applying the rules for hormonally balanced sleep, including getting to bed before 11 p.m., sleeping in complete darkness, wearing light (or no) clothing, keeping your bedroom cool and clutter-free, and removing all light-emitting devices (phones included!). If you still find yourself tossing and turning, there may be other underlying issues to blame, be sure to set up a free call with Dr. Sands, so she can help you determine some next steps.
Fiber, Fat, and Carbs
Regardless of what you were able to eat when you were younger, as you age, your metabolism changes and you have a greater need for certain nutrients and can develop issues with others. Start early by boosting your healthy fat and fiber intake, and scaling back (not eliminating) carbohydrates – especially the starchy variety.
Studies show that women in Western cultures are consuming less of what is considered “optimal” fiber levels. A low-fiber diet causes estrogen levels to be higher, while a diet high in fiber results in decreased estrogen levels in the bloodstream.
Why? Excess estrogen is excreted in the bowel. When stool remains in the bowel for a longer time, as in constipation, the estrogen is reabsorbed. Studies have shown that women on a high-fiber diet have lower levels of circulating estrogen. Lower levels of estrogen mean a reduced risk of breast cancer and complications of estrogen dominance, such as those mentioned above.
Ensuring that you have the raw materials necessary to make enough hormones is crucial to those looking to avoid the negative effects of menopause and hormonal imbalance. Since fat is the precursor to your hormones (meaning your hormones are made from fat), it is important to have healthy fats in your diet. Studies show that women who eat fat-free or low-fat diets tend to have more issues with estrogen balance and a more difficult time with PMS and menopause.
Research has confirmed that omega-3 fatty acids can have an excellent effect on impacting degenerative diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and many others. There are anti-inflammatory properties in omega-3 fatty acids and these have shown to have a positive effect for women, decreasing menstrual cramps, menopausal symptoms, risk of breast cancer, and even postpartum depression. Consumption of healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids can have a positive impact on the preservation of the heart, breast, and bone health, plus as a bonus, balance moods.
As women approach menopause, they become increasingly intolerant of carbohydrates and find it easier to gain weight, especially around their waists. Afternoon sugar crashes and carbohydrate cravings may be early insulin resistance symptoms. Women who are insulin resistant are at much greater risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, high cholesterol, breast cancer, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). There is some evidence that insulin resistance may contribute to endometrial cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Menopausal weight gain can be a difficult battle to fight. Insulin resistance disrupts metabolism, causing extra glucose to be converted into fat. Since fat cells are loaded with glucose receptors but cannot absorb glucose, this vicious cycle creates fatigue, and a desire for energy which often leads women to reach for foods loaded with carbohydrates.
Not only are fat cells hungry for energy, they also make excess estrogen, which contributes to estrogen dominance, leading to many of the above-mentioned symptoms during the perimenopause years. When estrogen is finally depleted, at the onset of menopause, digestive issues may come into play as well, due to inflammation that was once controlled by estrogen.
Because insulin is one of the “major” hormones, it’s also impossible for your body to balance its “minor” hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone among them) until your insulin metabolism is balanced first. To put it simply, if you have hot flashes and you are insulin resistant, it’s going to be nearly impossible to cure the hot flashes without first healing the insulin resistance. (Cortisol is also a “major” hormone – which is why #2 taking care of your adrenals is so important to hormonal balance.) This all goes back to why I address metabolism first in all of my patients.
The best way to avoid insulin resistance can also be thought of as pre-pre-diabetes. (The level of insulin sensitivity one step before pre-diabetes), is through a clean, whole foods diet. Avoid processed, packaged foods, and sugary drinks (which often contain a lot of sugary and starchy carbs) and focus on fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and lean grass-fed or free-range animal products. Research has shown that even a modest reduction in the consumption of starchy carbs can reduce belly fat and improve insulin levels.
Eating for hormonal balance can be very effective, but can also be a bit confusing, especially with all of the misinformation in the media. It’s best to consult with your natural health practitioner to formulate a diet plan that best suits your needs and contains the necessary supplementation to maximize your results.
Avoid Toxins and Love your Liver
The liver is your body’s filter. It detoxifies our body, protecting us from the harmful effects of chemicals, elements in food, environmental toxins, and even natural products of our metabolism, including excess estrogen. Anything that impairs liver function or ties up the detoxifying function will result in excess estrogen levels, whether it has a physical basis, as in liver disease, or an external cause, as with exposure to environmental toxins, drugs, or dietary substances.
Not only is estrogen produced internally, but it’s also produced in reaction to chemicals and other substances in our food. When it is not broken down adequately, higher levels of estrogen build up. Too much alcohol, processed foods, drugs, or environmental toxins can limit the liver’s capacity to cleanse the blood of estrogen. It has been found that circulating estrogen levels increase significantly in women who drink.
We live in an estrogenic or “feminizing” environment. Xenoestrogens, such as PCBs, BPA, phthalates, pesticides, and DDT, cause estrogenic effects. Chlorine and hormone residues in meats and dairy products also can have estrogenic effects. In men, the estrogenic environment may result in declining quality of sperm or fertility rates. In women, it may lead to an epidemic of female diseases, all traceable to excess estrogen/deficient progesterone.
It is critical to incorporate a pure, clean diet consisting of organic foods whenever possible, and limit alcohol consumption and toxin exposure from plastic water bottles and food containers, household chemicals, and personal care products. It is also a great idea to speak with Dr. Sands about identifying liver congestion and beginning a liver support and detoxification program.
Get Your Exercise
Not only will regular exercise help to keep your weight down, reduce stress, and help you to sleep better, but it will also reduce your risk of many of the diseases and unfavorable conditions associated with menopause such as: heart disease, and insulin resistance, depression, and chronic pain. Performing weight-bearing resistance has the added benefit of improving bone density, and protecting you from osteoporosis, another increased risk for menopausal women.
Stress affects almost every area of our health, but especially our hormones. Many women will notice that during periods of great physical or emotional stress, their cycles become irregular. This is because resources are being diverted to other systems in the body as a stress response. Even the simple thought of menopause itself can elicit a stress response in some women. Employ stress reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, and physical activity that you enjoy. Be sure to take time for yourself, get plenty of rest, and avoid too many commitments. Limiting environmental toxins, and processed foods can be a huge stress relief for your body.
Menopause is what you make it
Take comfort in the fact that you do have some control over what “the change of life” will be like. It can actually be something that you look forward to. Besides not having to stock up on feminine products each month, the good part for most women is feeling way less anxious, much more self-confident. You reach a new level of emotional maturity, and it can be an incredibly creative, sexy, wonderful time in your life.
Starting early, and working on optimizing your health is the best investment anyone can make in their future. Addressing lifestyle including diet, physical activity and stress management as well as gaining support from knowledgeable practitioners is an excellent start. In addition to helping with hormonal balance, you will create a greater sense of wellbeing, vibrancy and ultimately optimum health now and for many years to come.