Until recently, when celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Gillian Anderson and Kirsty Walk started speaking out about their experiences, menopause was the silent shame. Yet experts reckon that 80% of women experience the symptoms of menopause.
It might be that you are really suffering or perhaps you’ve just started noticing some changes. The experience is different for every woman but often means being hot, cold, moody, tired, sleep-deprived, nervy, irritable, sad, or hairy. It can mean hot flushes, memory loss, and a seemingly immovable band of fat around the middle and thighs.
Your fluctuating hormones are the cause of all of this, but you don’t have to accept these symptoms as the way things need to be.
Learning to rebalance your hormones naturally will help you take back control of your life. Given life expectancy increases, women can expect to spend at least a third of their life ‘menopausal’, so it’s worth getting the help you need now. Despite what you might have feared, menopause is not the death of your youth or vitality, but it can be the start of some of the best and most powerful years of your life.
You may not have given your hormones a second’s thought before but, given the rollercoaster you are on right now, it’s worth having some understanding of what’s going on chemically inside you and the impact it’s having.
Progesterone levels fall rapidly as you stop ovulating as regularly. Although oestrogen is likely decreasing, too, it’s falling at a slower rate, meaning you can end up being oestrogen dominant (that’s a ratio of too much oestrogen to progesterone). This is usually what’s behind many of the typical symptoms experienced during the transition to menopause.
The stress hormone cortisol can also increase (particularly if you’re used to spinning too many plates), making sleep more difficult and leading to weight gain.
The thyroid comes under increased pressure, and low levels of thyroid hormones can bring mood changes, weight increases, constipation
and a sluggish feeling. Your hormones work together synergistically. When one or more is out of kilter, there is an effect on the others, too.
So, what can you do to help your body sail through this challenging time?
- Watch what you eat.
Unfortunately realising that during the menopause you really cannot get away with eating the same foods you used to, can be quite tough. But, let’s face it your body has changed, and you need to learn to eat for this new way of being.
The drop in oestrogen levels that occurs during menopause has a side effect of redistributing body fat and excess pounds start to settle around the waist. On top of that, the change that happens in relation to oestrogen and progesterone at this stage of life is also likely to make your body less sensitive to insulin, the fat storage hormone. This is produced in response to you eating carbohydrates.
When the body’s cells are less sensitive to insulin, more insulin is needed to do the same job, and more insulin produced means more fat stored.
There are also lifestyle factors to consider. Muscle mass diminishes with age while fat increases. That means it’s more important than ever to switch from whatever kind of diet you’re on now to a low GL (glycaemic load) diet that balances your blood sugar levels. This means you will be eating foods that do not trigger insulin secretion in response to what you eat.
A blood sugar balancing diet like this focuses on REAL food: meat, fish, eggs, tofu, lentils, beans and chickpeas, lots of vegetables, some fruit, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.
You won’t feel hungry – promise – but, if this is a long way from where you are now, I’d love to help you move to this way of eating. Work with me and it will feel easy rather than an uphill struggle or – worse still – devoid of all those little props you have used to get yourself through these trying times.
- Eat functional foods.
These are foods that actually do stuff in the body.
On one level, the food you eat can help balance your blood sugar and energy levels. On another it keeps you feeling satiated and nourishes you. The cherry on top is to use the very subtle yet magical powers of food to help support your body in times of need. At this time of your life, that means phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are plant-based chemicals (the good kind), which are structurally similar to oestrogen and exert a weak oestrogenic effect.
They include soy beans, lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, barley, rye, oats, alfalfa, apples, pears, carrots, fennel, onion, garlic, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, liquorice root
- Manage your stress.
Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones and it can make you fat and feel both tired and miserable as well as using up stores of important vitamins.
You probably already know that dwindling oestrogen levels are one of the main factors behind your symptoms. However, the effects of stress can be just as debilitating.
Most hormones are made from the same basic ingredients. When it’s under stress, the body prioritises those jobs that are useful for sustaining life, which means that when you are stressed, your body will make stress hormones ahead of anything else. So, all those raw materials that might have gone to make oestrogen now won’t.
Apart from your fat cells, the only source of oestrogen after your ovaries stop making it, is the adrenal glands, which is where the stress hormones are made.
So self care in your 40s and 50s is no longer a ‘nice thing to do’, it is essential for managing symptoms of the transition to menopause and also – might I add – staying alive. If you have not been good (and many women aren’t) at putting your needs first and doing nice things for yourself, start now.
Write down 5 activities you really enjoy doing – even if it’s been a while since you did any of them! Examples might include painting your nails, doing a jigsaw, taking a bath surrounded by candles!
- Do the right exercise
As the weight creeps on, it’s very common for women to start getting into the types of exercise that are very punishing on the body, like running and high intensity interval training. What do I mean by punishing? These very intense forms of exercise stress the body and, if your body is already stressed, it’s just too much. Yoga, Pilates, Zumba and other dance-based classes could be better choices, and don’t knock a decent walking workout.
Resistance/ strength exercise (weights) is also great to help with the loss of muscle. Strength training also helps you shore up bone, maintain balance, and avoid injury—important for protecting your skeleton both now and when you’re older.
- Get better sleep
You have probably heard about all the good things sleep can do for you, from making you look younger and feel more energised to helping you lose weight – and so much in between. Sleep is good, and you should get more of it.
As you work on a diet and lifestyle plan to get your hormones back into balance, better sleep with start to follow. If it feels like you need some emergency assistance, ask yourself honestly how many of the ‘dos’ you are actually doing and how many of the ‘don’ts’ you are guilty of…
- Try to go to bed at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off.
- Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.
- Spend time outdoors to soak up the sun.
- Try to take some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.
- Make an effort to relax for at least 5 minutes before going to bed – a warm bath, massage, meditation.
- Keep your feet and hands warm. Wear warm socks and/or mittens or gloves to bed.
- Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smartphone can stay out of the bedroom.
- Engage in stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an edge-of-the seat movie, or having an important conversation with a loved one.
- Even using smartphones and tablets can interfere with sleep, because they emit the same kind of light as the morning sun.
- Eat a heavy meal within four hours of going to bed.
- Drink caffeine after lunch – like coffee, ‘normal’ and green tea, and colas.
- Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.
- Try to avoid daytime naps.
- Try not to get frustrated if you can’t sleep. Go to bed in a positive mood – “I will sleep tonight”.
You should always talk to your doctor about symptoms you are particularly concerned about, but there is such a lot you can do to feel more energised than you do right now and fix that spare tyre round the middle.
If you are experiencing any of the issues I set out at the beginning, and you feel this is the right time for a brand new you -new eating plan, new attitude and new healthy lifestyle habits- then get in touch!