Menopause is a natural process within a women’s life, yet it can be a strikingly different experience for each person. The symptoms of menopause are as varied and as individual as the menstrual cycle itself. Some women transition from regular menstrual flow to the cessation of their periods and beyond with little or no challenging symptoms, while for others it is a time of insomnia, hot flushes, constant heat, low mood, no libido and/or weight gain. Any or all of these experiences may lead to strained relationships in both family and career, yet this doesn’t have to be the case. Challenging symptoms of menopause are just another way the body is asking you to make some changes to your choices, and instead the transition into the post-menopausal years can be one of renewed vigour and personal growth. Dr Libby Weaver author of Women’s Wellness Wisdom shares everything you need to know about menopause; including when, why and how to best deal with it.
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What is menopause?
Fundamentally, menopause (the cessation of the menstrual cycle) means that the ovaries cease their production of sex hormones — predominantly estrogen and progesterone. Small amounts are still made in other areas of the body, by the adrenal glands, liver and body fat cells, for example. Physically and emotionally, however, this transition can be life-changing in more ways than simply not menstruating anymore. Symptoms primarily arise from hormonal decline, but factors such as physiology (particularly muscle mass), organ function (particularly the liver and adrenals), lifestyle, diet and health history, and emotions can play a role, too.
Why can it be so challenging?
The relentless output of stress hormones in the lead-up to menopause — which, for too many women these days, has gone on for decades — can lead to some of the most debilitating symptoms. If your adrenals glands have been receiving the message that they need to churn out stress hormones, due to genuine stress, excess caffeine consumption, or from the perception of pressure and urgency, it is highly likely that they haven’t efficiently made sex hormones across that time. When menopause hits (that is, when no more ovarian hormones are produced), you are supposed to predominantly rely on adrenal hormones — yet you may not have made sex hormones from your adrenals for a very long time. So instead of going from having bucket-loads of hormones to a small amount, you go from having plenty to virtually none. Couple this with a liver that has likely been in overdrive trying to deal with the liver-loaders many people ingest or absorb these days, and you have a cocktail for sleeplessness and debilitating body heat. The health and function of the adrenal glands, therefore, play a major role in determining how the transition of menopause affects us.
How you can manage the transition
The number one priority is often to manage stress. Creating calm in our life, despite what external circumstances ask of us, is an essential life skill these days. Whatever this may mean for you, do it. Meditation and yoga are two powerful breath-focused practices that can support the transition from sympathetic nervous system dominance (fight or flight) to the calm parasympathetic nervous system (rest and repair). Diaphragmatic breathing (moving your tummy in and out as you breathe) activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes the pressure off the adrenal glands by reducing stress hormone output significantly.
A balanced and functional approach to movement is critical — combining restorative movement such as yoga, pilates and qi gong with resistance training to assist muscle strengthening is particularly important for our metabolic rate. Metabolism through menopause may decrease by 10 to 15 per cent; this is more significant if muscle mass going into menopause is low. It is important to take that into consideration and to support metabolic rate through building muscle, eating regularly, and focusing on whole, unprocessed foods devoid of refined sugars and trans fatty acids. Nourishing fats are vital, as well—to synthesise hormones, we need a variety of essential fats from foods such as oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Supplementing with evening primrose oil, blackcurrant oil or borage oil can also boost our essential fatty acid intake. Avocados and macadamia nuts (and their oils) are a great choice too. They are very satiating and can help to support steady blood glucose levels.
Holistically, each person tends to require an individualised plan, detailing food, movement, stress management, specific nutrients if required, and potentially herbal medicine — particularly when there are hot flushes and/or sleep issues. Medicinal herbs have a unique advantage in that they modulate rather than stimulate a physical response. This means that they adjust to the body’s forever-changing environment by acting on hormone receptors to trigger a particular response.
Lastly, but certainly not least, supporting optimal liver function is vital in the transition to menopause to help manage hot flushes and sleep. Broccoli sprouts and turmeric can be highly beneficial across this time. Be mindful of minimising your intake of liver-loaders, such as coffee and alcohol, and take care to avoid synthetic substances that may be present in conventional cleaning products, cosmetics and processed foods.
When it comes to this transition don’t be afraid to seek help, your journey doesn’t have to be one of suffering. In fact, make it a time in your life that you thrive.
Watch Dr Libby share how your heritage could play a role in your diet below.