The scientific explanation of perimenopause sounds so simple: a gradual slowing down of reproductive hormones until menopause.The reality, however, is that for many women the arrival of menopause isn’t a smooth, gliding descent but more of a turbulent landing complete with bumps, twists, and what can feel like the constant threat of a complete crash. That feeling is compounded by the timing, since perimenopause symptoms often begin at a particularly stressful time of life with mounting work and family demands. Add in the physical and emotional effects of hormonal fluctuations, and the entire process can easily start to feel like a cruel joke.
Thankfully it doesn’t have to be that way. This isn’t how your body was designed to move through the process and that level of health is attainable.
If you’re frustrated by symptoms like mood swings, weight gain, and anxiety, start by taking a deep breath. The first step to thriving not just surviving perimenopause is to acknowledge that is a natural process. Don’t beat yourself up. Now is the time to give your body – and your mind – some love.
It is interesting to note that some studies show our attitudes towards menopause (and aging in general) can impact how we experience perimenopause symptoms.
Knowing what to expect and what triggers perimenopause is important. Sometimes, women are baffled by the changes and blame themselves, telling themselves that they’re not working out hard enough or not coping well with stress. That’s why a good understanding of the changes you’re undergoing is important.
Perimenopause symptoms typically begin in the mid-forties and continue for a number of years until full menopause is reached, which is defined as having gone a full year without a menstrual period, marking the cessation of the release of eggs. Over this period, the ovaries’ hormonal production slows down in fits and starts, leading to fluctuating levels of estrogen, which creates shifting imbalances in the delicate seesaw of estrogen and progesterone. Earlier in life, estrogen levels are much more predictable with the menstrual cycle.
Symptoms can be subtle at first and easily mistaken for something else. They may increase gradually or you may find they come and go along with your fluctuating hormones, they can include:
- Changes in menstruation, which could include changes in timing (both more frequent or less frequent) and periods that are suddenly much heavier
- Unexplained weight gain, particularly around the midsection
- Brain fog
- Hot flashes
- Tender breasts
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Restless legs
- Insomnia and difficulty staying asleep
- Changes in libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Acne (as if wrinkles weren’t enough to worry about)
The good news is that several lifestyle changes are pieces of the puzzle that can help you reach the goal of hormonal balance and make it easier to cope with the changes that do occur.
Ironically, getting restful sleep can become more challenging because of the melatonin/estrogen connection and the symptoms we are experiencing. Just when we need sleep the most, so a majority of perimenopausal women report sleep difficulties. Waking up frequently is the most common complaint, often due to hot flashes. As always, a holistic approach helps, as a hormone-supporting diet can help regulate hot flashes. There are also herbs and support that allows your body to heal and eliminate struggles like these, even during menopause.
In addition, it’s important to practice good sleep hygiene:
- Avoid using electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine, large meals, and vigorous exercise within 3 hours of bedtime.
- Build a predictable wind-down routine into your evenings.
- Keep your bedroom temperature on the cooler side for better sleep.
- Use an Ooler ChiliPad (https://bit.ly/3lGuEx2)
- Avoid synthetic materials in bedding and sleepwear in favor of natural fabrics like cotton or linen.
Since melatonin production slows with age, melatonin supplements may be necessary but they are all created equal and should not be taken unless absolutely necessary. I can help assess the need for supplements.
The stress hormone cortisol rises with age, which is partly to blame for the increase in belly fat many women experience during perimenopause. Taking proactive steps to reduce stress will help get a handle on cortisol levels.
Adequate sleep helps to lower cortisol, as does gentle, mindful activity such as yoga or tai chi. In fact, studies have found that mindful activities can reduce hot flashes, which will favorably impact sleep, which in turn helps to reduce belly fat – it’s all connected!
Regular exercise helps with stress, reduces body fat, and improves your overall quality of life. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that what worked in your 20s and 30s may not be as effective at this stage of life.
Somewhat ironically, overly intense exercise can overtax your body and result in an increase in cortisol. Remember those stress tips above? That’s why it’s important to find a form of exercise that works for you. Don’t feel pressure to do high-intensity workouts if your body responds better to lower-intensity programs like Pilates or walking. Because everybody is different, it may take a bit of trial and error to find what works for you. The best exercise is always the one that you will stick to, and the one that gives you joy instead of adding to your stress levels.
The concept of being gentle with your body during perimenopause extends to your diet. At this stage in life, you should focus on foods that support hormonal balance and provide nourishment. The four pillars of a healthy perimenopause diet are:
You start to lose muscle with age, and assimilate less of your protein intake, so it’s important to counteract that adequate digestion and sufficient intake to retain muscle mass. Choose healthy proteins, including some plant-based sources.
A slowed metabolism may also slow down digestion. This may lead to constipation and foods hanging around longer causing fermentation = gas and bloating. Fiber helps food move smoothly through the bowels and also helps us feel fuller for longer, limiting cravings. Fiber can be found in loads of foods from flaxseed, chia seed, to spinach, broccoli, apples, and pears.
Healthy fats, like Omega-3 fatty acids, can help reduce hot flashes and may boost mood, according to some studies. Good sources of Omega-3 include salmon, hemp seeds, and flax seeds.
High blood sugar can exacerbate hot flashes and other perimenopausal symptoms. This can be a bit of a vicious cycle, since changing hormonal levels can actually raise the production of the hormone insulin, which regulates blood sugar. It’s crucial to limit consumption of processed carbohydrates and sweet drinks during perimenopause, as insulin resistance becomes more commonplace. Fiber and protein can help preserve insulin sensitivity, so instead of a quick hit of something sweet for a snack, look for more satiating foods.
A lot is happening during perimenopause for many women – career, family, decisions about the future – but taking some time to focus on your own health will help you feel empowered with the changes in your body.
If you are looking for extra support or experiencing hormonal issues and would like to dive deeper into what’s going on and the best natural course of action give me a call. As a Naturopathic and Functional Practitioner, I can help guide you in this transition in a healthy and holistic way.
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