The perimenopause is a challenging time for most women. The hormonal upheaval during this transition manifests itself in different ways, and every woman’s experience is different. If the symptoms of perimenopause are unpredictable, so is its duration. For most women, the perimenopause starts when they are in their 40s. It may end in their 50s, 60s or even 70s, and the signs and symptoms may change over time.
Before we delve into what you can do to make the most of those years, let’s clarify the terminology first. What most people refer to as the “menopause” – those years of hormonal upheaval and all the (potential) misery that comes with it – is really the perimenopause, i.e. the run-up to the menopause. Menopause itself is the point in time at which we have our last period. Of course, at the time, we do not know it’s the last. Once our periods have stopped for a year we are considered postmenopausal.
It is important to remind yourself that the perimenopause is not a disease. It is a natural process every woman will go through at some point in her life. When we come to the end of our reproductive years, levels of one of the main female sex hormones, oestrogen, rise and fall unevenly. The length of time between periods may become longer or shorter, your flow may be light to really heavy and with worse PMS than ever before, and you may even skip some periods – before they come back with a vengeance.
You might also experience some of the symptoms traditionally associated with the menopause, like night sweats, hot flushes, sleep problems, mood swings, more UTIs like cystitis, and vaginal dryness. Around this time, you might begin to notice that weight loss gets harder, and your digestion is not what it used to be. Whether and to what extent women suffer from menopausal symptoms varies greatly from one individual to another. A third of all women cope well with it and experience no or hardly any problems.
But whatever your specific experience is, a tailored nutrition plan can really help. Everything in our body is inter-connected, and hormones in particular influence each other by feedback mechanisms. That means, if levels of hormone A are high, hormone B is suppressed and vice versa. The amount of available hormone B affects the production of hormone C and so on. The good news is that because of this connection, we are not slaves to our hormones. There are things we can do to improve levels of one hormone that can have an impact on others further down the line.
1. Balance blood sugar
As oestrogen drops during menopause, body fat is redistributed, and excess weight is deposited around the waist. In addition, the new balance between oestrogen and progesterone is also likely to make your body less sensitive to insulin, the “fat-storage hormone”. Insulin is a hormone produced in response to us eating carbohydrates. When the body’s cells are less sensitive to insulin, more insulin is needed to do the same job. If this goes on for years, this insulin resistance can cause diabetes. Moreover, more insulin produced means more fat stored, and this is why even women who never had weight issues before may now find it difficult to shift any extra pounds. A while ago, we dedicated an entire blog post to blood sugar. For details on how to maintain even blood sugar levels, click here.
2. Manage stress
Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones. It can promote weight gain and make us feel both tired and miserable while using up stores of important vitamins. Although dwindling oestrogen is the main factor behind menopausal symptoms, stress also plays a major role in how we cope with the perimenopause.
When it’s under stress, the body must prioritise jobs that are useful for sustaining life, which means that when under threat, our body will make stress hormones. Most hormones are made from the same basic ingredients. So, all those raw materials that might have been used to make oestrogen won’t when we are stressed because cortisol production is prioritised.
Apart from fat cells, the only source of oestrogen after the ovaries stop making it is the adrenal glands, which is where the stress hormones are made. If the adrenals are busy making stress hormones, there is no capacity to secrete oestrogen as well.
For that reason, it is crucial to create a stress action plan. Once we reach our 40s, self-care becomes essential. In a previous blog post, we have given you our top tips on what to eat to manage stress better. Click here to read it.
But don’t stop at diet. Relaxation techniques, gentle exercise (e.g. walking, yoga, tai chi), sleep, fun with friends and family, as well as me-time, are hugely effective at reducing stress.
3. Pick the right kind of exercise
As mentioned above, exercise is a brilliant way to relieve stress – as long as it is not a form of exercise that adds to it. During perimenopause, many women find that their weight creeps up and is harder to lose, which is why a punishing type of exercise such as running, spinning and HIIT exercises may seem to be the answer. After all, you can burn a lot of calories that way. However, intense forms of exercise add to the body’s overall stress load, forcing the adrenal glands to produce even more cortisol (and thus less oestrogen). Gentler kinds of exercise – walking, yoga, Pilates, or dancing – on the other hand, reduce stress.
Strength exercises, such as weight training or Pilates, also help build muscle, strengthen bones and maintain balance.
4. Avoid disrupting chemicals
Body care products, plastics and pesticides contain chemicals that have a very similar molecular shape to oestrogen, which allows them to connect to the oestrogen receptors on our cell walls and wreak havoc with our hormonal balance. These chemicals are called “xenoestrogens” (“foreign oestrogens”) and include substances like parabens (cosmetics, body care), bisphenol A and phthalates (plastics), polychlorinated bisphenols/PCBs (flame retardants, electronics), perfluorochemicals (textiles, clothing, old non-stick cookware), pesticides.
The world we live in makes it impossible to avoid all of them. Still, it is worth reducing endocrine-disrupting chemicals wherever you can: Choose paraben-free body care products or make your own. Do you even need that many? Consider buying organic clothing. It may cost more, but may be better quality and last longer anyway. Use glass, stoneware or stainless steel to store food. Have your own travel mug rather than using plastic-lined takeaway cups. Have a look around your bathroom cabinet, your fridge and your home to see where you can switch to natural products, which are not just kinder to your body, but the environment, too.
5. Embrace phytoestrogens
Similar to xenoestrogens, phytoestrogens – plant oestrogens – have a molecular structure very similar to human oestrogen, which makes it difficult for the body to distinguish. But unlike xenoestrogens, phytoestrogens are good news, because they have a much, much weaker oestrogenic effect than both xenoestrogens and human oestrogen. However, even that weak effect is still better than nothing, and this is why phytoestrogens can help ease menopausal symptoms. You’ll find them in soybeans, lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, barley, rye, oats, alfalfa, apples, pears, carrots, fennel, onion, garlic, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, and liquorice root.
The perimenopause is an important new chapter in a woman’s life. 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 might do right now and to handle menopausal symptoms much better.
We can work with you to tackle all aspects of what we’ve been talking about above. This is perfect for you if you experience any of the issues, and if you want to utilise this time to turn a leaf: new diet, new attitude and new healthy lifestyle habits. Give us a call!
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