Ladies, let’s do a little recap on your life so far! The teens are a tough period, puberty, acne and those first years of menstrual cramps (and nobody told you they’re on repeat for another 4 decades). The twenties are easier as you have a better hold on this adulthood thing and are eventually finding your groove. The thirties bring about a new perspective, you find freedom from personal insecurities and are putting your mark on the world.
Then the forties hit. You’re ready for this, you’re ready to reap the rewards of all those years of self-investment, you’re ready to live your best life. Forties are the new twenties right?
Well actually, wait a minute. In those quiet moments when you’re alone (granted they’re not as frequent as before) you’ve noticed a few little changes.
Before you might have described yourself as “mildly irritable” every now and then, but now you find you’re now shouting at the birds every day as they sing their morning chorus. Despite your best efforts you don’t have the energy to stay awake past 9pm’, and even though you’ve denied yourself ALL OFTHE CAKES you’ve been offered in the last month, your favourite jeans are shrinking (ahem)!
"it’s more likely these changes have been caused by perimenopause!"
Naturally you think that you’ve slipped through the cracks into the twilight zone. The truth is friend, it’s more likely these changes have been caused by perimenopause!
I’m sure you have heard about the menopause. Thankfully in recent years it has been reported on and more widely spoken about in medical journals and women’s health articles. A quick google search will tell you the average age of women reaching menopause is 51. But what about the years preceding this?
If you are in your forties and experiencing mood changes, fatigue and changes in your periods, chances are you are going through perimenopause.
So what is happening to our body when we start perimenopause?
To put it very simply, your body is beginning its transition into menopause.
Our bodies begin to produce the predominant female hormones oestrogen and progesterone at puberty. From then on our levels rise and fall during our monthly cycle until we reach perimenopause. At this point changes occur as the ovaries stop producing eggs and hormone levels begin to drop. Oestrogen levels can become very unstable during this period until we finally reach menopause where oestrogen levels are very low. This transition can last anywhere from 4 to 10 years! Once you completely stop having a menstrual cycle for 12 consecutive months, you’ve entered menopause.
For some women they don’t even notice changes in their body, but for others it can be a very difficult time impacting on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
How will I know when I have reached perimenopause?
If you think of oestrogen as the “oil” that supports the smooth running of the female system, what happens when it starts to gradually run out? We begin to notice changes in our body as the depletion in this hormone takes its toll.
For those of us in our 40’s, particularly in the mid to latter half and experiencing some of the following symptoms we can pretty much take it that perimenopause is playing a part -
- Changes in your period, flow and length of time
- Mood changes, anxiety, depression and irritability
- Poor memory and ‘foggy’ brain
- Weight gain – especially around the belly
- Low libido/sex drive
- Aching joints
- Lower energy levels
- Thinning hair
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
It’s worth noting that some women don’t experience any of these symptoms (lucky sods) but for the less fortunate they can leave us feeling miserable.
During perimenopause, the declining oestrogen levels can promote fat storage in the abdomen. This type of fat known as "central adiposity" or visceral fat is a more dangerous fat than say the fat on our bum or thighs as it is linked to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.
Perimenopause can make your once regular periods become irregular. Cycles can be shorter or longer than usual. Bleeds can be very heavy one month, almost nothing the next. You may even find that you experience more PMT like symptoms than you previously did such as bloating, water retention, cramping or breast tenderness.
Joints and bones
Oestrogen actually protects our bones and joints so when this helpful hormone begins to decline inflammation can increase resulting in aches and pains in joints and more bone resorption than formation or bone loss which can lead to osteopenia or osteoporosis.
Skin and hair
Good levels of oestrogen are responsible for healthy, shiny hair and plump, glowing skin. Changes in hair quality is another delightful symptom so thinning hair or hair that is more coarse and dry than usual could be the result.
In our mid 40’s our collagen levels are starting to reduce also and the combination of this and declining oestrogen can make our skin look thinner, drier and our lines more visible.
Mood swings and anxiety
(As in out-of-character anxiety and perimenopausal rage)!! Not that we can blame hormones for everything but studies do show that adequate oestrogen and progesterone promotes serotonin production which makes us feel happy and calm.
Do you know the way your mood and energy might dip the week before your period, this is in part to do with plummeting oestrogen levels so it stands to reason that during perimenopause our mood can become a bit low or we can experience more anxiety than normal.
It's pretty astonishing how lower levels of oestrogen and progesterone can have such a big impact on your body, right? But the good news is there is a lot you can do to reduce these symptoms and be fighting fit as you transition into menopause.
Address the stress and mind those adrenals
Your adrenal glands produce some oestrogen when your ovaries no longer do. This is a much needed helping hand. Your adrenals are also responsible for producing cortisol as a response to stress as well as being involved in blood sugar regulation.
Cortisol, along with other hormones, increases your body’s ability to deal with stress. BUT, when we are constantly stressed and producing too much cortisol then we have a problem. The adrenals are tied up and can’t help out by secreting some much needed oestrogen.
Managing stress and eating in a way that keeps your blood sugar levels regulated are key.
"Managing stress and eating in a way that keeps your blood sugar levels regulated are key"
Caffeine increases your cortisol levels too, so you need to watch the number of coffees you drink. Keep to a maximum of 2 cups a day and ideally before noon.
Getting adequate sleep can really help keep your adrenals in check. Aim to get at least 7-8 hrs of good quality sleep every night.
Our diet plays a huge role in helping to manage hormonal fluctuations. Here are just some of the foods and nutrients that can help.
Foods to include or increase in your diet
Phytoestrogens are compounds that naturally occur in plants. “Phyto” is a Greek word meaning “plant” and as you already know, oestrogen is a predominant female hormone. Despite being from plants, phytoestrogens function much like the oestrogen produced in our body.
Foods highest in phytoestrogens are:
- Soya– organic is best so soya milk, tofu, miso, tempeh
- Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans, kidney beans, edamame beans
- Linseeds/flaxseeds, sesame, pumpkin, poppy, sunflower.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)
EFA’s are vital for health as they lubricate the joints, skin and vagina as well as performing lots of other functions like reducing inflammation (think arthritis, rheumatism, aching joints) prevention of blood clots and keeping our brains healthy.
You will find Omega 3 oils in:
- Oily fish i.e. sardines, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, trout
- Linseeds/flaxseeds, chia seeds, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame
- Nuts – walnuts, brazil nuts, almonds
- Avocado, olives and dark green vegetables.
There are two main types of fibre, soluble and insoluble and our bodies need both to function really well.
Our metabolism slows down as we age leading to an increase in body fat. Our digestion can slow down and result in bloating and constipation. Fibre can really help keep things moving along as it provides our gut bacteria with the food it needs to keep the digestive system functioning well.
Soluble fibre, as its name indicates, dissolves in our digestive tract. It helps keep cholesterol in check, keep our hearts healthier and manages blood sugar levels.
Insoluble fibre on the other hand does not dissolve. It makes its way to the colon assisting us in eliminating solid waste from our bodies comfortably and appropriately. It helps to avoid troublesome constipation and keeps our bowels healthy.
You should eat a minimum of 6-8 portions of fruit and vegetables daily (max 2-3 fruit) to obtain the gut beneficial nutrients you need.
A diet high in whole grains has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and premature death. Whole-grain foods include brown rice, whole-wheat bread, barley, quinoa and rye.
The decline in your oestrogen levels is associated with decreased muscle mass and bone strength, so getting enough protein is key. Foods high in protein include eggs, meat, fish, legumes and dairy products. It’s good to have some form of protein with each meal.
Foods to reduce to help minimise symptoms
Processed foods and added sugars are known to raise blood sugar rapidly. Blood sugar dysregulation has been found to make hormonal symptoms worse.
Refined sugar and refined white carbs (i.e. white bread, white rice and white pasta) cause a rapid rise in blood sugars which triggers insulin release. Insulin reduces the blood sugar by converting it to fat. The rapid rise in blood sugars then leads to a rapid fall, which causes you to crave more sugary carbohydrate rich foods.
Alcohol negatively impacts your blood sugar levels, but it can also increase hot flushes, disrupt sleep and can affect the liver. If your liver is working hard to detoxify alcohol, this can impact its ability to detoxify old hormones which can recirculate and cause issues. You may notice that in your mid-to-late forties that you can no longer tolerate alcohol the same way you could in your thirties?
Please note there is no need to eliminate all of these foods entirely, but it’s wise to enjoy them in moderation to support your changing hormones and stabilise your weight, energy levels and mood.
One last thing! Exercise and movement
Don’t forget a little exercise on a regular basis for heart health, mental health and your bones, for example a thirty min walk four times a week (minimum). You can also reduce those stress hormones and build bone density with yoga, gardening, forest walks or pilates. Some prefer to engage in more active exercise such as running, boxing or lifting weights. The body is designed to move so go with whatever floats your boat.
So ladies now you know you’re not going crazy. There’s a reason why you’re possibly feeling more anxious about the little things these days, and why your usual gym routine is proving just too much at the minute. Our bodies are changing, they’re getting ready for a major overhaul. But by being kind to ourselves, exercising regularly and most importantly eating the right foods to support that change we have a better chance of getting through this next phase happier, healthier and wiser!
Want more info?
If you would like more information on support during perimenopause, I am in the process of developing an online nutrition and lifestyle programme for women to help them manage fluctuating hormones, shift weight and thrive through the perimenopause and menopausal years. Register your interest for this programme by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We will contact you with further details when the programme goes live.