Women in midlife are at a crossroads: either we can continue living with jobs, relationships, and poor health situations that we have outgrown, or we can do the inner work that our bodies and hormones are calling out for.
A full 85% of women suffer hot flushes, vaginal dryness, and emotional turbulence during menopause, and to top it off we are told that our risk of heart disease and of osteoporosis is rising! But does it have to be this way? Most of us know some women who seem to sail through menopause, and come out the other side stronger, wiser, and full of vitality.
In the last decade more women than ever have woken up to the power that menopause can bring, and have used it to their full advantage. Some of the most beautiful, intelligent, and luscious women I know are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. In a seniors’yoga class I ran at a medical centre, one sparkly-eyed 90-something-year-old lady (who looked younger than some women in their late 60s) unhesitatingly shared with me the secrets of a good marriage –and a good sex life. “Eat lots of good food, drink good wine. And tell him what you want, because he wants very much to please you.”
A few years ago I learnt something very interesting about the way women’s hormones behave once we’ve passed through menopause. We have two hormones LH (luteinising hormone) and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) –anterior pituitary hormones that direct the behaviour of an egg developing in either of our ovaries. In pre-menopausal women, these two hormones normally peak around ovulation and stay low for the rest of the cycle. So at every ovulation, the point at which we are most electric, irresistible, and open to cross-pollination from all sources, our levels of LH and FSH peak drastically –but they don’t stay there.
However, once we have stopped menstruating and are officially menopausal, these two hormones remain at high levels for the rest of our lives. It’s akin to AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current) when thinking of the flow of electric charge: before menopause, we are alternately open and closed to the changing current of universal wisdom. After menopause, we are wide open to a direct, constant current of intuition and wisdom.
They are not called the wisdom years for nothing.
No other stage in a woman’s life has as much potential for allowing women to understand and harness her own power, as does menopause.For those women who manage to navigate through the choppy waters of cultural negativity that have surrounded menopause for eons, this stage spells newfound freedom, vitality and power. For those who don’t take the vital steps needed to negotiate these waters, and who don’t address the emotional baggage that comes up during this time, the body will cry out with severe hot flushes, night sweats, and all manner of emotional turbulence until we turn our attention towards making changes.
Our culture tells us that, when it comes to menopause, we’re in for a rocky ride and there’s nothing we can do about it. So we may as well don the glam metal pants, play some loud ACDC and really rock it! And that means taking the self-care steps necessary to make this epic journey as enjoyable as possible. If we take the time to observe our body’s messages, process our emotional baggage, and take action, the journey may not be quite as rocky as we are taught to expect.
Love your adrenals
Those notorious menopausal symptoms are partly due to chronic depletion of a woman’s metabolic stores over her lifetime. A healthy woman with strong adrenals and generally good nutrition transitions easily into this stage. Her adrenal glands gradually take over hormonal production from the ovaries. Unfortunately, many women approach menopause in such a state of emotional, adrenal and nutritional depletion that the hormonal shifts can be jarring and overwhelming.
If you find it hard to get out of bed, rely on sugar and caffeine for energy, and sleep poorly, your adrenals are probably in need of some TLC. Long-term stress has caused the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to be pumped out in excess for years, disturbing the balance between cortisol and DHEA, and setting you up for fatigue and severe menopausal symptoms. Unresolved emotional stress, environmental toxins, too little or too much exercise, and poor diet further augment the situation.
So what can you do to support your adrenals, and rock your menopause? A wide variety of options exist. We have the luxury of accessing the best of Western medical knowledge combined with complementary modalities including meditation and herbs to provide the best possible individualised care. Here are the most useful steps I’ve found as an integrative nutritionist to assist women at this turning point in their lives.
Eat a high quality, wholefood diet with minimal refined sugar, caffeine, hydrogenated fats, and alcohol. Avoid strict fasts or cleanses which will further weaken you. Get adequate protein at each meal –this doesn’t have to be from an animal source. Eat a diet abundant in plant foods, especially those high in phytoestrogens such as flaxseed meal and oil, nuts, fermented soy foods such as tempeh, legumes, parsley, fennel and wholegrains. Middle-aged Japanese women eating a traditional diet rich in soy foods rarely report menopausal symptoms.
Finally, ensure you have enough of the following vitamins and minerals, as they are crucial for healthy adrenals:
- Vitamin C (for adrenal blood supply): 500 to 2000mg in divided doses over the day
- Vitamin B5 (for energy production): 25 to 50mg, taken along with the rest of the B complex
- Folic acid: at least 800mcg per day –within a good B complex
- Magnesium (to experience optimal energy): 300 to 800mg per day, in divided doses. Use magnesium fumarate, citrate, glycinate or malate. Transdermal magnesium is great for increasing levels of DHEA, which reverses many of the unfavourable effects of excess cortisol.
- Vitamin D: A hormone as well as a vitamin, which affects every cell in the body. Ensure safe levels of exposure to sunlight, or supplement with up to 5000IU per day.
Adaptogens such as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) are helpful for adrenal function. Take one 100mg capsule of Siberian ginseng twice a day, before 3pm if it’s too stimulating. Licorice can be taken as a tea or part of a herbal tincture prepared for you by a herbalist or naturopath. Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) has been extensively researched as a hormone balancing botanical, whileblack cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), sage (Salvia officinalis) and Dong quai (Angelica sinensis) are helpful for hot flushes. Get a qualified natural health professional to advise you on how to take these.
Dr. Christiane Northrup likens menopause to “adolescence in reverse –the same stormy emotions we experienced during puberty often return, urging us to complete the unfinished business of our early years”. Many women find themselves leaving 20- or 30-year marriages, changing careers, travelling extensively, revamping their physical appearance, and redefining their values. It’s much like our teenage years, except this time we have a lifetime of experience and many more tools to bring to the table to facilitate our metamorphosis.
In the same way that PMS is the wake-up call of the monthly cycle, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is the wake-up call of the annual cycle, peri-menopause is the wake-up call of the entire life cycle. It is the crucial time to address what is not working in our lives and to burn away the dross so that we can re-emerge reborn; able to live fully and authentically. As I mentioned in the menstrual health article, there is a price to pay for hitting the snooze button every time we experience PMS. If you routinely pop a few Panadol, rage incessantly, and/or curse your reproductive biology instead of paying attention to how you’re dealing with the health and emotional issues in your life…just wait and see what happens during menopause when 50 years of unresolved stuff hits you!
Whether you’ve experienced regular PMS throughout your pre-menopausal life or not, there is much we can do to charter the peri-menopausal waters safely so that we come out the other side with our health in bloom, and make our way through the rest of life fortified with purpose, pleasure, and insight.
Casey Conroy is a holistic dietitian, nutritionist, naturopath in-training, yoga and AcroYoga teacher who specialises in women’s health and ‘non-diet’ approaches to weight management. She is the founder of Funky Forest Health & Wellbeing on the Gold Coast, and she loves making and eating raw chocolate.
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