Preparing for a smooth menopause starts years before you’re there. These lifestyle strategies and natural remedies can help.
In my early 40s, menopause was the furthest thing from my mind. After all, I was still young, and I had learned that the average woman in the U.S. doesn’t hit menopause until age 51. But then I gradually started having mysterious symptoms, including night sweats, heart palpitations, erratic periods, insomnia, mood swings, and loss of libido and brain fog. Still, even when I hit 44, I assumed I had at least a few more years.
I soon learned that I was actually experiencing symptoms of perimenopause, the five-to 12-year transition that leads to menopause. It can begin as early as the late 30s, though for most women it tends to be closer to the mid-to-late 40s. Menopause isn’t officially reached until you haven’t had a period for an entire year, and when you get there is largely determined by genetics.
The reason for the vexing symptoms that can seemingly go on forever? Hormones gone haywire. Thanks to fluctuating estrogen levels, erratic periods are usually the first sign of perimenopause, says gynecologist. They can get closer together or farther apart, heavier or lighter, longer or shorter.
In addition, “Your ovaries are making less progesterone, a hormone that calms the nervous system, so you may become more irritable or anxious and see your PMS go from bad to worse.” According to a 2010 study, 20 percent of women in perimenopause report severe symptoms; 60 percent, mild symptoms; and 20 percent, no symptoms.
On a happier note, while you can’t stop time, you can minimize the toll these hormonal storms take on your mind and body. It all comes down to paying attention to certain health and lifestyle habits that make good sense no matter how young (or old) you are. “You can actually sail through this transition”. “And if you enter menopause in optimal health, your symptoms will not be as severe or you may not even experience any at all.”
So whether you’re already in the throes of perimenopause or just planning ahead, explore these options for preventing and easing the potential problems, pronto.
Stop the stress cycle.
Stress is a fact of life for most of us, and releasing a constant flood of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol depletes the adrenal glands. This can make fatigue, mental confusion and hot flashes particularly bad during perimenopause. “That’s because when estrogen levels dip, the adrenals increase cortisol production”. Basically, you’re getting a double whammy off the stress hormone during the transition to menopause. Also, cortisol levels are normally highest in the morning, and then drop throughout the day. “But in perimenopause, cortisol stays elevated, so falling and staying asleep become difficult”.
Action Plan. Ease stress, reduce cortisol production and facilitate sleep with relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, massage and yoga, tai chi or qi gong. Cardio can also alleviate stress, but don’t overdo it: “Pushing yourself so hard that you’re left feeling depleted can weaken your adrenals even further”.
Suggests supporting exhausted adrenals with adaptogenic (aka stress-busting) herbs such as licorice root, ashwagandha and rhodiola. Try Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health.
3 perimenopause pointers
More tips to smooth the path to menopause.
- Watch your weight Women carrying extra pounds tend to suffer more hot flashes during perimenopause than women at a healthy weight, according to an Obstetrics & Gynecology study. Eating well and getting enough sleep help with weight and perimenopause.
- Stick with exercise. A new Finnish study of women ages 45 to 63 found that those who exercised aerobically for 50 minutes a day, four days a week, for 24 weeks reported reduced menopausal mood swings, irritability and night sweats.
- Limit alcohol. “Besides contributing to weight gain, alcohol spikes blood sugar, boosts cortisol, increases hot flashes, contributes to depression and ups breast cancer risk”. “It also causes an almost immediate imbalance of too much estrogen relative to progesterone.”
Cut out white foods
Northrup notes that food high in simple carbohydrates, such as white flour, pasta, bread and rice, as well as sweets and processed foods, raise cortisol levels. As noted above, this can exacerbate perimenopause symptoms, including exhaustion, mental fogginess and hot flashes. Eating too many white foods also spikes blood sugar, which can lead to cravings and overeating; the resulting weight gain makes certain symptoms worse.
Action Plan Choose carbohydrates in their whole-food form (such as vegetables and whole grains) over white-flour pasta, crackers and cookies, and include quality proteins and healthy fats at each meal. “Eating flaxseeds, which are high in Omega-3 fatty acid, and cruciferous vegetables helps your body metabolize estrogen, which will balance its fluctuating levels”. Other good omega-3 sources include wild salmon, hemp or chia seeds, and walnuts. A 2011 study in the journal Menopause found that omega-3s decreased depression, hot flashes, brain fog, vaginal dryness and night sweats in women approaching menopause.
Think about your thyroid hormone levels
During perimenopause, estrogen that’s not counter balanced by progesterone can slow the production of thyroid hormone, triggering weight gain, fatigue, depression, mental fogginess and other symptoms. In fact, about 25 percent of women discover they have low thyroid, or hypothyroidism, during perimenopause.
Action Plan Have your thyroid hormone levels tested by an endocrinologist or naturopathic physician. If you discover you have low levels, this can be easily remedied with thyroid medication.
Embrace “the change”
“If a woman believe she will have a difficult time [with menopause], it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy”. Indeed, according to a 2011 study published in Clinical and Experimental Obstetrics & Gynecology, menopausal women who exhibited negative attitudes about entering menopause experienced more severe symptoms.
Action Plan Northrup suggests looking at perimenopause as an opportunity to make positive changes by dealing with issues and problems you may have been ignoring for years. “At perimenopause, you come to a crossroads in your life where you have to choose between one path that says ‘grow’ and the other that says ‘stagnate’. As such, it’s often an ideal time to assess things like you career, relationships or general health and well-being, and take proactive steps toward self-improvement.
If the prospect of menopause is really taking a psychological toll, try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). “CBT retrains your brain to let go of anxiety and self-defeating thoughts and subsequent reactions”.
Supplement your symptoms
While healthy lifestyle changes will likely lessen the severity of perimenopause symptoms, you may still experience them to some degree. If any of the following hit, ty the corresponding natural remedies.
- Hot flashes/night sweats. A study found that the black cohosh in Remifemin reduced hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings and irritability by 70 percent. Lucille suggests taking 200 milligrams twice a day for 12 weeks. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been found to lower the frequency of hot flashes. Try: Remifemin and /or 1 tablespoon daily of Spectrum Essentials Organic Flax Oil with Cinnamon (a blood-sugar stabilizer)
- Moodiness, irritability, bloating Gottfried recommends a combination of magnesium (150 to 300mg daily) and calcium (500 to 600mg twice per day). Try: Natural Vitality Natural Calm Magnesium Plus Calcium.
- Vaginal dryness Studies show that Pueraria mirifica, or Thai kudzu exhibits an estrogen like effect that boosts vaginal elasticity and lubrication, similar to hormone replacement therapy. Try: Solgar PM PhytoGen Complex.
- Low sex drive Taking 500 to 1,000 mg of Peruvian maca root can increase sex drive as well as ease anxiety. Try: Navitas Natural Raw Maca Powder.
- Insomnia. To relax at night, take 50 to 200 mg – building up slowly in 50-mg increments – of the amino acid 5-HTP before bed. Try: Jarrow 5-HTP.
- Brain fog Several studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids improve memory and cognitive functioning in older adults. Northrup advises eating salmon and sardines as well as taking 1,000 mg of fish oil supplements daily. Try: New Chapter Wholemega Whole Fish Oil.