“Change is about interrupting the habits and patterns that no longer serve us. When you change your life, you become your real you.” (Dr Edith Eger (PhD), Clinical Therapist and Auschwitz Survivor)
The ultimate key to freedom as you age is to keep becoming who you truly are, mentioned Dr Eger in her fascinating book, called The Gift: A Survivor’s Journey to Freedom. I was reading it on the long-haul flight from New Zealand to Geneva. We were heading to the Alps to watch the New Zealanders compete in the Freeride World Tour. As I read Dr Eger’s book, I reflected on her sage advice about ‘change’.
When I went into my menopause transition, I didn’t realise that in more ways that one, we need to ‘change our routines’ to meet the ‘change of life’.
Nearly a decade ago, I was desperate to feel like my old self again. But I felt trapped. Not only trapped in not understanding what was going on in my body as I moved into menopause but trapped within my thoughts and beliefs about how to look after myself adn live my best life. I was too busy taking care of others and ensuring that they were living their best life. Somehow, my own needs didn’t quite register. It’s interesting that women’s health research is consistent in this theme too – that women on the whole, don’t realise that they need to pay attention to their own self-care, because they are too busy looking after others.
But that wasn’t all. Not only was I caring for others, but I was still trying to keep the daily routines that I had been used to for years. Routines that involved following dietary and exercise advice that, only now, I realize were intended for males and athletes with an emphasis on high amounts of protein and fats, taking hormone medications and supplements that were the domain of the bio-medical approach to menopause. But there was something missing. And that ‘something’ was how I felt. I didn’t feel like me.
Self-Identity is what we all carry with us throughout our lives. Identity is the qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance, and/or expressions that characterize a person or group. In my doctoral studies I read a lot about self-identity and the meanings and beliefs that we form and construct as part of our upbringing and the groups that we belong to.
In sociology, emphasis is placed on collective identity, in which an individual’s identity is strongly associated with role-behavior or the collection of group memberships that define them. Over the past few decades one of the collective groups that I feel that I belong to is the wonderful skiing community. My husband and I have always skied, so too do my children. It is part of ‘who we are’ as a family.
But my menopause symptoms almost robbed me of this identity.
Almost a decade ago in my early 50s, even the thought of being able to ski and hike in the mountains was a distant dream. I was too exhausted and sore. Nor did I ever think that I would be able to claim back my post-menopause health and travel to beautiful Switzerland to watch New Zealand Freeride athlete, Jess Hotter, win the World Championship Women’s Freeride Title over the weekend. As some of you know, one of the privileges I’ve had with doing my doctoral studies on women’s health, has been to help Jess draw attention to her hormonal health needs as a professional athlete.
Fatigue is a killer when you are about to drop-in from some of the highest mountains in a ski competition. And training and competing at altitude takes it out of female skiers who need to look after their hormonal health, especially in respect to their iron and ferritin (stored iron) needs.
Low iron or ferritin increases feelings of anxiety and not coping. Just as some of you are finding now that you are in perimenopause.
And you don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from watching your iron and ferritin stores. If you are in perimenopause and still menstruating and you are experiencing hot flushes, night sweats, increased anxiety or sore muscles, then take note to go and get your ferritin, iron and Vitamin B12 levels checked. Add Vitamin D to that list as well.
Today I was out hiking on an ancient trail after acknowledging Jess’s success over lunch with her. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this because my knees, feet and muscles ached continuously. Remembering this and what I began to do about it, is in this short video which I made, just for you. If you are struggling at the moment, then I hope it gives you … hope.
I’ve come across numerous women who are still competing or participating in vigorous exercise as they move through menopause. Many also have night sweats, hot flushes, anxiety, emotional turmoil and poor recovery and poor performance from their training and competing. But instead of getting their iron, ferritin or B12 levels checked, they are put on HRT.
I spoke about this in a Lifestyle Medicine conference a few years ago and wasn’t surprised when a number of Doctor’s came up to me afterwards saying that they see this all the time and never think to do iron and ferritin studies on menopausal women. And you don’t have to be a runner either – whether you are sedentary or active, during your menopause transition, monitoring your iron levels is an important part of your hot flush management.
So, if you are lining up for your HRT, then perhaps ask to get iron and ferritin (stored iron) levels checked as well as Vitamin D. All of these blood markers, if low, impact your symptoms. And conversely if you are in POST-Menopause and therefore, not menstruating any more, your iron and ferritin levels may actually be high.
It is well known in sport and exercise science that female runners are at higher risk of low iron levels. For women in menopause who exercise, it’s the same. But not sleeping, low iron and menopause changes, also impact on temperature and hot flushes. That’s why women in their menopause transition also run a higher risk of low iron levels or high iron levels if they are in post-menopause. It’s a finely tuned balance.
Persistent tiredness, feelings of lethargy, upper respiratory tract infections and of course, not sleeping are well known symptoms of over-training syndrome, but so too are night sweats, hot flushes and a temperature regulation system, that is out of balance.
It’s the same for female athletes such as Jess.
Improving her understanding of the role that her hormones play in keeping her healthy when she is travelling and competing on some of the world’s highest peaks was an important contribution that I could help her with as she lives her best life at the moment. Knowing that there are essential nutrients that she needs in order to compete well and recover, was an important sharing of information I had with her as the season progressed.
Vitamins and minerals are essential to a myriad of physiologic functions, and a deficiency results in a wide variety of disorders. Among these disorders is the inability of mammals to maintain body temperature adequately in the cold or in the extreme heat.
Whether you live in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere with the seasonal changes at the moment, and whether you are on HRT or not, you need to understand that in menopause or post-menopause, there is an intricate link between your sleep, your hot flushes and your iron levels – too little or too much and your temperature regulation gets out of balance.
Freedom from menopause symptoms and poor health as you age is yours to choose. With the myriad of symptoms I was experiencing a few years ago as well as the weight gain, I’m so pleased that as part of my own menopause journey, I chose healthy ageing. Doing this as well as understanding what and how to change specific lifestyle factors, helped me retain my self-identify as well.
It is well known in sports psychology that we suffer most when we believe that we have no control over our lives. But with the understanding of what is going on with our changing physiology during menopause we can take back control.
For numerous women in my coaching group, this means slowly removing themselves from the thoughts and beliefs that keep them in their current lifestyle routines and habits. Afterall, as their body is changing hormonally, then we have to change with it. Through this we can support our growth and wellness at this time of life. If you are feeling out of control, I hope you can join me sometime. My passion is for you to live your best post-menopause life too.
Dr Wendy Sweet (PhD)/ MyMT™ Founder/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine