Did you know that your nervous system responds differently as you lose oestrogen? Did you know that your blood vessels are ageing and become less elastic as you move through menopause? When I felt overwhelmed with anxiety and my gut became more irritable than ever before, I had no idea that this was all to do with our changing hormones in menopause. It was the same for Sandra too.
When Sandra introduced herself to me, she gave me a hug. “I can’t thank you enough” she began. “Because of your programme, I’ve realised that I’m a perfectionist and because I work in a mainly male environment, I’m the first to try and compete against the men. Especially when it came to workplace fitness events. We’ve had so many lately with ‘Step-counting’ and ‘Boot Camps’ and when you mentioned about trying to reduce the intensity of our exercise so as to let our hormones re-balance, I realised how, nearly every day, I was always exercising to compete against my work colleagues. But now I don’t and I feel so much calmer. I’ve stopped all of my hard-out exercise and the difference in how I feel is amazing. My anxiety has reduced and I’m thinking more clearly too.”
I’ve thought a lot about Sandra’s comments over the last month or so. The reason for this, is because I talk to so many women who attend my seminars, who have arrived in menopause and are feeling overwhelmed, time-poor and anxious. But so many of them are also doing lots of exercise too. When Sandra told me that before coming on board with me, she was always ‘on the go’ and exercising at a high-intensity, I also thought a lot about the ladies who were so kind to be interviewed as part of my PhD studies.
Most of them had placed their ‘healthy’ or ‘successful’ ageing in the context of doing high-intensity exercise nearly every day. It helped them cope – even when they felt exhausted. Their stories resonated with me and I wonder if this resonates with you too? Because if you are always ‘on the go’ whether at work, home or at the gym, then I want to explain that during our menopause transition, this can increase your anxiety levels, your heart rate, your adrenaline levels and cause your gut to be more fired up than ever … especially if you aren’t sleeping.
You develop the same symptoms as an over-trained athlete.
It was in the mid-1990’s that our exercise ‘sped-up’. I often say that it was in the decade when fitness was just evolving as a form or recreational activity, that our exercise got harder – we moved from exercising like Jane Fonda to pushing weights, like Tarzan. Fitness moved to the ‘harder, faster, stronger’ ethos that continues to dominate many exercise environments today. And whilst many of us have enjoyed this type of exercise for years, back then we weren’t in menopause. Hence, our changing hormones as we began peri-menopause, have been pulled into this type of training unwittingly too. And that’s the problem – if we aren’t sleeping all night, then we aren’t recovering from high-intensity exercise.
Like over-trained athletes, our heart-rate, blood pressure and temperature stay higher than normal all day long. We experience greater anxiety, we feel hotter than normal and for many women, our gut suffers too.
That’s why I want to draw your attention to Sandra and her comment about feeling calmer. She told me that she has a competitive personality, hence, her work environment was stressful and then doing lots of high intensity activity added to the physical stress she was under. When this happens, the gut is also ‘on high alert’ for most of the day too. Put this with a nervous system that is ageing and also losing oestrogen and your feelings of ‘overwhelm’ can go through the roof.
When you feel stressed and ‘wired’ from not sleeping, your gut is stressed too. This is why understanding the connection between your brain, gut and the second longest nerve in the body, which is your Vagus nerve, is important if you are transitioning through menopause.
Have you heard of the vagus nerve? This beautiful nerve is the second longest nerve in your body (your sciatic nerve is the longest). Travelling from your brain stem to nearly every major organ, including your digestive system, if we have a competitive personality and we are always striving to compete in any environment from the gym to our work, then the vagus nerve stays stimulated and under stress. When this happens, your vagus nerve sends messages to not only your muscles and brain, but also other organs, that quick-energy is needed. This ‘quick-energy’ that’s needed is glucose, or sugar.
In situations where there is even more added stress in your day, your vagus nerve (which also drives your adrenal/ stress glands) stays fired up.
It’s why medical ailments such as Ulcerative Colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or other digestive problems such as ulcers, are more frequently observed in higher-stress patients. In fact there is a neurological term for these types of patients known as having a ‘sympathetic dominant metabolism’. This is referring to the fact that the sympathetic ‘fight-or-flight’ nerve pathway is dominating the metabolic environment. If you are this type of person, then you need to balance up your day with a little bit of help from the opposite nervous system pathway – your para-sympathetic pathway. This is your calming system.
That’s why I loved how Sandra had identified that in order for her to move on and reduce her anxiety, hot flushes and weight, she needed to stop being so competitive with workplace events. So, she did. She told me that part of this was to stop putting her hand up to help organise these events and then she changed her mind-set to one of ‘participating’ not ‘competing’. She also changed her exercise routine to walking, stretching and yoga. “I feel calmer and so much more in control” she told me. “My anxiety levels have dropped enormously.”
Not all of you are like this obviously. Some of you will have a very laid-back personality and be very easy-going. Not much fazes you. This is because your dominant metabolic type is driven by your calming nervous system – you are a ‘para-sympathetic’ metabolic type. For you, a bit of intense exercise may be helpful to you so that you balance out your nervous system by stimulating your sympathetic nervous system as well. Some of you will be ‘ ‘in-betweeners’ and feel that you have got the balance right between your ‘fight or flight’ nervous system and your ‘calming’ nervous system.
Staying physically active as we move through menopause and into our years beyond has greater importance than we ever thought. In fact, individuals who engage in regular physical activity usually have lower levels of anxiety. But what Sandra has discovered, as numerous women on the MyMT programmes have too, there are times when too much high-intensity exercise, when we aren’t sleeping all night, can cause our lovely vagus nerve to stay on ‘high-alert’. When this happens we produce more cortisol and we don’t absorb nutrients through our gut wall very well. Our gut wall becomes inflamed, irritated and has a faster transit time, thus causing less absorption of nutrients. In fact, for many women in mid-life this can lead to irritable bowel and/or ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome’. Medical experts now know that this condition affects our entire body. If this is you, then please get it checked out with your Doctor.
As I began to explore the physiology of our anxiety as we go through menopause, I realised that our brain and nervous system are part of the anxiety-story too. Our nervous system is ageing as it too loses oestrogen receptors.
Your brain and nervous system go through changes during menopause and this happens earlier than you think!
Women’s brain and nerves age more rapidly than men’s do. As we lose oestrogen, our nerve cells may also begin to pass messages more slowly than in the past. As I mention to women on the MyMT programmes when we have a lot of information going through our brain every single day and we are multi-tasking, these neurons (nerves) have to transmit messages faster than ever before. But what we aren’t allowing for is the fact that our nervous system slows down it’s function as we age. The research shows that this starts after the age of 35 years.
That’s why, one of my ‘Anxiety-Buster’ tips for women who join me on the My Menopause Transformation programmes, is to focus on lower-intensity aerobic exercise that allows the brain and nervous system to slow down. When we do rhythmic activity, such as walking, hiking, swimming, cycling, dancing or rowing, then we achieve ‘flow’. This allows us to move in ways that are more natural for our nervous system and muscles and when we find pleasure in our activity, then our anxiety decreases too.
Feelings of anxiety are a warning sign for our survival. Anxiety allows humans to be aware and take the necessary measures to deal with threats. But in the modern, competitive workplace that many of us work in every day, sometimes the ‘threat’ is just our competitive behaviour, which unfortunately clashes with our changing hormones as we move through menopause. I’m so pleased that Sandra discovered this about her own personality too.
Feeling overwhelmed and anxious is often given as a ‘normal’ symptom of menopause and many women are helped by going on hormonal replacement therapies at this life-stage. However, when we take a moment to reflect on many of the causes of our overwhelm and anxiety, we can also reflect on slowing down, breathing deeply and understanding that our nervous system is losing oestrogen receptors and ageing too.
Once we understand this, then we can start to make small changes to our lifestyle that allows us to manage ourselves better and keep our hormones in harmony with this age and stage. And yes, I had to learn this too.
Dr Wendy Sweet, [PhD/ Member Australasian Lifestyle Medicine Society/ REPs Exercise Specialist
- Lima-Alves, D., Rocha, S. et al. (2019). The positive impact of physical activity on the reduction of anxiety scores: a pilot study. Revue of Assoc. Med., 65(3), 434-440
- Gonzalez, N. (2017). Nutrition and the Autonomic Nervous System. New York: New Springs Press.
- Huppert, F., Baylis, N. & Barry, K. (2007). The science of well-being. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press