Mel Robbins is one powerful and clued-up lady. I love her passion and her sage advice on all things psychological and motivational. Yesterday I listened to one of her ‘Mindset, Reset’ videos. It was about how to deal with feelings of anxiety that keep us paralysed in the same mind-set. Her solutions for dealing with anxiety were wonderfully reassuring to all who listened and she was convincing that our past interpretations of events fuel our levels of anxiety throughout our lives, leaving us feeling over-whelmed and locked in the negative head space of defeat and worthlessness. But hearing her advice left me thinking about the anxiety that arrives in women during menopause and how this is not connected to our childhood but instead to the change of our hormones as we age. Mid-life anxiety isn’t always due to our social and psychological past – there is a physiological influence as well – and for women, the effect of declining oestrogen on our gut, heart and nerves is the catalyst.
Declining levels of oestrogen have an effect on our gut health, nervous system and blood vessels (including in our brain) as we arrive into this stage of life, making us feel that we don’t cope with stressful events as well as we used to.
Throughout 2018, I’ve read email after email and seen hundreds of my programme pre-entry screening forms, where women are taking HRT, Bio-identicals, Anti-depressants for thir menopause symptoms, but they report experiencing hot flushes, insomnia, anxiety, brain fog and no energy. But they obviously are not working! It’s why I’m so pleased that they are listening to my message which is ‘when we go into menopause, our reproductive hormones are sending us into our biological ageing. And when this happens AND we don’t allow our body to adjust to these changes through changing our lifestyle, then other hormones, such as our thyroid, adrenal and pituitary hormones, kick-in to try to re-balance the internal environment. Your body is trying to adjust to help you SURVIVE!
For millions of women, the end-result is often poor sleep, hot flushes, worsening anxiety, brain fog and feelings of depression. But there’s also other symptoms that are not often associated with menopause, but leave us thinking, ‘wait, where did my gut health go?’! So, how is your gut health? Do you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)? Or diverticulitis? Or do you swing between being constipated and having diarrheoa? Maybe your brain feels foggy all the time and you find it difficult to concentrate? And perhaps these changes have just come on during your menopause transition but you have no idea that they might be connected in some way?
If you feel like this, then let me share some physiological insight with you, that you can use alongside Mels’ psychological insight into the causes of your anxiety as you reach your menopause transition.
At least 50% of women on my coaching pages, tell me that they are experiencing gut health issues that have mainly arrived since they went into their menopause transition. Unbeknownst to many of them, our changing gut health as we go into a low oestrogen hormonal environment is impacting on anxiety levels too.
As I explain to women who come on board with the online My Menopause Transformation 12 week programmes, not only are we are the first generation to come into menopause having experienced so many changes to our food environment, but we are also the first generation to have been exposed to harmful substances that have a negative effect on our gut bacteria – and according to researchers, one of the greatest influences on our gut health that has lead to negative gut changes, has been our exposure to antibiotics.
The gut microbiome is one of the largest organs in the body (along with our skin) but here’s what blew me away – when I attended the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine conference late last year, researcher, Professor Thomas Borody, reported that the gut is responsible for producing 70% of your energy. Then with the powerful connection that your gut has with your brain, many symptoms that we experience in menopause, such as foggy brain, depression, anxiety and mood swings, can be linked to the health of your gut micro-biome. I might also add insomnia in there too.
Can you imagine what happens to your energy levels, sleep, health and moods, when your gut isn’t performing to its best?
Our knowledge of the gut-brain connection has increased 10-fold over the past decade. This has been due to improved brain research as well as genetic research. Both have opened the door towards understanding gut health and the link to disease, especially the effect of the accumulation of inflammatory changes as we get older. With menopause heralding in the transition towards our ageing, this is a critical time of life to sleep all night, restore health to our body and for those of you who need to lose weight, this will also have a positive impact on your anxiety levels and energy too.
This is the purpose of the Transform Me weight loss programme, which I have ON SALE throughout January 2019. [Use the promo code JANUARY19]. I hope you can join me on this – it has all the steps you need to take to turn around your weight in menopause.
So, what is the gut microbiome and why does it matter to us in menopause?
The microbiome is the community of bacteria that lives in our gut and elsewhere in our body. As Professor Zoltan Sarnyai mentioned in his presentation at the conference, “The connection between the brain and gut is because messages are sent up and down the vagus nerve – the major nerve that runs from our brain to our heart, stomach and intestines. The vagus nerve therefore, has a profound influence on the gut microbiota as well as pro-inflammatory markers. The reason for this, is because the vagus nerve transfers stress cytokines (inflammatory markers) between the gut and the brain. So, stress is the ‘hammer’ which acts on the brain and the gut. When we keep activating our stress response, then this increases the ‘leakiness’ of the gut. When the gut is leaky, we lose the ability to absorb the nutrients we need for our health and this increases oxidative stress in the body.”
I couldn’t agree more!
As I have found based on my personal experience during menopause, one of the major changes that we experience when oestrogen goes low, is insomnia, or interrupted sleep. When we aren’t sleeping our gut isn’t healing properly overnight, so we accumulate inflammation in our gut. Add to this, our changing food and chemical environment over the decades and our increasing exposure to medicines such as antibiotics, then it’s no surprise that we arrive in mid-life and we have changing gut health. But as my own readings and studies also suggest, when we don’t have oestrogen any more, then there are other changes that occur to our gut as well. These include changes to the enzymes that break down food, changes to our gut motility (movement) and changes to our liver function (we produce less bile to break down fats). As well, for those of you who are doing lots of exercise, then this also causes your vagus nerve to be stimulated more often as well. When all of these factors collide, then the off-shoot of all this, are the changes that occur with your thyroid gland. When our thyroid is trying to re-balance the internal hormonal environment, then our heart rate increases, as does our blood pressure and temperature. These three factors have a powerful influence on feelings of anxiety too.
Your thyroid gland produces hormones that are integral to the function of your gut microbiome and your brain. When inflammation is present in your gut such as in IBS or diverticulitis, then this inflammation disrupts function in the gut, unbalances your gut microbiome and therefore, disrupts your thyroid function, often speeding up your heart rate and making you feel more anxious. When your thyroid isn’t functioning as well as it should (too much or too little), this causes further disruption to your moods, motivation and emotional state (this is because your thyroid controls your heart rate, blood pressure and influences the activity of the vagus nerve).
In menopause, this can present as increased anxiety, depression and brain fog and may have nothing to do with childhood experiences.
Restoring gut health and improving your gut microbiome is fundamental to improving your anxiety, brain fog and depression. It’s also important for improving your thyroid function, metabolism and for many or you, understanding this powerful connection is fundamental to turning around your weight gain too.
How do I turn around my gut health and feelings of anxiety?
When we understand the connection between the brain, the gut, the vagus nerve and inflammation, then we need to focus on these three factors:
- Sleep – as I keep saying to women, if you aren’t sleeping, then you aren’t healing and your heart rate stays higher during the day. This alone makes you feel more anxious because your nervous system stays ‘wired’ all day long. As well, your gut is also on a 24 hour circadian rhythm, so we need to improve our sleep in order to improve our gut. This is why in both of the MyMT programmes, the first module you receive is called ‘SLEEP ALL NIGHT‘.
2. Food Quality & Vegetable Diversity –
Professor Rosemary Stanton of Australia has been studying the health of the population in Australia for over four decades now. As she stated at the conference – “The way to heal the gut is to have diversity in vegetable intake and increase fibre. This is what the gut has been designed for. Decades of low fibre, processed foods have resulted in worsening health of the population and a plethora of diseases which are mainly related to our changing food environment.”
3. Avoiding antibiotics (if possible). If antibiotics can’t be avoided, then these must be followed up with probiotics, which help to restore the natural gut flora.
A healthy gut microbiome is a diverse microbiome, which has a large number of bacteria. When we have a healthy gut, then we also help to improve our mental and emotional health. During menopause, this includes anxiety, foggy brain and depression. It is absolutely vital that women turn around their gut health, in order to improve their mental health and overall health.
In both of the MyMT programmes, I have a scientifically designed GUT REHAB programme which steps women through what to do to improve gut health. Once you follow my 5 principles, then you will be able to restore your gut. Yes, some women need medical intervention for improving both gut health (e.g. with probiotics specifically designed to improve certain bacteria) or depression, but underlying any of these medical interventions should also be sleep, diet and exercise strategies that help to reduce the inflammation that has typically been building up for decades. When inflammation is present in the body during menopause (and I include you ladies who do lots of exercise and your joints and muscles are sore and when fat cells are inflamed then we also put on weight), how to turn all of this chaos around is what I have for you the MyMT programmes – Circuit-Breaker is for women not putting on weight, whilst Transform-Me, is my weight loss programme. Both give you access to my GUT REHAB programme too.
I hope that if you are experiencing changing gut health or you have increased anxiety, brain-fog, depression and/ or weight gain, then you can listen to my video telling you about the online MyMT programmes here. If you get on top of your physical health now during mid-life, then ageing well in ‘good’ health with lots more energy and less anxiety, is a lot more closer than you think – especially when you also follow the incredible work of Mel Robbins and her ‘Mindset-Reset’ programme.
Wendy Sweet, PhD [Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Creator & Coach].