There’s a national shortage of Hormone Replacement Therapy in the UK apparently. “HRT: UK faces shortage for menopausal women” shouted the headline on the 19th of August from the BBC news page. And according to the article, this is sending thousands of women into the very symptoms that menopause-related HRT is supposed to alleviate – anxiety, mood swings and more hot flushes.
If this is you and you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious as you transition menopause, then please read on. Because as many women on the MyMT™ programmes are discovering (including Daily Mail journalist, Claudia Connell who wrote an excellent article about her experience doing the MyMT Transform Me programme and coming off her HRT), you may not need it. And I want you to understand why.
When I felt overwhelmed with anxiety and insomnia, sore joints and hot flushes, despair and frustration accompanied me to my GP. Her only known solution at the time was HRT. She was trying to help me feel better. But I didn’t get any respite and now, I better understand why. At the time, my Doctor wasn’t taking into consideration my lack of sleep, my changing gut health, my stress levels, my increased blood pressure, my changing liver health nor the high-intensity exercise that I loved to do too.
Furthermore, there was no mention of the fact that as menopause is the gateway to our ageing, there are numerous changes that occur all around our body when oestrogen is no longer produced in our ageing ovaries.
When these structural changes in our organs clash with our active, stressful lifestyle in menopause, the result is increased hot flushes, insomnia, anxiety, mood swings, weight changes (gain and/or loss of weight) and for many women, sore joints and aching muscles too.
Until I did my women’s healthy ageing studies, I had no idea about all these things either.
It’s been the same for hundreds of women who join me on the MyMT™ programmes. I’m always amazed at how many of them, on completing their health-screening questionnaire for me, are also on HRT but yet, they still experience hot flushes, poor sleep, anxiety, mood swings and depression as well. I used to be the same as well, i.e. on HRT but still having symptoms. At the time, I was curious about why nobody seems to be tackling why this is.
That’s what I want to share with you in this blog. And no, I’m not recommending that you get off HRT – this is a medical decision that is between you and your Doctor. But what I am saying, is that there are other lifestyle aspects that you need to be putting into place too. Afterall, menopause is the bookend to puberty and we didn’t need lots of medications or endless supplements then either.
That’s why I want you to understand that when we are feeling anxious and experiencing hot flushes, it’s not just the decline of our ovaries that we need to focus on. Our nervous system is losing the role of oestrogen as are our blood vessels too. And the effect on our anxiety, gut health, blood pressure and body temperature as we move through menopause, can send us into a panic.
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, our vagus nerve, like all the other nerves, is also losing the effect of oestrogen attaching to oestrogen receptors. This means that the nerve doesn’t pass impulses along it as readily as it used to. The impulses travel more slowly.
So, can you imagine, that when we are always racing around, or doing lots of fast, quick movements during exercise, or we are feeling stressed (at work and home), then the vagus nerve stays stimulated all day long.
The effect of this is that your vagus nerve and other nerves that come off the vagus nerve, are always trying to play ‘catch-up’ when sending signals around the body. For many of you, this can throw you into feeling anxious, overwhelmed and give you the perception that you aren’t coping with whatever life is throwing at you. Many of you will also crave sugar and other non-nutritious carbohydrates. When your nervous system is over-taxed and speeding up, your body surges with more of your stress hormone called adrenaline (epinephrine). When this happens, your muscles and brain think that they need quick-energy to deal with the stress. This ‘quick-energy’ is glucose, or sugar. Chocolate cravings anyone?
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.
Because our nervous system is losing the role of oestrogen, our busy lifestyle and our never-ending brain activity in a typical day, keeps the vagus nerve and other nerves, in ‘stress-response mode’. In moderation, this is fine. Our body can handle this. But because we are losing oestrogen, AND we aren’t sleeping, then this increased nervous system activity also fires up our blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and our metabolism. The roll-on effect of an over-stressed vagus nerve, thyroid and adrenal system, when we aren’t sleeping well, is increased inflammation in our body. Especially in our gut and colon.
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 know that you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed and you aren’t sleeping or have an irritable bowel, 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 nervous system.
As Sandra came on the MyMT™ Circuit Breaker programme, this understanding helped her too.
What Sandra did was to not only change her mindset about the exercise she was doing, but she also changed her diet to accommodate the numerous changes in her blood vessels, liver and gut as she transitioned menopause. Instead of endless high-intensity exercise, she began to walk, stretch and do more mindfulness exercises that I have in the programme. As well, she changed her diet to give her more B-vitamins, which help our nervous system, and took on the anti-inflammatory nutritional changes that I suggest in the MyMT™ Food Guide.
“I feel calmer and so much more in control” she told me, when I met her at one of my live-events. “My anxiety levels have dropped enormously.”
As I began to explore the physiology of my own anxiety which appeared during menopause, I realised that our brain and nervous system are part of the anxiety-story too.
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 during menopause, our nerve cells typically 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. One of the strategies that I get women to undertake in the MyMT programmes is to walk more in the morning. This is so powerful to help alleviate our anxiety and to set us up for the day ahead. How wonderful it was, when one particular day, many of them from around the world, posted in the private coaching community, where they were walking from around the world.
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, or when we are rushed off our feet with our various home lives, sometimes the ‘threat’ is just our own behaviour. Unfortunately in menopause, this clashes with our changing hormones. I’m so pleased that Sandra discovered this too.
Anxiety and hot flushes are often reported as ‘normal’ symptoms of menopause and yes, 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, exercise and nutrition, that allows our body to adjust to menopause and that’s when, our symptoms go away. And yes, I had to learn this too.
Every week, I receive messages from women who have changed their lives by working through the step-by-step processes I have outlined in the MyMT ‘Circuit-Breaker’ and ‘Transform Me’ programmes (these differ according to whether you want to lose weight or not).
This came in today from Allie.
This came in last week from Tina:
And here is aged-care worker, Pauline:
It is well known in women’s health research that mid-life women experience numerous challenges in this day and age. There is so much going on still and yes, we keep going because we must. But when our reproductive hormones begin to decline in menopause and we are experiencing increased anxiety, hot flushes and we can feel our heart rate increasing, then this is a sign that our body is going into ‘survival mode’.
Whether you are on HRT or not, if you feel the overwhelm of everyday life, then come and discover how to turn your symptoms around as your body changes with age. I can’t wait to help you feel better 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