Why do we have so many symptoms that impact on how we feel during our menopause transition? Why do we all need to suddenly take supplements and medicines when we’ve been healthy all our lives? Why can’t we sleep? Why can’t we tolerate doing the exercise that we love to do? WHY? WHY? WHY?
I wasn’t prepared for my menopause transition. I never gave it a thought, but when I started to feel that I wasn’t myself any longer and the sleepless nights and exhaustion were wearing me down emotionally and physically, I reluctantly went to my Doctor. She put me on HRT.
But still, I had no energy and the sleepless nights left me despairing. I was up and down out of my bed like a yo-yo whilst hubbie slept blissfully unaware of what I was going through. I also continued to feel forgetful and despite (trying) to do the exercise that I loved to do and yes, in fog of exhaustion, I still felt sore, bloated and had endless hot flushes and became even more concerned when I had heart palpitations too. When the mid-life women who were regular exercisers, participated in my women’s healthy ageing research told me similar stories about their own healthy ageing concerns that exercise wasn’t helping them to resolve, I decided to tackle our menopause transition. What I learnt astounded me.
There are hundreds of evidenced research studies that indicate that there are biological mechanisms that changing reproductive hormones during menopause do contribute to hormonal chaos in mid-life. It’s a risky time of life for our health as we age and can often lead us into more health chaos if we don’t get on top of our symptoms. It’s why menopause matters to women’s healthy ageing.
However, as I discovered too, much of this ‘chaos’ is due to the way our hormones all work together. Our reproductive hormones are intricately connected to our thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands which also produce hormones and when oestrogen and progesterone begin to decline as we move through menopause, the thyroid and adrenal glands are getting out of balance too. That’s because when we don’t change our lifestyle to adapt to this changing hormonal environment in menopause, these other glands are trying to re-balance our internal environment too. It’s all part of the way our hormones all ‘talk’ to each other to help us to function and survive. The messages are all connected.
As a university-level lecturer in physiology and sports science, my doctoral research on women’s healthy ageing and exercise, led me down the menopause-symptom rabbit-hole. It’s a time of life that many women find that their tolerance to exercise changes. According to much of the physical activity participation research, most women also give up exercising in mid-life too. I now understand why. For women who have been active all their lives, as I have, when you can’t sleep night after night and your joints and muscles are sore, the last thing you want to do is the exhausting exercise that is heavily promoted in the fitness industry. Many of my research participants found this too.
That’s when I decided to put on my ‘physiology and endocrinology hat’ and put the pieces of the menopause puzzle together. I was so confused as to why so many of us experience so many symptoms, when menopause itself is a natural life-event that all women go through.
In fact, as I tell women in my Masterclass on Menopause seminars, menopause is the ‘book-end to puberty’!
As I began to put menopause into the context of our biological ageing and the fact that all of our hormones work together in the body, I also learnt that we have oestrogen receptors all over our body – especially in our brain, skin, muscles, tendons, cardiac muscle, blood vessels and fat cells. Wow! I never knew this. But it explains why we experience so much chaos in so many different parts of our body as we move through menopause.
The more I discovered about menopause and our ageing, that’s when I also began to look at my own symptoms in more depth. With my head in healthy ageing studies, I also began to look at menopause in the context of ageing and the increasing research in our health as we age and the role of inflammation in many diseases of older age, especially for women. Lifestyle medicine research continues to expand and it’s through this ‘lens’ that I’ve explored menopause and the specific LIFESTYLE strategies that we need to put into place to reduce our symptoms and improve health as we age. I have all of the strategies in the MyMT programmes (there are three different programmes for women to choose from), but here are my top five!
My 5 top reasons for your symptom chaos during menopause:
- When oestrogen production begins to decline in peri-menopause, the two ‘master hormones’ which are produced in your pituitary gland [Luteinising Hormone and Follicle-stimulating Hormone], are still trying to send signals to the ovaries to increase production of oestrogen. In fact these master hormones, go into overdrive leading to hat other cells that receive oestrogen signals around the body, becoming more sensitive to these messages. This includes FAT CELLS which store oestrogen.
- When excess oestrogen is stored in fat cells (which also comes from our diet and xeno-oestrogens in our environment e.g. from exposure to pesticides and chemicals], this can lead to a condition known as ‘Oestrogen Dominance’. This means that oestrogen becomes the ‘dominant’ hormone in relation to it’s opposing hormone, progesterone. This can lead to LOW PROGESTERONE, which is also exacerbated when we aren’t sleeping, have increasing inflammation in our body and we feel stressed. In sports science research, progesterone can also become low, when female athletes are over-training in a condition known as ‘pregnenolone steal’. I often talk about this in my seminars because women in mid-life are the first generation of women to be doing so much exercise in their menopause transition and when they aren’t sleeping, too much exercise can send them into hormonal chaos too.
Symptoms of low progesterone are well known in female athletes, who experience undue fatigue, lose their periods and have sore muscles, joints and increased headaches. For many women still trying to do lots of exercise and go on calorie controlled diets then this can create worsening progesterone levels as they go through peri-menopause. As ‘younger’ Baby-boomers, we are the first group of women to go into peri-menopause having come through the modern dieting and fitness industries and therefore, it’s really important to understand that biologically, we are ageing, so our nutrition and exercise, needs to change accordingly. This is what I teach women on the MyMT™ programmes.
- Low oestrogen levels cause low Vitamin D levels. Our skin is our largest organ and is full of oestrogen receptors. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and is produced in the skin with the help of oestrogen. Therefore, many women are at risk of low vitamin D levels and because Vitamin D is now recognised as a hormone, low levels have an effect on other hormones in the body too. This is due to the feedback system that operates with all of our hormones that I talked about above. When Vitamin D is low, hot flushes are increased and memory loss/ foggy brain becomes worse. We also expereince more muscles soreness because Vitamin D is involved in the production of calcium and our bones and muscles require calcium to help them to remain strong. Vitamin D is such a powerful hormone for women to monitor in menopause because it is also implicated in melatonin production. This is our sleep hormone, and when Vitamin D levels are low, our insomnia increases and serotonin production is reduced. Serotonin works with dopamine to help our mood and motivation. So, if you are on menopause-related anti-depressants, then ask your Doctor to also check your Vitamin D levels too. Restoring Vitamin D and sleep is crucial to your ongoing health as you transition into and through menopause. This is why, in all of the MyMT™ programmes, the first module teaches women how to sleep all night, naturally.
- In women, the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis is powerful. The HPA axis connects the brain with the adrenal glands. What this means in menopause, is that if our pituitary gland (which is controlled by the hypothalamus) is not working well, then this can increase feelings of anxiety, memory loss and stress. The way to manage the HPA axis is through improving the optimal function of the pineal gland – which controls the circadian rhythm. I have how to achieve this in menopause in the sleep module too.
- Finally, my most important message to women is that worsening menopause symptoms are not only due to our changing hormones as we age, but they can become worse due to the build-up of inflammation in the liver, gut, muscles (including cardiac muscle) and blood vessels. All of these regions in our body have estrogen receptors and change as we lose oestrogen. As well, don’t forget that over the fast four decades, women (and men) have been the ‘guinea-pig’ generation for foods, fluids, medicines, chemicals, high impact sport and exercise and other pollutants, which have led to cellular changes in our cells and tissues. By the time menopause arrives, much of this ‘invisible’ inflammation is switched on with a changing hormonal environment.
That’s why the key to solving our menopause symptoms doesn’t necessarily lie in taking lots of medicines and supplements. It’s why I focus you on 3 phases of health transformation as you progress through the MyMT programmes over 3 months:
(a) Reducing inflammation that’s been building up for decades. This includes restoring gut and liver health so that health-giving nutrients are better absorbed.
(b) Sleeping all night so we repair and heal.
(c) Adjusting our lifestyle to match research on women’s healthy ageing studies rather than lifestyle strategies that aren’t targeted to our changing hormones in menopause. I’ve looked at the research and how to do this is in the MyMT 12 week online programmes. What we have to do is to discover how to manage our lifestyle for our health as we age and if you are overweight, then look at what I have for you in the ‘Transform Me programme. If you are thinner or leaner, then discover how to turn around your symptoms using my powerful ‘Circuit Breaker’ programme.