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.
It was the fatigue that was the worst. Every day was a constant struggle with the sleepless nights. I was up and down out of my bed like a yo-yo whilst hubbie slept blissfully unaware of what I was going through. In a fog of exhaustion and despite the HRT, I felt sore, bloated and still had the hot flushes, which the Hormone therapy was supposed to deal to. When menopausal heart palpitations arrived, I dutifully got them checked out too. Apart from higher blood pressure, increasing cholesterol and a body that didn’t seem like my own anymore with the weight that was going on, there was ‘nothing wrong’ according to my Doctor.
Hence, my surprise when women I was interviewing for my doctoral studies, who were regular exercisers and in mid-life, told me similar stories about their own healthy ageing concerns. In particular, exercise wasn’t helping them to resolve their weight and many of them, whilst loving the exercise sessions, mentioned sore joints and aching muscles as well. Something they hadn’t experienced before. I was the same.
This is what lead me to explore what was really going on in our menopause transition and most importantly, how to bring together research from numerous disciplines from nutrition to lifestyle medicine to sport and exercise science research, sleep research and more. This enabled me to not only better understand how our body changes with age, but what to do about to better manage our health as we age.
What I learnt astounded me.
There are hundreds of evidenced research studies reporting that numerous biological mechanisms change during menopause and into post-menopause. This is why I challenge that mid-life is a risky time of life for our health as we age. If we don’t get on top of our symptoms then we may spiral down to worsening health concerns as we get older. Menopause matters to women’s healthy ageing.
Our reproductive hormones are intricately connected to our thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands which also produce hormones. Because all of our hormones are connected in the messages they send to each other, when oestrogen and progesterone begin to decline as we move through menopause, the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands get out of balance too. It’s all part of the way our hormones all ‘talk’ to each other to help us to function and survive. The chemical messages that control our metabolism and how we function 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 numerous symptoms, when menopause itself is a natural life-event that all women go through.
As I tell you in my online Masterclass on Menopause seminar, 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. This helps to explain why we experience so much chaos in so many different parts of our body as we move through menopause.
Positioning our menopause transition in ageing research, enabled and empowered me to look at my own symptoms in more depth. The role of inflammation in many diseases of older age, especially for women, is important in this context.
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. These strategies are all in the MyMT™ programmes (there are three different programmes for women to choose from), but here are my top five reasons for your symptom chaos as you move from your peri-menopause years (where your periods start to decline), to menopause (when your periods end) and into post-menopause (when your periods have ended for a year or more).
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 other cells that receive oestrogen signals around the body, becoming more sensitive to these messages. This includes FAT CELLS which store oestrogen and when this happens, oestrogen becomes the dominant hormone in relation to its opposing hormone progesterone. I’ve written about this before as it’s a condition called ‘oestrogen dominance’ and I talk about how to turn this around in my Transform Me weight loss programme.
- When oestrogen becomes the ‘dominant’ hormone in relation to it’s opposing hormone, progesterone, this can lead to LOW PROGESTERONE. If progesterone is low in comparison to oestrogen, this may cause other symptoms, such as bloating and sore breasts. As well, if you aren’t sleeping, then your stress hormone cortisol increases. This causes low progesterone as well. Our body begins to 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.
- The loss of oestrogen in our skin may lead to lower 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. When Vitamin D is low, hot flushes are increased and memory loss/ foggy brain becomes worse. 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.
- 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 your circadian rhythm. This is why the very first module you listen to in my programmes is simply called ‘Sleep All Night’. It’s that important. Especially for those of you wanting to lose weight.
- 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. Don’t forget that over the past four decades, we’ve been the ‘guinea-pig’ generation for foods, 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 as our hormonal environment changes with age. That’s why, to turn around our symptoms, we have to reduce the effects of this inflammation. Yes, it can be done!
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. 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.
Both programmes are changing women’s lives for the better. When you are ready I hope you will be able to join me too.