I talk to countless women who find themselves feeling more than a little off-balance as they move into their 30s and 40s, and they’re not sure why.
If you are one of them, don’t worry, you are not alone! I’m here to talk with you about the rarely discussed but oh-so-real experience of perimenopause.
As women, two of the developmental shifts we feel most defined by are puberty and menopause. Just as with puberty, menopause is not a sudden occurrence. Your body prepares for it gradually – up to a decade with perimenopause. Some women sail through it. Others find it more rocky than menopause because of the fluctuating hormones as the ovaries sputter and prepare to shut down. Unexpected physical, emotional and mental changes can begin to crop up in your 30s and 40s, for example, slower metabolism, mood swings, increased feelings of stress, less resilience, feeling “who cares” about sex, difficulty sleeping.
I know how frustrating this place is because I’ve been there. In my 30s, I just couldn’t seem to stay afloat, no matter how hard I tried. My energy was at an all-time low, my libido had diminished, I was impatient with my kids, and I began to sport a spare beach floatie around my belly that no amount of exercise could banish. Turns out that these are some common indicators of the perfect storm of hormonal disruption called perimenopause.
Perimenopause, In a Nutshell…
Perimenopause refers to the years of hormonal upheaval that precede a woman’s final menstrual period. It isn’t a very well-understood stage; most assume that with the awkwardness of puberty behind us and menopause still far in the future, the in-between years should just be smooth sailing. However, the real truth is that the body’s hormone production begins to change somewhere between age 35 and 50, and you feel the effects.
Your ovaries begin to falter in their once-reliable production of the sex hormones progesterone and estrogen, and ovulation becomes intermittent. As a result, your periods may be irregular and heavy or light, or alternately both. Other hormones also start to fade or deregulate – your ovaries, thyroid, and adrenals start to work against you, not for you. And, to confuse matters even further, the brain becomes less responsive to the hormones that your body does still produce. Put it all together and you are likely on a roller-coaster ride of surprising, erratic, and downright confusing emotional and physical symptoms!
Some common signs of perimenopause:
Mood swings and emotional instability – feeling way more sensitive to things that never fazed you before
Unexplained extra weight that doesn’t seem to be affected by exercise
Feeling blah or reclusive – less inclined to be a joiner, even in your usual favorite social settings
Chronic low energy
Moderate to extreme difficulty sleeping
Inconvenient, uncomfortable, disruptive night sweats
Less patience for your children, or changes in your willingness to accommodate others in your life
Unpredictable menstrual periods
A lack of enthusiasm for sex
Brain fog or trouble focusing
Sudden forgetfulness, such as walking into a room and forgetting why you came
Does this describe you?
You’re not alone. And these symptoms are not your imagination talking. Unfortunately, the mainstream medical cure is to prescribe birth control pills for younger patients and hormone replacement therapy for older women. Or worse yet, antidepressants.
In order to mediate the hormonal imbalance you experience during perimenopause, it’s important to look at the contributing factors that you can control.
Lifestyle choices can play a big role in how favorably you respond to these changes. Though hormone imbalance may look a little different for every woman…
Here are a few suggestions for some of the most common complaints:
Symptoms: unpredictable periods, PMS, sleep issues
Cause: low progesterone
Solutions: There are a few ways to increase your body’s progesterone production naturally. Eat foods rich in Vitamin C (papaya, bell peppers, citrus, dark leafy greens) or add supplement to your daily routine – 750 mg per day has been shown to raise progesterone in women with a deficiency. Spend quality time with others – experiencing closeness with family and friends, especially with girlfriends, calms women down, and lowering that stress level helps keep the pathways clear for better progesterone production. High cortisol from stress blocks progesterone receptors, making the problems from low progesterone even worse.
Symptoms: mood swings, difficulty sleeping, lack of energy
Cause: overactive stress response
Solutions: Make a point of replacing behaviors that contribute to your stress response with ones that soothe it. Your health depends on it! Reduce caffeine consumption – caffeine spikes cortisol levels. Try yoga – it has been shown to reduce stress by raising serotonin (the “happy” brain chemical that controls emotions, sleep, and appetite). Or even just set aside a few minutes to do some deep breathing! This will work wonders for runaway cortisol.
Symptoms: weight gain, decreased interest in sex
Cause: diminished growth hormone production
Solutions: We want to encourage the production of this hormone because, among its many important functions, it is responsible for keeping us lean and feeling sexy. So, cut out the sugar – eating lots of sugary foods increases insulin, which can put growth hormone levels seriously out of whack. Also, make sleep a priority – most growth hormone production happens during deep sleep, so planning for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night will go a long way toward restoring the balance.
Perimenopause can catch you off guard, but remember that it’s just another stage of life. With awareness and a few simple adjustments, you can navigate it with grace and joy.
Every woman’s experience is slightly different, but the basic premise of the solution is the same: take the time to listen to yourself, search for the root causes of your symptoms and implement gradual changes. This is the strategy that truly helps in the long term, rather than jumping immediately to medications, which often only mask symptoms.
Remember, approach these times of change with compassion and an open heart. You are in a transition that can be an exciting time of change. It’s a process of self-exploration, a time for better self-care, and a journey that can lead you to feel your best!