I’ll never forget the time I was in the exam room at my gynecologist’s office and she referred to me as premenopausal during one of my annual check-ups. I was a bit shocked, not because I am afraid of going through menopause, but I guess because sometimes I forget how old I really am—I still feel like I just graduated college (don’t we all)!
Since then, I’ve had the desire to further expand my knowledge and understanding of menopause. As I get closer to going through menopause, I want to be armed with as much knowledge as possible. (Not to mention the fact that I coach many women on a daily basis who are either approaching menopause, going through it, or have finished going through it.) While they are going through this transition, I want to be able to help and support them as well as possible. I wanted to talk with you about this today because there is a huge need for information for women going through menopause, and it’s yet another one of those “womanly topics” that we don’t openly discuss with one another.
This information will be beneficial for you if menopause is decades away, right around the corner, or if you’ve been post-menopausal for some time.
So, why then does menopause get such a bad rap?
Well……..…it probably has something to do with all the hot flashes, sleepless nights, muscle pain, mood changes, headaches, osteoporosis, forgetfulness, and other symptoms that can pop up as you’re going through it.
For a while, hormone replacement therapy was one of the main menopausal therapies available to women, but it doesn’t come without some serious risks for things like blood clots, breast cancer, dementia, and heart disease.
Menopause doesn’t need to be a rough ride, and there are safe and effective natural treatments and lifestyle habits that make it more manageable.
Two factors that will have the biggest impact for keeping menopause symptoms under control are (1) addressing and minimizing your stress and (2) supporting your adrenals.
What’s the Connection between Stress and Menopause?
Before we continue, let’s have a little bit of a science lesson here. I promise I’ll keep it as short as possible. Your ovaries make most of your sex hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
Menopause triggers your ovaries to go into retirement, so to speak; but your body still needs those hormones to keep up your energy levels, maintain your health, ensure healthy bones, and keep a strong libido for years to come.
Once your ovaries decide to retire, your adrenals take over the production of your sex hormones…but there’s a catch. Your adrenals are also responsible for producing your stress hormones. If your adrenals are over-worked (because of chronic stress), then they may not function well enough to produce those important sex hormones.
If your adrenals have been over-worked because of chronic stress, they may not be up to the job.
So with the onset of menopause, if your adrenals are already tired and overworked from all the stress in your life (and they also have to take over for the ovaries), your sex hormone production drops even more and you may experience even stronger menopausal symptoms.
So if you haven’t guessed by now, taking good care of your adrenals before, during, and after menopause is essential to reducing your symptoms and maintaining your well-being.
How Do You Know If Your Adrenals Are Tapped Out?
If you’re feeling stressed out or anxious, suffering from insomnia, experiencing weight gain around your belly, feeling exhausted when you wake up in the morning, craving sugar or caffeine to get you through the afternoon, or feeling like you can’t think, these are all signs that your adrenals could be overworking.
So like we just talked about above, it’s so important to make sure that you are caring for your adrenals today!
What Does This Have To Do With Diet & Exercise?
Let’s face it: life as a mom can be a bit unpredictable. One day everything is status quo, and then the next day everything seems to be coming apart at the seams. It’s very easy for us to let ourselves and our health take a backseat when life gets crazy.
However, as we age and get closer to menopause, our bodies become even more sensitive to stress. We start to see a decrease in production of those sex hormones we talked about earlier, and as a result:
- Insulin levels rise. Estrogen helps the female body to be more insulin sensitive, and when its production drops or diminishes, your body’s resistance to insulin increases even more—and this causes an increase in hunger and fat storage.
- Epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and GABA levels change. These brain chemicals are closely tied to estrogen and progesterone production. When the level of these brain chemicals are out of whack (as can happen during menopause), this will impact your mood, hunger and cravings. This is why more menopausal women have a tendency to eat more and feel less satisfied throughout the day (leading to those extra calories being stored around the belly).
- Cortisol levels rise. Estrogen and progesterone help to decrease and buffer cortisol production. So when a woman gets close to and starts menopause, and the production of estrogen and progesterone decrease, the female body becomes extremely sensitive to stress and more likely to produce even higher levels of cortisol.
So during menopause, all of this causes the female metabolism to slow down, become more carb sensitive, and is even more sensitive to stress. In order to manage all of this, we need to be more strategic with our nutrition and fitness. The usual “eat less and exercise more” approach just ain’t gonna cut it.
What To Eat?
As we approach menopause, we need to start paying even more attention to all of the foods that have a tendency to spike an insulin response. Foods that we usually consider part of a healthy diet (e.g. whole breads, dairy, sweet fruits, and starchy vegetables) may begin to work against us as we near or are going through menopause.
A better approach during (or approaching) menopause may be to reduce these kinds of foods in our diets, and to simultaneously increase the consumption of low-starch vegetables, lower glycemic fruits (e.g. berries, apples, and pears), as well as high quality proteins.
To deal with the increase in insulin, the trick is to balance your carb ratios. You will need to have the correct amount of carbs at just the right time…and figuring this out will take some experimenting. Notice how you feel after consuming carbs at different times throughout the day. Generally speaking, you will want to get your starchy carbs in after a workout (i.e. when the body is more likely to use them as fuel for recovery instead of storing as fat). If you find that you have trouble sleeping at night, then consider having a serving of carbs with dinner.
How To Exercise?
Exercise must also be approached differently during menopause. There are two common exercise approaches among pre-menopausal or menopausal women: (1) Do more (not less) jogging or power walking, or (2) Try to do more of EVERYTHING (walking, running, weight training, HIIT training, Yoga, CrossFit, Pilates, etc.).
Cortisol is produced during intense exercise and long-duration exercise. This includes long-duration jogging or running and high intensity interval training (HIIT), metabolic conditioning, or weight training. Intense exercise that is short in duration also increases the production of hormones like HGH and testosterone, and these hormones help to burn fat and build, or at least maintain, muscle mass.
Long-duration exercise or too much exercise on a weekly basis actually works against the body. It can actually worsen many of the symptoms associated with menopause because it raises cortisol and suppresses the counterbalancing effect of growth hormone. This is why it’s so important to include a few sessions of shorter intense exercise and weightlifting sessions per week, instead of long-duration/moderate intensity exercise (i.e. running 3+ miles 3 -5 times per week).
Cortisol can also be managed and controlled by incorporating a few relaxing activities throughout the week. These kinds of activities include leisurely walking, restorative-type Yoga classes, Tai Chi, meditation, massage, sauna or other non-exercise restorative activities.
To Sum It All Up
All of the above changes to your diet and exercise habits, as well as finding ways to lower or manage your everyday stress can all help to ease many of the menopausal symptoms we’ve discussed. They can also help ease you through this next chapter of your journey through womanhood.
Below is a recap of diet and exercise considerations for you to keep in mind as you get closer to menopause (or begin going through it):
- Weight train intensely at least 2-3 times per week. These sessions should be short. Aim for sessions that are 60 minutes or less; around the 30-minute mark is even better.
- Increase your non-starchy vegetable intake while cutting back on starchy foods, grains, and dairy. (I’m not saying to eliminate these entirely, just focus on eating less.)
- Raise your protein intake with whole and lean sources of protein (e.g. fish, chicken, beef, turkey, etc.) rather than sources that are primarily made up of starches and fats (i.e. beans and nuts). Consider a protein powder meal replacement shake 1-2 times per day.
- Incorporate more restorative and relaxing activity into your life like short naps, leisurely reading, journaling, writing, artwork, leisurely walking, massage (even self-massage like foam rolling), sauna, restorative yoga, and Tai Chi, and mediation.
- Are you thinking supplements? These can work, but you will get a much better response if you also try and incorporate all of these suggestions above. Simply taking a supplement will only mask your symptoms. It’s like putting a band-aid on the situation rather than trying to get to the root of it and using a more holistic approach to ease your transition into menopause.
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