As women transition into menopause, known as peri-menopause, hormone levels can be all over the board. Some women sail smoothly into menopause experiencing little if any symptoms at all, while others suffer physical, emotional and psychological symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, newly-found belly fat, insomnia, moodiness, anxiety, hair loss, cognitive changes, joint pain, and decreased or totally absent libido.
What’s to blame? Hormonal imbalances and a metabolic shift. The most common hormonal scenarios are estrogen dominance, insulin resistance, elevated cortisol, thyroid dysfunction, and low levels of progesterone and testosterone.
The most important solution for menopause symptoms: prioritize the balance of insulin and cortisol. If these two hormones are not balanced FIRST, no amount of exercise, dieting or hormone treatment will reduce any of the symptoms listed above. In reality, low calorie dieting, chronic stress and excessive exercise will create an even greater hormone imbalance and metabolic disaster.
1Managing insulin and stabilizing blood sugar are crucial. It starts with what you choose to eat and drink. Food is either medicine or poison.
What works? Organic, real food. An abundance of fibrous leafy greens, non-starchy and cruciferous veggies help to bind excess estrogens and feed good bacteria in the colon. Include clean protein, healthy fats such a freshly ground flax seeds (not flax oil), grass-fed butter, avocado and coconut oil, low sugar fruit, yams, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and legumes and beans (if you’re not lectin-resistant).
Hot flashes can be triggered by iodine and other nutrient deficiencies, stress, sugar, chocolate, caffeine and alcohol. Realize that if you drink two to three glasses of wine every night, it’s going to be very difficult to lose belly fat, minimize hot flashes and sleep well.
2 Balance cortisol. In my practice, adrenal dysfunction is extremely common, especially in women. Strong adrenals equals an easier transition into menopause. In a healthy female, before menopause the adrenals produce 40 percent of the sex hormones. During menopause, the ovaries slow down hormone production and the adrenal glands produce 90 percent or more of sex hormones.
Menopause symptoms intensify earlier and will be magnified if the adrenals have been depleted from years of stress whether it’s stress from low calorie dieting, mental and emotional stressors, poor food choice, excessive exercise, gut and digestive dysfunction, toxic overload, too much alcohol, toxic relationships, sleep deprivation, electromagnetic stress, liver congestion or eating intolerant foods.
3 Evaluate the stressors in your life. What can you omit, limit or avoid to minimize stress in your life? These days many women play the role of superwomen – they juggle the role of a mother, a business/career woman, a wife, a volunteer, a taxi cab driver, a household manager, plus more. Something is bound to give as a consequence of this hectic 24-7 schedule and chaotic lifestyle day in and day out.
Chronic stress elevates cortisol, accelerates aging, increases inflammation, shortens telomeres, disrupts digestion, causes thyroid dysfunction, and depletes the adrenals negatively affecting sex drive and hormonal balance.
It’s time to re-evaluate priorities and values. Identify what is truly important in life. Practice stress-reducing activities and relaxation techniques every single day such as deep breathing, mindfulness, Qi gong, spending time in nature or with animals, meditation and yoga (not hot yoga, which can be taxing on already depleted adrenals).
According to research, women who consistently practice meditation or some other form of relaxation experience a 45 percent reduction in hot flash severity and a 28 percent improvement in quality of life. Another study out of Sweden found that relaxation techniques are extremely beneficial as an alternative to hormone therapy.
4 Sleep. Just one week of sleeping less than six hours per night lowers testosterone by 10-15 percent and alters more than 700 genes. When you’re sleep deprived, cortisol rises, belly fat accumulates, and inflammation, cravings, memory problems and risk of disease increase. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
5 Support estrogen clearance: increase fiber (leafy greens, cruciferous and non-starchy vegetables; fiber powders, ground flaxseed); decrease exogenous estrogens (commercial dairy, meat, eggs, poultry and non-organic veggies & fruits, birth control pills); minimize exposure to endocrine disruptors, obesogens and xenoestrogens (plastics, smart phones, food additives, pesticides, personal care and cleaning products, cosmetics).
Obesogens mimic and alter hormones (inhibit the thyroid, disrupt leptin, decrease testosterone, reduce insulin sensitivity and increase estrogen load), accelerate aging, cause brain dysfunction, excess weight and increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers.
6 Support neurotransmitter balance. Neurotransmitter levels (sufficiency, excess or deficiency) are unique to each individual. As estrogen drops, so does serotonin. The majority of serotonin, 90-95 percent is made in the gut, not the brain. If your gut is inflamed, infected or not functioning optimally, production of serotonin will be impaired, which can result in depression.
7 Exercise to optimize hormones (growth hormone, testosterone), increase metabolism, prevent sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass associated with aging), maintain strength and lose body fat. Resistance training with loads heavy enough to provide a stimulus reduce visceral fat, improve metabolic rate, build lean tissue and bone density…another vulnerable area for women after menopause. Add a brisk walk to your daily routine.
It’s crucial to balance intense training days with rest days, recovery methods and relaxation-type activities, which is necessary for physiological and psychological recuperation and hormone balance.
Many women push themselves to extremes and beyond every day with too much exercise or the wrong type of exercise, while others are completely sedentary. Both extremes are unhealthy and counterproductive for fat loss, healthy aging, longevity and hormonal balance.
8 Remove inflammatory foods. Identify your personal food sensitivities. The top offenders include dairy, wheat, gluten, eggs, sugar, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, GMOs, corn, soy, and non-organic pesticide-laden foods.
9 Rule out thyroid dysfunction, autoimmune disorders, heavy metal toxicity and underlying infections such as Candida, parasites, viruses and bacterial imbalances.
10 Detox periodically to optimize liver function and support the hormonal system. Toxins are unavoidable nowadays. The more extreme the hormonal problem is, the higher the likelihood that digestive dysfunction and toxic overload exist.
Realize that there’s a healthy way to detox and countless unhealthy ways, many of which damage metabolism and are hazardous to your health. Be smart and seek the guidance of a functional practitioner when it comes to detoxification.
11 Optimize digestion, gut function and a healthy micro biota. Rule out gut dysfunction with a comprehensive stool analysis that detects flora imbalances, malabsorption issues, gut pathogens such as yeast, fungi, Candida and parasites, dysbiotic bacteria and more.
12Identify personal nutrient deficiencies and support the body appropriately to improve physiological function.
Each woman’s body is different with unique hormone levels, needs and lifestyle. What works for one woman, does not necessarily work for another.
It’s important to realize that you can’t just throw a hormone into the system because levels are low. There is the potential to disrupt the entire balance. I am not implying that one should never opt for hormones, However, it’s crucial to first determine the root cause of why your levels are low in the first place. Optimize hormones through diet, lifestyle, the appropriate type and amount of exercise and nutritional support first. If that fails to bring hormones back into balance, then consider bio-identical hormones under the direction of your practitioner.
• Paula Owens, M.S., is the author of “The Power of 4” and “Fat Loss Revolution.” An Ahwatukee resident for 22 years, she is a leading expert in nutrition, functional health, fitness and fat loss with more than 20 years of experience. For more information, visit www.PaulaOwens.com.