Menopause. The little-talked-about phenomenon when a cycling woman transitions into the next stage of her reproductive health. It truly is an amazing process when a woman’s body switches gears from reproductive mode to post-menopause mode. It doesn’t happen overnight for the majority of women. In fact, there is a term for those years when her ovaries are winding down and her periods become irregular – perimenopause. Perimenopause can last for years, as periods become heavier, lighter, more or less frequent, and eventually stop. Menopause is the 12-month period of time after a woman has had her last period. After those 12 months, she is considered post-menopausal.
What is happening in a woman’s body during menopause?
During the years that a woman has her menstrual cycles, there is a predictable symphony of hormones exchanged between her brain, her ovaries, her adrenal glands and her thyroid. Everything is in tune. As she gets older, typically in her mid-40’s, the remaining eggs in her ovaries become less viable. Her ovaries are less predictable in how they release their hormones. Progesterone begins to drop first, causing estrogen dominance symptoms. During menopause, estrogen begins to drop quickly, causing low estrogen symptoms. The ovaries produce far fewer hormones than they did before.
Her body still needs these sex hormones in adequate amounts. This is where the amazing part comes in. The adrenal glands begin to pick up where the ovaries leave off. They produce estrogen, progesterone and androgenic hormones through a series of conversions.
In other words, the adrenal glands become a much more active player in producing and balancing hormones after menopause. The process should be mostly seamless as hormone production starts to shift to the adrenals, but it can be a bumpy ride for many women.
Common menopause symptoms include:
- Hot flashes
- Night Sweats
- Sleep problems
- Mood changes
- Vaginal dryness
- Reduced sex drive
- Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Weight gain (especially around the middle)
- Dry skin
- Thinning hair
- Joint pain
A Holistic Approach to Menopause
Functional medicine approaches the menopause shift holistically. Supporting the adrenal glands is a top priority because the transition of hormone production puts stress on the adrenals. Here are some key lifestyle supports.
When the adrenals are overtaxed, they produce elevated cortisol and adrenaline, or are depleted. Because the adrenal glands are such an important player in producing hormones during and after menopause, either situation will affect the balance and amount of sex hormones. This affects sleep and brain function, and contributes to hot flashes.
Women typically juggle many priorities between jobs, home tasks and raising children. This is often at the expense of their own rest and relaxation. During perimenopause and menopause, it is especially important to calm the nervous system by adding down-time and stress-management activities into the day. These can be short periods of time, even 5-10 minutes.
- Mind-Body Connection: Deep breathing exercises, meditation, walking in nature, practicing yoga and practicing gratitude all calm the nervous system.
- Movement: A combination of cardiovascular exercise, weight training and restorative movement such as yoga, stretching and walking reduces stress. While working out is beneficial for stress management, be aware that excessive high-intensity exercise can backfire by adding to the body’s stress burden.
- Social Connection: Making positive connections releases oxytocin, our joy hormone. Connecting with friends, loving our pets, being in social groups and volunteering all provide these connections.
- Get into the “Flow Zone”: Focusing on one enjoyable activity without distractions calms the body. Music, art, getting lost in a good book, puzzles, gardening, comedy and movies are good examples.
- Body Work: Oxytocin is also released through touch or energy work. Hugging, cuddling and sex are prime examples, but massage, reiki, acupuncture and chiropractic care are also stress-relieving.
- Connecting with nature: Nature has a calming effect on the body. Taking walks in nature, spending time in the sun, and grounding fill the body with positive energy.
Support circadian rhythms and sleep
The body thrives with regular circadian and cortisol rhythms. We are meant to be awake and active during the day, and asleep at night. Supporting these natural rhythms is calming to the brain and adrenal glands. How can a woman support circadian rhythms?
- Getting outside in the daylight during the day, especially in the morning. The bright blue daylight signals to your brain that you should be awake and alert. It also sends a signal to the brain that it should anticipate sleep several hours later.
- Going outside one more time as the sun is setting. This redder light signals the brain that it’s time to wind down for the day.
- Turning off screens in the evening. The blue light emitted from screens signals the brain to stay awake and inhibits melatonin production. Blue-light-blocking glasses help block this blue light if it’s necessary to use devices in the evening.
- Avoiding alcohol after dinner, as drinking later impairs melatonin production and detoxification.
- Having a relaxing bedtime routine, such as a warm bath, sleepy-time tonic, stretching or reading a book to signal the body to wind down and relax.
A Nutrient-Dense Diet and Balanced Blood Sugar
Menopause is an important time for a woman to dial in her diet. When she eats a nutrient-poor diet with highly-refined foods, blood sugar spikes and crashes throughout the day. This makes cortisol and insulin rise. When these are chronically elevated, they disrupt the balance of other hormones, such as thyroid hormone and sex hormones. Good habits that balance blood sugar help to keep the adrenal glands regulated and other hormones in balance.
- Practice mindful eating to calm the nervous system.
- Eat a low glycemic diet that maintains low and even blood sugar levels.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet of mostly whole foods. It’s vital for a woman’s body to have all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to deal with the challenges of the hormonal shift. To make and correctly process hormones, women need a range of nutrients from magnesium to B vitamins, to antioxidants. Many women find that simply improving their diets can make them feel better! The Mediterranean Diet is an excellent example of a nutrient-dense whole-foods diet.
- Reduce alcohol. Too much alcohol can negatively impact sleep by lowering melatonin and raising cortisol levels during the night. It also requires the liver to work harder to metabolize it.
- Reduce caffeine. Caffeine puts a strain on the adrenal glands, which are already working hard during the transition of menopause.
Radiance Functional Medicine’s Approach to Menopause
A holistic approach can be very helpful in balancing hormones, starting with addressing stressors in the body. At Radiance Functional Medicine, we start with an adrenal stress test and support the adrenals as needed with diet, lifestyle and supplements.
Next we rebalance gut health by boosting beneficial bacteria and getting rid of microbial overgrowths that create stress in the body. We also address any thyroid imbalances that can make menopause symptoms more pronounced.
The liver and other detoxification pathways are a key part of metabolizing hormones properly. In addition to encouraging a diet with liver-supporting foods, Radiance Functional Medicine also offers a medical cleanse to help the body release toxins that can upset hormone balance.
Radiance Functional Medicine also specializes in balancing sex hormones during menopause, offering individualized bioidentical hormone therapy. The use of these bioidentical hormones often make a woman feel much better during the transition of menopause and beyond.