For the past year or two, since coming to understand the symptoms of fluctuations of hormones in perimenopause, I’ve focused on trying to support my hormones naturally.
It took me a bit by surprise when, at 46, I started to feel very much not like myself and realised it was probably perimenopause. I’d had heart palpitations, felt anxious for the first time in my life, and just never felt ‘right’.
Once I looked into perimenopause, it all made sense.
Our endocrine system is a complex interconnection of millions of chemical reactions and messages, delicately balanced at the best of times, but in mid-age it can wreak havoc for the unsuspecting among us.
For most of us, we’ll experience perimenopause, a 2-10 year stretch before menopause, in our mid-40s to mid-50s and while some women sail through it with little or no symptoms, for others it can be unpleasant or even debilitating.
The list of symptoms is long and varied – from brain fog and sleep disturbance, to heart palpitations, anxiety and depression – and I think any woman in this age bracket who doesn’t feel like her usual self should start investigating her hormone levels with both an integrative doctor and naturopath.
This transition is significant for our body and can be turbulent, and stress exacerbates symptoms, so the fact this all happens at a time of life when we’re at peak stress levels with busyness, kids, work, mortgages and ageing parents is I think a huge contributing factor as to why many women struggle during this phase.
Understanding that lifestyle can either help or hinder my body and the processes it has to go through, I’ve been trying to get out of its way, so that it has the best chance to do what it’s designed to do – remembering this transition is natural and is meant to happen – and avoid as many unpleasant symptoms as I can.
Over the past year, many of the symptoms have stabilised. They’re still there – but they have lessened in frequency and intensity and I continue to pay attention to potential triggers and remedies.
This is by no means an exhaustive or comprehensive guide to managing perimenopause – the use of hormone replacement therapies and a wide range of supplements is personal choice.
However these are simple lifestyle tweaks that anyone can do to address symptoms to a degree.
Simple strategies to tame hormones in perimenopause
This has been my main focus, specifically in order to manage the stress hormone cortisol. It’s a necessary hormone, and our system prioritises cortisol production over other hormones – it will manufacture more cortisol to keep us safe, at the expense of fertility and digestion. So when you’re stressed, your adrenal glands priortises cortisol production to keep you wired to fight or flee and stay safe. During perimenopause and menopause, your adrenal glands become the primary producer of estrogen and progesterone, as your ovaries retire. It’s only a small amount of these hormones compared to what is produced during your fertile years, and perimenopause is the transition phase of your body to go from relying on the high quantities of these sex hormones produced by your reproductive system, to relying on the small quantity produced by your adrenal glands. It’s part of the reason your hormones in perimenopause feel chaotic – your biological system is in a process of adjustment.
I decided to try to give my adrenals the best opportunity I could to produce those sex hormones, and not be over-preoccupied with cortisol.
High or dysfunctional cortisol levels are also linked to weight gain (it signals the body to store fat as a survival mechanism) and disrupted sleep, among other things.
How I’m doing it?
Slow living – not jamming things into my schedule, deliberately taking things slowly and attempting to avoid busyness whenever possible.
Mindset – journalling helps clear my mind and thoughts; purposefully caring less about anything that isn’t essential.
Yoga/meditation – calms the central nervous system and keeps me in the moment.
Walking – helps get me out of my head, and is shown to lower cortisol, especially if you walk in nature.
Sleep – sleep deprivation causes increased cortisol levels, so I try to be purposeful about bedtime and avoid sleep disrupters like screens and alcohol (more on this below).
Deep breathing – the quickest and easiest way to switch your body’s stress response off is to take some deep, slow breaths.[For more on this, read this post on stimulation stress and why you should pay attention to it.]
Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
This isn’t the most popular idea with some women, but it became unavoidable for me to ignore that my body just doesn’t handle these two as well as it used to.
Both caffeine and alcohol affect your cortisol levels, hence another reason they are a part of my hormone strategy.
I’m still having one coffee in the morning, but if I dare have two, I don’t feel great. It makes me jittery and taxes my adrenal system.
I’ve also found I have little tolerance for wine anymore. I’ve long had a two glass limit, and only on weekends, but I was finding even that too much – it would go straight to my head and I’d wake in the night, and often feel like I had a hangover the next day, even on one or two glasses.
So I’ve been avoiding it for the past month or so. I am experimenting with the occasional apertif, which has been better although it’s early days, so we’ll see.
Carbs and protein
Still on the subject of diet, I’ve been trying to avoid too much in the way of carbs (other than the vegetable kind) and increasing protein.
Women need more protein during perimenopause to keep up dwindling muscle mass but also to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Carbs like bread and processed foods elevate blood sugar more than protein or fats, and any excess is stored as body fat. However, carbs lower cortisol.
I look to my carb source from vegetables, nuts and seeds as much as possible, including sweet potato and pumpkin at night as it may aid sleep. Veggies are a slow release carb because of their fibre content, and come with nutrients that processed carbs don’t.
Nuts and seeds are also a source of healthy fats.
I’m also trying to make sure to include protein in every meal. Organic chicken, organic tempeh and tofu, mackerel and sardines, eggs, and collagen in smoothies, are my regulars. Quinoa is also a complete protein and features regularly in my meals.
When I stick to the plan, I feel much better.
My fitness (or lack thereof) is my Achilles heel, and likely to overtake stress reduction as my number one priority in the immediate future.
In general, the plan is walks, short intensity spurts, weight bearing movement, flexibility and core strengthening.
When your adrenals are already working hard, intense or lengthy exercise can exacerbate internal stress and sabotage your best intentions. Intense exercise increases your cortisol levels, so can be the wrong option for mid-age women. Moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to lower night time cortisol levels.
At the moment I’m focused on daily 30-45 minute walks, and/or 20-30 minute yoga sessions.
During school term, I’ve been doing 10 minute movement bursts during the day including Pilates moves, hand weights, and planking, or 10 minutes walking up and down the stairs outside.
Taming your hormones in perimenopause can be complex and require professional guidance, but these kind of basic, simple strategies can give you a really solid base to work from.
What have you experienced or tried? Would love to hear in the comments below.