Perimenopause & Menopause Mini Series 3 - Stress
Perimenopause and menopause often arise at a time in our lives when we are spinning lots of plates, looking after everyone else and ploughing through a never ending to do list. If we have children, many of us will have had them later than our mothers and grandmothers did. My mum was twenty when she had me, so I had left home when she started her menopause journey. Nowadays many women are dealing with the combination of perimenopause and young children, or even teenagers! There's also the possibility of increased financial pressures requiring two incomes, therefore keeping on top of a job and performing well are paramount. All in addition to organising the home admin i.e. bills, birthdays, social events and nurturing our children and our own parents wellbeing. Wow, that's a lot to juggle!
The more stressed we are the more this can exacerbate symptoms of menopause. It’s also the case that the more our sex hormones decline in menopause the more stressed we can feel. This is turn declines our hormones even further and so we enter a downward spiral.
Managing stress is such an important strategy to positively aid our menopause transition. But this is often easier said than done. Our bodies are changing and we must stop and listen to them. Emotionally and physically we can't keep up the pace we've been used to living at in our twenties and thirties. Change can feel uncomfortable, not only for us to instigate but for those around us to get used to. Especially if we are resetting boundaries, breaking patterns of behaviour and saying no more frequently in order to lower our stress levels. Long term everyone benefits though because we become happier and calmer.
Stress and our brain
Our hypothalamus is a part of the brain which links our nervous system with our endocrine system (hormones) via our pituitary gland (a hormonal gland). It’s main function is to keep our body in a stable state called homeostasis. It detects and interprets different situations as stress from the outside world.
It sends signals to the pituitary gland which then sends signals to the adrenal gland to start producing adrenalin and cortisol because instant energy is needed to cope with this perceived threat.
But the more adrenalin we produce, the more we see things as a threat and so this cycle starts all over again. When we have a lot of adrenalin and cortisol travelling around our body life feels very threatening.
But what is really important to understand is that this cycle is triggered by our interpretation of stress. So if we can learn how to cope with stressors by trying to change our perspective we may find it easier to relax a little more through life’s challenges. This is called a growth orientated perspective and if we are able to harness this approach our life can change significantly in a positive way.
How menopause affects stress
The reason why many of us feel more stressed during perimenopause and menopause is because our Follicle Stimulating Hormones (this is the hormone that stimulates the release of the egg at ovulation) and our Lutenizing Hormone levels (LH – this stimulates the ovaries to produce Estradiol which is a type of Oestrogen) are constantly changing which causes the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal cycle, as described above, to become more reactive. Estradiol, pre perimenopause and menopause has the ability to keep this negative cycle balanced and in check so when it declines we may notice an increase in feelings of stress and pressure. Therefore we need to keep our hormones as balanced as we can and learn to reframe our view on stress.
Blood sugar and stress
Insulin is an important hormone and isn’t just to be associated with diabetes. It plays an important role in the menopause. Insulin helps to keep cortisol levels balanced. If cortisol is not balanced this will make it harder for us to deal with stress. So let’s think about how insulin works. When we eat something insulin from the pancreas floods the blood stream to absorb some of the glucose in our blood in order to stay at a safe level. Insulin is also produced when we are stressed because stress causes blood sugar to rise and fall. Cortisol is produced when our blood sugar falls and adrenalin is produced when our blood sugar rises.
So lets say we are menopausal, stressed and eating food to comfort us rather than fuel us and snacking throughout the day. All of which has been happening for several years. Our insulin will not be functioning as efficiently as it should and will be worn out causing insulin resistance. When this happens glucose can not be regulated effectively in the blood which results in peaks and troughs of blood sugar levels. Every time there are peaks and troughs in blood sugar, cortisol and adrenalin get released into the blood stream which prompts us to eat more to top up our blood glucose and the cycle continues. So we need to balance our blood sugar levels and there are several ways we can start to do this:
Increase protein at every meal and reduce snacking where possible. Choose fruit combined with nuts or a protein snack such as carrot and houmous.
Try to avoid refined carbohydrates such as sugary drinks, white bread, white pasta, white rice and sweets and chocolate. Go for brown and wholemeal versions instead.
So when we are stressed, our cortisol and adrenalin dominate because our bodies are prioritising survival, not reproduction and so our sex hormones can decline even more. It’s possible we could be storing more fat because our bodies are collecting fuel in case we need it. Ultimately our minds still equate stress with famine.
Thyroid and Stress
When we are exposed to perceived stress, chemicals are released that slows down our metabolism because they inhibit Thyroid Stimulating Hormones (TSH). We need lots of this to stimulate our thyroid, our metabolism and regulate our temperature. Without enough TSH we can also experience memory loss and brain fog because this decline in hormones puts pressure on the hypothalamus gland in the brain.
Identifying modern day stressors
Let's look at where stress can arise during this time in our lives. If you'd find it useful, place a tick next to any that currently cause you stress:
Work/life balance 🔲
Menopause symptoms 🔲
Caring for ageing parents and children 🔲
Less than optimum diet 🔲
Feeling the social pressure in our ‘ageist’ society that you are looking and feeling older 🔲
Low levels of self care 🔲
Lack of exercise 🔲
Divorce or relationship problems 🔲
Worrying about the future 🔲
General day to day life 🔲
Family dynamics 🔲
Time constraints and deadlines 🔲
Self-imposed expectations and demands 🔲
Past trauma 🔲
Plus so many more modern day stressors
With the above in mind where can we start to make positive changes:
We hear the words ‘self care’ so much these days that many of us have become desensitised to the phrase. But we must prioritise looking after ourselves. As little as twenty to thirty minutes a day can pay dividends by reducing our stress levels. Short manageable sessions can be effective and super achievable for the majority of us. So don't think self care equals a spa day or a weekend away. This is not the case. We just need to plan in little pockets of time. Learning to say 'no' more, asking for help, setting boundaries with family/friends/your manager, taking a walk outside, drinking your morning coffee outdoors, cosying up on the sofa with a good book or cooking a nutritious meal for yourself are just a few practical ways of caring for ourselves.
I know quite a few people who struggle to 'gift' themselves time to flourish. Life just happens and our focus is getting through the day. But we need to try to shift our perspective, reframe what stress and self care means and see it as an essential part of our lives and importantly an incredible way of managing perimenopause and menopause.
"Let's nourish ourselves to flourish"
Perimenopause is the perfect time to learn more about how to deal with stress differently. If we can alter our perception of stress, improve our resilience and gain some coping skills we can help our bodies to avoid falling into this stress cycle. So if you are currently finding stress hard to deal with and are going through the perimenopause/menopause I hope this article goes some way to helping you understand why you are feeling the way you do and give you some starter tools to be able to look at stress more neutrally and calmly and feed your soul with what it needs.