Ah, menopause… aka “the change”. Use this term around any “woman of a certain age”, and you’ll surely receive understanding nods and knowing glances. It’s hard not to notice when something this big is afoot in your body. But what exactly is menopause? When is it not menopause? And how do you care for your body so it’s as happy and healthy and balanced as possible during this time?
The 3 Stages Of Menopause
In some ways, going through this important life change is as ambiguous as it is specific. Your hormones are definitely changing, there’s no doubt there. But, to what extent are they changing, and in which direction are they going? Well, that’s much tougher to say.
The three stages of menopause are:
This is the time leading up to menopause. It’s difficult to pinpoint when it starts, and it can still be years before you hit menopause. You may experience symptoms such as:
- Irregular periods
- Hot flashes, night sweats, and sleep problems
- Mood swings, irritability, and increased risk of depression
- Urinary or vaginal infections
- Changes in sexual function
- Bone loss
- Changing cholesterol levels
- Weight changes
Like perimenopause, you don’t really know menopause is happening until after it happens. Menopause is defined as 12 months without menstruation, one straight year with no period. Expect more of the same symptoms you’ve already been experiencing, and expect those to change too! As your hormone levels continue to fluctuate, your symptoms will evolve as well.
The only stage of menopause that you can really count on to know when it’s arrived is postmenopause. When it’s been a year since your last menstrual cycle, you’re officially there. White pants forever! And more good news: you can expect the roller coaster of mood swings and hot flashes to subside… a bit… maybe.
As you’re probably already aware, the main human sex hormones are estrogen and testosterone, and no matter if you’re male or female, you’ve got a bit of both coursing through your veins. You also have other hormones that play a part, like progesterone, and to put a little spin on things, our friend estrogen actually has a few different variations: estrone (E1), estradiol (E2, or 17β-estradiol), and estriol (E3). All of these hormones can go out of whack, or just one. It’s hard to say.
Though it seems like menopause has to do with sexual function, our reproductive system, and it does… to an extent… but hormones are a product of the endocrine system, created in endocrine glands like the adrenals… which happens to be where a good bit of your estrogen and testosterone is manufactured.
Adrenal Function & Menopause Symptoms
If you’re experiencing life-interrupting symptoms related to menopause, like hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and depression, adrenal function is an important thing to test for, in addition to hormone levels. These test results may pinpoint ways you can help your body make its own hormones again, as opposed to resorting to hormone replacement therapy.
A Word About Hormone Replacement Therapy
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking hormones to balance your body! Hormone replacement therapy is a wonder of modern medicine, and when your body can’t make its own, store-bought is just as good. But it’s important to give your body a chance to do what bodies do best: find balance.
All Systems Go
It’s important to get enough exercise, not just at this stage of life, but at every stage. Exercise helps balance hormones, keeps all the systems in your body functioning optimally, and keeps those systems in harmony with each other as well.
Diet and exercise go hand in hand, and if you’re not feeding your body well, it won’t have the fuel to move the way you want it to. If your diet is mainly sugary, processed foods, and meat-heavy, it is unlikely your body is receiving the vitamins and minerals it needs to stay well, produce all those hormones, and keep your brain firing on all cylinders.
How To Feel Like Yourself Again
Adolescence, early in life, and “the change”, later in life, no matter who you are, are two stages when our hormones are going crazy. Though we’re focused here on menopause for women, “the change” for men is known as andropause, and the list of symptoms is quite similar to those of menopause:
- Baldness/thinning of the hair/ receding hairline
- Erectile dysfunction
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
- Low energy
- Loss of muscle mass
- Weight changes/increase in body fat
They’re so similar because they have to do with the same hormones and the same systems.
So one likely answer for everyone to feel better, no matter what their plumbing looks like, is hormone regulation. Start with letting your body do what it does best – be incredibly resilient and awesome – by giving it adequate exercise, food, and rest.
Cardio is great for heart and lung health, while weightlifting and bodyweight exercises (yoga and Pilates too) can help build and protect muscle and bone mass.
A plant-based diet will help your body get the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs to work its magic. Lots of bodies need (or want) meat, and if yours is one of them, you do you! But plants have a wide range of vitamins and healthful properties, and they should be plentiful in any diet. Read more about how to work out, eat right, and love yourself at any age.
If you’re honestly doing everything you can do to support your body and you still feel like biting your spouse because they are chewing too loudly, or crying your eyes out every day, or you can’t sleep through the night, wake up with sweat-soaked bedding, or keep forgetting where you put your keys, it’s time to collect some data.
Check your hormone levels
Don’t just start taking a hormone supplement without knowing what you’re working with. A lot of menopause symptoms are the product of estrogen dominance, which may sound like your body is producing too much estrogen… the opposite of what we understand menopause to be: a decline in the production of estrogen.
But the symptoms of estrogen dominance can show up even if you’re making barely any estrogen at all… if you’re also not making any (or less) testosterone or progesterone. The estrogen merely has to be higher, even if everything across the board is dismally low.
So you have to know what your numbers are, so you know what supplements to take, how to supplement, and even if you should. There are lots of hormone replacement options available, including Traditional Chinese Medicine (think herbs like dong quai), acupuncture, products like Effisoy that help inspire your body to naturally make its own estrogen, and of course bioidentical hormones, the traditional HRT.
Find the right doctor
It’s a sad fact that there are some gaping holes in what’s medically known and understood about female bodies. It’s completely within the realm of possibility that your doctor or medical professional simply does not know what to do with you or how to treat you. It may not even occur to them to test your hormone levels (and what hormones to test for) or to look toward adrenal function for the answers to mood swings and night sweats. Their answer to you may be just to “grin and bear it”. If that’s the answer you get, keep searching until you find someone who can hear you. It’s important that you do.
With the internet, there are plenty of healthcare options and providers that allow you to do a bit of the legwork yourself. For example, Dr. Melissa Gallagher is a naturopathic physician based on the east coast of the US. She offers online consultations as well as mail-in lab tests that allow you to be more hands-on with the process. Send away for the kit, collect your samples, mail them to the lab, and receive your results. Learn more here
Options like these can help you take your health into your own hands. With the confirmation of exactly where your hormone levels sit, you can make informed choices about how to get through this stage of your life with comfort, grace, and even good humor.