Hormones. We first hear about them when we’re teenagers and they get the blame for all our “boy crazy”antics and door slamming tantrums (sorry mom!). We then invoke them every time we use the term “PMS,” as in “F**k off! I am NOT freaking out, I just have PMS” or “I want allll the chocolate covered almonds. All. Of. Them. Maybe it’s PMS?” The struggle is real, of course, but let’s be honest; our hormones can sometimes be the perfect scapegoat.
The next big time we hear about hormones is typically when we’re either trying to get pregnant or directly following birth. For those of us who had fertility issues, we talk about hormones way more than we ever have in our whole lives. And for many of us who struggled in the postpartum months, hormones were also front and center - along with all the many other parts of becoming a new mother.
Barring any major hiccups like cancer or other illnesses, we usually don’t give our hormones any major attention until the next big phase which is perimenopause, a wacky ride that is slightly different for all of us but can include all kinds of super fun symptoms like hot flashes, vaginal dryness, lower sex drive, insomnia and heavy periods, to name a few. The good news is that most of these symptoms can be made more manageable through a combination of lifestyle and diet changes as well as various natural and medical treatments. The even better news is that there are lots of things you can do to prepare and set yourself up for this stage BEFORE it actually arrives.
It’s important to note that there are way more hormones at play besides estrogen, progesterone and testosterone (aka the sex hormones). There’s a long list of other hormones like cortisol, thyroid, insulin and leptin that also impact our transition into perimenopause. Ideally, all the hormones work together in a beautiful dance that keeps our systems humming and moving along. When one starts to trip the others hold it up as long as they can but eventually the whole thing can come tumbling down if we’re not careful.
There are things to do for optimal health and well-being at every stage of life and while you probably already know what many of them are (Eat more vegetables! Get more sleep! Move your body!), here they are in context to help you have a healthier and smoother experience as you move forward.
Get your adrenal health in order. Our adrenal glands typically release small amounts of estrogen and progesterone and are designed to take over for our ovaries to help ease the transition into perimenopause. If our adrenals are worn out then the whole ride gets way bumpier. Too much stress = overactive adrenal glands so now is a good time to assess your stress levels and your coping strategies (i.e. how it affects you, how you deal with it and what you can do about it). This is your permission slip to amp up your self care! Read this for more ideas on how to make that a priority, but if you’re already experiencing extreme fatigue, brain fog, weight gain - especially around the middle, insulin resistance, severe PMS, as well as a majority of these other symptoms, you could be dealing with adrenal fatigue. If you suspect this is you, I recommend seeing checking in with your healthcare provider or a functional medical doctor for more specific recommendations.
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Take care of your thyroid. Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s autoimmune disease are fairly common during perimenopause. Things you can do to help keep your thyroid healthy include eating more seaweeds (nori, kelp, dulse, etc.) that are full of iodine which your thyroid loves, use BPA-free plastic (invest in a good water bottle!) and ask your doctor to check your B12 levels (low B12 can be associated with low thyroid). You can also start throwing a Brazil nut into your smoothies to get more selenium (which is essential for thyroid health), eat more blueberries and other foods high in antioxidants, and make sure you are taking a Vitamin D supplement. If you’re experiencing symptoms like exhaustion and lethargy, weight gain, dry skin, thin/brittle fingernails and hair, frequently cold hands and feet or an increased sensitivity to cold (i.e. always need a sweater and your car seat warmers on!) then ask your healthcare provider about getting your thyroid checked out.
Balance your blood sugar and insulin. Your meals should be a balance of high quality, healthy fats, protein, fiber and whole food carbohydrates with every meal. Try eating enough at mealtimes so that you don’t unnecessarily snack, but if you do need a snack, avoid processed foods and refined sugar. Another good trick is to close the kitchen for 12 hours every night, i.e. if you finish dinner at 7:30 PM give your system a rest by not eating again until 7:30 AM.
Start paying attention to your gut microbiome. According to hormone expert, Dr. Sara Gottfried, your gut microbiome regulates your other hormones. She says, “When your gut microbiome is healthy, it does its job well. But when it is unhealthy, it throws your hormones out of tune and can cause all sorts of problems.” Things you can do to start taking care of your gut include adding in fermented foods like kimchee, kraut, kombucha, kefir and unsweetened yogurt (you can add a little maple syrup or honey if you like). Increase your intake of leafy green vegetables and vegetables in general. Choose wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs and pastured meat. Avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame and Sucralose, ditch processed foods and foods with added and refined sugars, and explore other ways to reduce overall inflammation. Symptoms of gut issues you might want to pay attention to include; chronic gas, belching and/or bloating; constipation or diarrhea; sinus congestion and constant post nasal drip; food sensitivities, lots of prior or current antibiotic use, and more. In fact, Dr. Sara has a great little quiz you can take for more information.
Watch out for “stinkin thinkin.’” If you believe that your transition into perimenopause and beyond will inevitably be difficult or negative in some way then you are automatically increasing those odds. In his book, The MindBody Code, Dr. Mario Martinez talks about how women in Bolivia call hot flashes “bochorno” which translates to “embarrassment” or “shame” in Spanish. They tend to have have more inflammation, osteoporosis, and lowered self-esteem than Japanese women who refer to the time after the menopause as “their second spring.” Start noticing when you have thoughts like “I guess I’m over the hill” and “I’m too old for that” so you can switch it up to “That’s a dumb expression,” and “ Says who??”
Tune in to your body. We are all so used to googling for answers these days that we forget to consult our very best experts: us. Take time to listen to your body, pay attention to symptoms and start implementing changes with small steps if necessary. Yoga and meditation are both great ways to help you get out of your head and strengthen your relationship to your your body.
Other ideas for increasing hormonal health include some kind of regular movement or exercise (try doing it out of love for yourself instead of as a punishment for last night’s ice cream), adding in supplements like adaptogens, matcha and turmeric/curcumin, making sleep a top priority and increasing your intake of Vitamin J - aka Joy.
We are all busy people with full lives and a myriad of things competing for our attention every day so don’t let this add to it! Choose one thing and start there. Implement monthly challenges for yourself to help form new healthy habits. Be patient with yourself and adopt a curious attitude rather than operating from fear. All of these things can go a long way toward improving your hormonal health now and in the future!