Hormones and the Menopause

Let’s face it, when the first signs and symptoms of the perimenopause make an unceremonious appearance, everything starts to feel a little off kelter and it’s like we’re having an out of body experience.  This can be an incredibly unsettling and challenging time for many, evoking big emotions around how our lives are changing and the impact it can have.

Today I want to share some insights into the major hormones which play a massive role during our menopausal journey and how they are the root cause of the imbalances which manifest themselves both physically and psychologically in many.

Oestrogen

Oestrogen is one of the two main female sex hormones and is mostly produced by the ovaries; in addition to regulating the menstrual cycle, oestrogen affects the reproductive tract, the urinary tract, the heart and blood vessels, bones, breasts, skin, hair, mucous membranes, pelvic muscles, and the brain function; so, it shouldn’t surprise you to know, that it has over 300 functions in the body.

Given its hard-working attributes, it’s easier to see why when we experience fluctuations with this little beauty, how it can manifest itself into so many symptoms.  During perimenopause oestrogen levels begin to fluctuate both up and down, usually subtly to start with which is why it can be tricky to spot the signs in the beginning.  One of the key symptoms where we might first notice a change is with our periods which might be heavier and longer, or lighter and shorter, or skipping a cycle altogether.  Once we have transitioned through menopause (12 consecutive months without menstruation) levels stabilise but never go back to pre-peri levels.

Progesterone

Progesterone is the second of the female sex hormones and plays a key role in regulating menstruation.  Also known for its calming and sleep-inducing effects, it becomes clearer to understand, how low levels can contribute to disrupted sleep or worse still insomnia, as well as low mood or anxiety.  Progesterone levels fall dramatically during the menopausal timeline and these remain at a lower level for rest of life.

Testosterone

Testosterone is an androgen or male hormone with the common perception that it is only produced in men, however it plays a vital role in women too, being key to our libido and sex drive.   Low levels of this hormone can also have an impact on an emotional level, resulting in low mood or depression and is crucial to supporting confidence and optimism.

This hormone gradually declines as we get older with little or no impact on many women, whilst others are incredibly sensitive to the changes.

Weight gain is one of the biggest complaints I hear from women during their menopausal journey and all of the above hormones can play a significant role here, alongside other factors such as lifestyle, diet, reduced activity and muscle mass decline.

You should also be aware that the fluctuating levels of the three main protagonists can cause disruptions with other key hormones and their functions in our bodies.

Let’s take a closer look….

Insulin

Oestrogen helps improve insulin sensitivity in our bodies and insulin is responsible for manging our blood sugar levels.  When we see a decline in oestrogen this can contribute to insulin resistance, a term we often hear when we are referring to the weight gain many women experience around their middle AKA “the spare tyre”.  Lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical activity, stress reduction and enough sleep can all help improve insulin sensitivity.

Gherlin & Leptin

Leptin is a protein hormone which is released by our body fat that helps maintain our weight by determining our energy status, appetite and satiety levels and signals to the brain when you are “full”.  Ghrelin on the other hand is made in our stomach and signals the brain when you’re hungry, the “hunger hormone” and this can be disrupted when we experience low oestrogen levels.

Cortisol

For many our menopausal journey is at the centre of an increase to our stress levels and this can result in a significant increase of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.  This can lead to metabolic disturbances, increase in insulin resistance and a high chance of appetite fluctuations, with the likelihood of reaching for those sugary or salty snack hits.

All of the above feels bleak and shrouded in negativity, however, there is power in knowledge.  Truly understanding how the changes in our bodies can affect us during this time in our lives, is crucial to being able to take proactive action into translating what our bodies IS telling us and making tangible changes which will have true and lasting impact.

The human body really is a phenomenon, a complex and intricate machine which is the vessel to maintaining and restoring homeostasis and the key to our physiological and psychological wellbeing, so we need to understand it, listen to it and help it get back to optimum functionality.

Whilst the menopause is inevitable for 51% of us, be it via the ageing process or surgically induced, we have the power to reframe our mindsets and make the necessary changes which will allow us to flourish and transform into this new chapter of our lives.  I especially love the philosophies that exists in the Far East; in Japan the word for menopause is konenki and signifies “renewal years” and “energy”, and it is viewed as a time of empowerment and liberation.  Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine the menopause is referred to as the “second spring” and is celebrated as a positive life stage representing an opportunity for purpose and growth.

Both these examples highlight the positive perception and narrative around the menopause and is celebrated life stage which is a feeling I am hanging onto and nurturing as I move forward on my own journey….

“Spring: a reminder of how beautiful change can truly be.” — Unknown

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