14 Jun 2017
I still have incredibly clear childhood memories of women using beautifully decorated Chinese fans in the middle of winter and wondering what was going on. I remember my own mother’s hot flashes and worried the same thing would happen to me.
So what exactly is the deal with our hormones as we enter peri-menopause and menopause? Each of us goes into these phases of life with a different hormonal situation – influenced by our own biology as well as exposure to hormone-mimicking chemicals which are practically everywhere. It is commonly assumed that women stop making sex hormones and that is why the hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and other symptoms develop. In fact, that is not the case. We still do make these hormones, but they (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) can get out of balance and fluctuate wildly due to our lifestyle choices, our upstream hormone production, and how we are impacted by environmental sources. It is that imbalance that causes the symptoms. (Women whose ovaries have been removed are in a different situation.)
Where do these chemicals lurk in our environment? Everywhere. Estrogen-mimicking chemicals, in particular, are all over: in personal care products such as makeup, lotions, creams, deodorants, bubble bath, shampoo. They are in our cleaning products for windows, counter tops, toilets, floors. In such innocuous places as the lining of cans (for tuna, beans, tomato sauce, etc.). In our computers. In refined foods. These external chemicals can put our internal hormones totally out of balance, and this will exacerbate any menopausal reactions Research shows that the more women have been exposed to excess estrogen over their lifetimes, the worse their hormonal state. This problematic situation extends way past uncomfortable menopausal symptoms. (For more information on how to avoid these chemicals, I highly recommend the Environmental Working Group’s data base.)
How do our bodies unwittingly influence hormone balance? Undue emotional stress, oxidative stress, being overweight, constipation, insomnia, genetics, emotional state, attitude…. Just as with external sources of disruptors, the internal ones must also be addressed. Is hormone replacement therapy the answer? Not so fast.
Studies* of women in traditional societies who eat a whole foods based diet, spend plenty of time outdoors, do not treat menopause as a disease needing to be fixed, and who, as elders, are held in esteem, do not experience menopause in the same ways as we do. Many of these women have few to no symptoms at all.
In my practice, we start with lifestyle and nutrition as the first steps to bringing the body into balance. One of my clients came to me complaining about her hot flashes and night sweats. We created a personalized plan for her: switching her diet to one of primarily organic whole foods, adding in exercise, discussing ways to manage stress, and minimizing her external exposure.
The upshot was that she cleaned up her external world as best she could and was able to figure out her triggers, both food and drink. No hormone replacement therapy was needed, and she returned to a very comfortable life, free of hot flashes and night sweats.
I always ask my clients if they experience the same symptoms when they are on vacation. Sometimes, it truly is stress that is messing up everything else in their bodies, and that is where we turn our focus.
There are other people whose hormones do need more support to get back in balance. Women, especially those who have reached their 60s, understand their own bodies better than anyone. We know when something isn’t right, even if our doctor says otherwise. It is important to find the right health care provider who can get to the root cause of the problem. Functional testing is available to figure out hormone levels and what needs to be addressed. Once the results have been gathered, targeted supplementation might be recommended, as well as bio-identical hormones, if needed. (Bio-identicals are not the same as synthetic hormones.) These may very well be temporary, just in order to get the hormone levels back to where they should be.
Learning to listen to your body and becoming your own advocate is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.[How did you cope with hot flashes, night sweats and other things menopausal? Please share in the comments section below.]
* Flint M. The menopause: reward or punishment? Psychosomatics. 1975.
* Lock, Margaret. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.