Some call it ‘the change’, whilst others refer to it theatrically as the ‘grand climacteric’. A few of us know it by the expression ‘Like childbirth and a life of PMS isn’t enough?!’, and others still have even been heard saying, ‘Shouldn’t have eaten the forbidden fruit from the tree!’. It has been described using many obscenities and synonyms, but hardly ever have I heard a woman of age talk sentimentally about the menopause.
On average a woman will have given birth to 1.8 children, she will have endured 350 periods and quite possibly just as many weeks plagued by mood swings, cramps and hysterical crying. When family planning is complete, we should be praying for the day we miss a period, without having to panic about another 18 years of (loving) self-sacrifice. But when the moment arrives, most are filled with dread and probably already exhausted from sleepless nights in sweaty pyjamas. If we could have the opportunity to ask our great, great grandmother about her menopausal symptoms she might be a bit confused. It is very likely that she did not experience any major discomfort at all except a gentle nudge from “Father Time!” As a matter of fact, menopausal symptoms of such severity as we see today have only been documented in the past 50 to 60 years, which coincides with the introduction of the contraceptive pill and the wide use of plastics. Both mechanisms facilitate the release of large quantities of artificial hormones – not only into women’s bodies but also into the environment. What was initially hailed as the liberation of women from endless childbirth soon came back to haunt us.
Menopausal symptoms seem to be worse in those who have experienced some form of PMS or PMT. This points towards the notion that imbalanced female sex hormones during the reproductive years can be a predictor of how severe symptoms of the ‘change’ will be. Don’t start worrying about the menopause once you have spotted the first signs, instead look after your reproductive hub during your fertile years to avoid as much as a decade of misery. This should not dishearten those of you who have taken their hormonal health for granted and still end up with symptoms in your later years. It is never too late to turn the tables of time and nutrition is on your side!
Just before menopause or during perimenopause, some women receive a rather joyful surprise. A quirk of nature (or perhaps a last attempt to save our species) can cause reproductive hormones to peak one last time, sparking ovulation. It wouldn’t be the first time an (un)expectant mother thought the absence of periods was the end of her fertile years while, actually, she was pregnant. In your late forties and early fifties when your periods are likely to become more irregular, don’t assume the worst and even more important – don’t assume you can give contraception a miss!
Once oestrogen levels decline steeply, periods will stop all together and ovulation is a thing of the past. This process is the quintessential definition of menopause and your ovaries become inert. At this point, back in the old days, you might have insensitively been called an ‘Unstable Mabel’ and you might have been offered drugs with a ‘low incidence of toxic reaction’. Doesn’t sound too tempting, does it? One of the first sure signs of declining oestrogen are hot flushes, night sweats or really any-day, any-time sweats. Sage is a fantastic ancient remedy that works miracles against unpleasant temperature changes. Its cooling nature almost combats symptoms overnight and it is simple, safe and effective – with ‘NO incidence of toxic reaction’! Opt for tincture, tablet or homemade tea, organic if you can.
When it comes to complaints such as tiredness, poor sleep, exhaustion, lethargy and low energy, we need to take a small detour to biochemistry, I’m afraid. Once our ovaries stop producing oestrogen, one might think we are left with no oestrogen at all. Every bit of oestrogen has to be converted from testosterone and if that stopped completely, we would be left with enormous amounts of male sex hormone, turning into hairy, muscly and quite manly beings. Testosterone is still converted into oestrogen but during and after menopause, it is a much weaker form and this process does not happen in your ovaries anymore. Instead, your adrenal glands take over conversion of testosterone into this very gentle form of post-menopausal female hormone – just enough to keep you womanly. This all sounds much easier said than done, especially if you have adrenal glands that are hanging on by the skin of their teeth as it is! Our poor stress glands have likely been exposed to a series of assaults. In our twenties there was the pressure of exams, long hours for little money, relationships and responsibilities. Our thirties were dominated by even more work, small children, social pressures, relationships and responsibilities. Not much change in our forties as stress only seems to be getting worse as we get older!! Through those decades, your adrenal glands were pumping out cortisol to keep you going. They were flooding your system with essential stress hormones to test your body and mind and frankly, also your sanity, to the limit. Come menopause, I am sure your adrenals will be delighted to take on even more work. Truth is, exhausted glands are most likely the root of common menopausal symptoms relating to sleep and energy. Herbs like liquorice and Siberian ginseng are fantastic to support adrenal function and oestrogen levels at the same time.
Not all symptoms of the ‘change’ are obvious and there are some subtle but powerful changes happening which can have drastic consequences. After menopause, our oestrogen is more likely to become oxidised in the liver. Oxidised oestrogen can turn into compounds called quinones, which can be highly carcinogenic. Our most powerful weapon against the curse of oxidation: antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables. Even more emphasis should be placed on eating the ‘colours of the rainbow’ every day, with added super fruits such as dark berries, wheatgrass and broccoli sprouts. Besides a diet that should resemble a kaleidoscope, there are two supplements you do not want to be without during this important time. EGCGs, the active ingredients in green tea help to balance oestrogen and blood sugar levels; they are anti-inflammatory and very powerful antioxidants which have shown to be particularly useful during and after menopause. The other one is a good quality omega-3 fish oil. Now we need their anti-inflammatory and cancer protective function more than ever and it can even help with complaints of dryness, depression and mood swings.
Every woman will experience the menopause differently and it is a profound and final change that evokes all sorts of emotions and feelings. Proper nutrition, the right diet and a sensible supplement regime can minimise your chances of experiencing uncomfortable symptoms but an individual approach is almost always necessary to make the change a less distressing experience.