As a naturopath, I’ve witnessed both the easiest and the most challenging menopause experiences. So I often wondered how my own would be.
In my late 40’s I made a plan to make perimenopause as smooth as possible. Having eaten a phytoestrogen-rich diet for decades and with a reinvigorated mindfulness and meditation practice, I started working with with the most holistic personal trainer I could find.
Sometimes the best laid plans don’t always go as intended. Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the inevitable surgery that catapulted me into an oestrogen-free state, wasn’t the way I’d envisaged entering menopause. Doctors describe a medically induced menopause (when conventional treatments such as drugs, surgery or radiotherapy obliterate ovarian function) as “harsh” and “severe”. Having witnessed this in clients previously, I was primed to expect the worst.
Fortunately, twenty-three years of naturopathic experience gave me tools and useful remedies to transition through menopause. However, the sudden drop in hormones (coupled with the stresses inherent in a cancer diagnosis, treatment and huge life changes) was challenging. The most obvious symptoms were sleep disturbances, exacerbated by hot flushes. My strategy was to minimise stress as much as possible, support my adrenal glands, continue eating lots of organic plant foods and take the appropriate herbs as needed.
Did my naturopathic plan to ease menopausal symptoms work?
As that old shampoo ad goes, “it won’t happen over night, but it will happen.”
Herbs (including black cohosh) to reduce the hot flushes took a couple of months to take full effect. This is not unusual, as most herbs that regulate reproductive hormones (such as for PMS) need to be taken consistently for at least three months to begin to correct the imbalance.
Herbal support goes way beyond symptomatic treatment. The adrenals, whose job is primarily to launch a hormonal response to stress, can make up to 10% of our oestrogen even after menopause. Taking care of these glands is an important part of effective herbal treatment. Therefor I vary the herbal prescription and dosage, depending on stress and other things beyond my control. I also take a break from remedies when on holiday or when life is uncomplicated.
Despite the surgical onset of menopause, fortunately the flushes were more annoying than disabling, and never as debilitating as I’ve seen in some clients. Curiosity has been a useful tool whenever a wave of heat occurs. What am I feeling? Am I stressed or anxious? What have I just eaten or drunk? I find being curious is a useful distraction to side track annoyance. It’s like being both the scientist and the lab rat in a solo experiment, collecting data to make sense of the symptoms.
As a naturopath, I believe that symptoms are our body’s way of communicating with us. Hot flushes are a powerful attention grabber, listening to them helps us find the triggers. Approaching peri/menopausal symptoms in this way, has been a valuable too to make this transition easier.
Having worked for decades with women going through hormonal change, I knew that alcohol usually triggers hot flushes and other symptoms. Menopause also tends to decrease our alcohol tolerance and can leave us feeling hung-over after only a few drinks.
Like many women, I found even a single drink can sometimes make me feel fatigued. Two or more are guaranteed to trigger broken sleep and leave me feeling unrefreshed in the morning. Sometimes it will trigger a return of night time flushes, further compounding my energy and mood the next day. Some types of alcohol can have a more devastating effect than others, with wine often being the worst (which maybe due to naturally occurring histamine or additives like sulphur).
Women often comment that perimenopause permanently changes their sleep patterns and can continue long after the flushes finish. Certainly repeated hot flushes, even worse if accompanied by sweats, are a sure-fire guarantee to wreck your sleep.
Since childhood, sleep has been my weak spot. It doesn’t take much to disrupt it – light, noise, temperature, caffeine or stress, so I wasn’t looking forward to what menopause would add to this mix.
While I’m still not the best sleeper in the world, herbs have certainly reduced (and often ceased) night time flushes. Sleep quality remains variable but I’ve explored lots of ways to get the best rest possible. These include:
- Getting to bed by 10pm,
- taking my prescribed herbs,
- avoiding chocolate and alcohol at night,
- good bedding (linen sheets, a cotton blanket and absolutely no feather doonas),
- regular exercise,
- eating well.
Most of all I’ve learned to not get annoyed if I wake up. Like my strategy for managing hot flushes, choosing to not let them bother me means I quickly fall back to sleep most of the time.
Stress, energy and moods
Good sleep plays a major role in feeling energised and happy. Without it, naturally we’re going to feel tired and cranky. This can make us more likely to be reactive and become stressed. Then those daytime stresses can make sleep more challenging … and so the cycle begins again.
Initially I was so stress averse, I avoided most things that took me out of my comfort zone. Fortunately, being self-employed I have control over my work hours and could adjust them as needed. Slowly I’ve taken on more commitments and found a “new normal”. But I know that carving out time for yourself and putting your own needs first is challenging for some women, especially when juggling work and family responsibilities. Perimenopause lets you know when your personal load is too much. Perhaps one of the gifts of menopause is encouraging us to ask for help or adopt a little “positive selfishness”. If you’re the linchpin in your family, workplace or social life, these facets often begin to unravel if don’t take care of yourself.
I first began meditating in my early 20’s but it took another two decades, fired by an interest in mindfulness, to form a regular practice. Cancer and menopause have boosted my commitment, and it really has made a difference.
Dr Brené Brown, the renown shame and vulnerability researcher, confessed her resistance to believing in the importance of mindfulness in developing resilience. However she found the data doesn’t lie and that a large proportion of people who overcame adversity incorporated mindfulness techniques, including meditation and curiosity, in to their daily life.
Mindfulness is free, can be done anywhere and is the most valuable tool I’ve found to transition through menopause. It helps maximise energy, take the sting out of insomnia and generally improve emotional wellbeing.
“Resilience is more available to people curious about their own line of thinking and behaving,”
Both menopause and some conventional cancer treatments are often blamed for the appearance of joint pain or stiffness at this time of life. There are many documented cases of men developing joint problems after chemotherapy, so it’s hard to blame hormonal change alone for my brief episodes of stiffness when I sit or lie down for too long. Regardless of the cause, it’s been a great reminder to “use it or loose it”. If symptoms are a conversation with our body, then mine is telling me to move more.
Since shifting to Sydney I’ve made a conscious effort to walk more. The change in location has bought stairs and hills back into my life, as well as so many new places to explore on foot.
Regular movement is essential to managing menopause and the risk of cancer recurrence. It’s not just about big bursts of exercise, cardio vascular and strength work but it’s equally important not to sit for prolonged periods.
Menopause as a prompt for self care
Aging is a mixed bag. Most of us would love a younger body but retain the wisdom learned over the years. However, there are many beneficial trade offs for getting older, such as developing greater self confidence and acceptance. Menopause prompts us to stop taking our body for granted and prioritise greater care of our physical and emotional wellbeing.
“So many women I’ve talked to see menopause as an ending. But I’ve discovered this is your moment to reinvent yourself after years of focusing on the needs of everyone else. It’s your opportunity to get clear about what matters to you and then to pursue that with all of your energy, time and talent.”
Fighting change is rarely a winning strategy. Nor is “just putting up with it”.
If you need help with this transition, we can work together to make menopause easier.