Ask a woman between 45-60 years old what’s most on her mind regarding her health, and she’ll likely reply: menopause. Menopause symptoms like hot flashes, insomnia, vaginal dryness, itchy skin, weight gain, mental fog and heart palpitations are some of the most misunderstood, under-researched, hotly debated issues in the medical profession. While there are women’s support groups and health/wellness nonprofits devoted to menopause education, the doctors I’ve seen have struck me as undertrained and unmotivated to deal with the long list of physical and emotional challenges women face.
The Menopause Transition: Overwhelming Physical and Emotional Symptoms
To be fair, menopause symptoms are complex; they aren’t just physical; they can manifest themselves in our emotional state, affecting how we think and feel. Declining hormone levels can impact our emotional regulation. Feelings of sadness, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and lack of motivation can arise alongside more physical symptoms like hot flashes, sleep problems, or thinning hair. A team of health providers and an interdisciplinary approach (with visits to providers specializing in internal medicine, OB/GYN, cardiology and psychology) might be ideal for addressing all of the symptoms.
Sadly, some women never approach a healthcare provider; a small AARP survey found that 42% of women (age 50-59) never discussed menopause with a health provider. That’s strange when you consider that half of the world’s population will journey through this health transition in their lifetime, and some 84% of women say their symptoms interfere with their lives. Younger women don’t think or talk about menopause. Older women who’ve gone through it seem to have forgotten the experience; they can recall at least one good story about a hot flash, but advice or generational wisdom on the subject is in short supply. What is a woman going through the menopausal transition to do?
As you’ll see, my doctors did tests to rule out serious cardiac issues and assess my hormone levels, but other than explaining that my hormones were likely to blame for my symptoms, there was little support or advice on their management. The onus has been on me to figure out my body’s needs by learning from my female friends’ first-hand accounts and teasing out medical advice from health websites. I’ve tested out this health advice via trial and error.
In learning to listen to my body, I’ve discovered several health behaviors that lessen my menopause symptoms and strengthen my mental resolve as I face the inevitability of my changing, aging body.
The Onset of Menopause: Nightly Heart Palpitations and Itchy Skin
My perimenopause journey began five years ago, as I sat impatiently waiting for a cardiology appointment I had made in response to the ferocious onset of nightly heart palpitations when I turned 50. Nearly every night, my heart pounded as though it wanted to break free and propel itself out of my chest. I lay awake, terrified that a heart attack was in my future. My doctor did a series of tests, found my heart was healthy and normal and diagnosed my problem as “hormonal changes brought on by menopause.”
At 240 pounds, I was also “clinically obese” and should lose some weight as it “would not get any easier to drop the pounds once I got older.” First, no one had called me “clinically obese” before. Ever. I was stunned because, as a result of eating mostly healthy foods and exercising regularly, I wore my 240 pounds quite well in a curvy body that I had grown to accept (after years of failed yo-yo dieting). I left the office in a tailspin because I had a suggestion that weight loss might help get my heart palpitations to go away, but it was a vague notion and a challenging option.
I went on to lose more than 60 pounds through a combination of eating a whole-foods diet, cutting out added sugar and exercising consistently. You can read more about my weight loss journey and how I’ve kept that weight off for three years through a new-found love of exercise (rowing) and a steady diet of self-care. So, did the heart palpitations go away with the weight loss?
Yes (and no). Rather quickly after starting a whole-foods diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, healthy fats and proteins and no added sugar, my heart palpitations went away. However, it turns out that not eating sugar was the key. Whenever I go back to eating sugar, the heart palpitations come back. It’s like a switch, and so while my weight loss has improved my health, it turns out that removing added sugar from my diet was the ultimate driver in stopping heart palpitations. Read more about the research on the relationship between sugar and hot flashes/night sweats.
How did I learn about the role of sugar, weight loss and exercise in reducing menopause symptoms? Through a journey of self-discovery and years of persistent hard work. I wish someone had explained these complicated relationships between food and health to be at the onset. I’m now a voracious reader on functional nutrition, but I didn’t have a support system when I started. I built one over time, and now I’m part of what I call a “menopause tribe.”
Sisterhood to the Rescue
If ever there was a time in a woman’s life when she needs the support and advice of a group of experienced women, it’s during perimenopause and menopause. I call that group my menopause tribe. While a staggering 70% of women living in the U.S. have vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes/night sweats), there is still much to learn about what causes them and how to get rid of them. In addition to facing hot flashes and a long list of other symptoms, women end up going on a quest to seek answers to their questions. What are hot flashes? What’s causing them? How long will they last? What can I do to get rid of them?
My perimenopausal symptoms included itchy skin, hot flashes, night sweats, hair growth on my chin, heavy periods, body odor, a reduced ability to cry, irritability and mental fog.
Women like me become menopause detectives, piecing together bits of information from doctors, social media, internet articles and hearsay. Most of us figure out how to get at least some relief. Some women go the medication route, others try natural products, while others change their diet and exercise routine. Most of us figure out pretty quickly that our most important resource is other women. If ever there was a time a woman needed a tribe to turn to, menopause is that time.
The Power of the Menopause Tribe
The power of a menopause tribe comes from several factors:
- The shared stories and experiences of women dealing with perimenopause/menopause and their longing to share, reach out, and talk to other women about their changing bodies.
- The opportunity to experience (and offer) emotional (and sometimes spiritual) support to one another.
- The chance to laugh together, express frustration and anger, release emotions in a safe space, and then move on to develop the internal resources needed to deal with this transition.
- A forum that allows you to connect with other women who know what it feels like to “lose” yourself. They offer a helping hand during some dark moments when you don’t feel like you will ever return to the “you” you’ve known all your life.
I’ve been dealing with perimenopause for some five years now. Unfortunately, my best friend passed away seven years ago, leaving me with few close female friends. Luckily, my partner is a loving, patient and kind man who has stood by me, listened to me and held his tongue (even when I didn’t hold mine). Men have an important role here too, but today I’m talking about sisterhood.
There’s nothing like a girlfriend—another woman who can understand what you are going through without you having to explain yourself. I’ve found several tribes of women that help put my raging hormones in perspective on days when I couldn’t do it on my own. They help me feel like I belong to something greater than myself, which is a comforting feeling when so much is changing all around you.
Reducing Menopause Symptoms Through Diet and Exercise
To pay it forward, here are some takeaways from my experience with menopause symptoms that I’d like to share in the hopes that a sister out there needs to hear it. These are my worst menopause symptoms and how I’ve dealt with them.
Heart Palpitations: Eating a whole-foods diet with no sugar and adding near-daily exercise helped me lose more than 60 pounds (which I have kept off for three years) and made my heart palpitations vanish. To this day, if I return to eating added sugar (in any form), the nightly palpitations return. When I eat a sugar-free diet, they are nonexistent. It’s like a switch that goes on and off, and I control it.
Hot flashes: My hot flashes have significantly lessened with my whole-foods, no-sugar diet and consistent exercise routine. If I drop off either the eating plan or the exercise, they return. There are isolated days when I feel small hot flashes, but their intensity and frequency have greatly reduced, and I’ve gone for months without any.
Heavy periods: After having a light flow all my life, perimenopause caused a heavy increase in flow that was surprising to me. It seems my period wants to make a grand exit! I’m not impressed. At the onset of my period, I found that taking ibuprofen (as recommended by my OB/GYN) lessened the flow to manageable. Time has done the rest, and now five years into perimenopause, my flow is minimal.
Hair (on chin): There’s nothing that makes me feel less feminine than chin hair. It had to go, so I discovered laser hair removal. It’s not perfect, but it helps reduce the need to get the tweezers out and play hide and seek with the chin hairs (my eyesight isn’t what it used to be). I’ve started getting the little suckers zapped instead, leaving me with a smoother chin. (Note: This is new, so I’m not sure if the results will be long-lasting, but there’s an aspect of self-care here that feels good too).
Irritability, Mental Fog and Emotions: So much time is spent talking about the physical manifestations of menopause that we can neglect the emotional side. Researchers are examining the effect of waning hormones on mental states like depression and find that while they appear to be related, the nature of the relationship is not well understood. For me, the greatest mood elevators have been exercise and sisterhood. Exercise, particularly lifting weights, is critical to women during this time. There are physical benefits to strength training for sure, but it builds a feeling of empowerment vital to facing this transition with strength and dignity and confidence. Pick up weights often, and reach out to other women to improve your outlook.
There may be a physical explanation for some of these emotional challenges, but other factors like how we react to our menopause symptoms (and transitions and aging in general) are at play when it comes to our emotional health. For me, there’s been an underlying fear about aging, mixed with anger about my changing role and status in society. I think this fear and anger can subtly promote negative self-talk that further depresses our emotional state. Perhaps you’ve felt, as I sometimes do, that you’re slowly disappearing as you age, losing your sense of self. Some days, I wonder if the value of my ideas, my spirit and my voice lessen in importance as I age? Am I heard and heeded as much as I was in my younger years?
The best way to combat this fear and anger is with the camaraderie and joy of a female tribe. There’s something so comforting about knowing that your struggle is understood, that you aren’t crazy, and most of all, that you aren’t disappearing. A tribe asserts itself through its numbers and creates a psyche that takes on a life of its own. When you read something a tribe member writes and shake your head in agreement or listen intently to a friend talk about her night sweats, you validate that person’s experience (and your own). You reduce your feelings of invisibility with the visceral force of the group’s collective truth. I know if you build a tribe, your emotional life (and your acceptance of menopause) will improve.
Find Your Menopause Tribe
If you have a tribe of women already, that’s great. Get together often to talk about your menopause symptoms, emotions, and feelings about your body. If your existing group of girlfriends isn’t in the same place as you, or your menopause talks don’t feel affirming, try some of these resources:
- Affirmations and Positive Self-Talk: Positive self-talk and the use of affirmations can be a powerful defense against the barrage of negativity we sometimes take part in. I’m a practical person, but developing my spiritual side has helped lighten my perspective against the heaviness of menopause challenges.
To get started on a path to positivity, check out the book Damnit It Is Menopause by Sally Bartlett. Written through the lens of love and self-reflection, Sally shares womens’ stories (and her own) in ways that make complex, and sometimes painful experiences, relatable and funny. Her book is filled with stories, lessons learned, positive affirmations and reflections. Sally wrote the book to manifest her own tribe: “At the onset, I felt terribly alone, and feared I was losing my mind.” Her book is a “lighthearted, yet solutions-oriented, spiritual resource” for women who feel alone like she did.
Sprinkled throughout the book are little prayers and messages that Sally puts out to the world, like this one: “Dear Universe: Thank you in advance for the ability to change the way I think about, talk about, and treat my body. Thank you in advance for the ability to increase my emotional literacy. I am teachable.”
These meditations are offered to help women develop clarity and confidence during this transition. This book, and its positive affirmations, can provide comfort on days when you get into a tailspin.
- Get Social: Check out my Instagram page, and join in the discussion on menopause, body positivity and women’s health. I follow a group of brilliant women and organizations that write daily about menopause using facts and humor. While I’m partial to Instagram, there are many Facebook menopause and health-over-40 groups where you can also build a community.
- Seek Out New Ideas: Find credible health blogs, podcasts, Ted Talks, women’s groups, medical blogs, interviews and informational videos, and inspirational and humorous musings to make menopause more bearable.
Most of all, stay curious. Remember that one person’s opinion and advice are just that (one person’s viewpoint). Connecting with others can offer comfort to combat the tumultuous and paradoxical period of great growth that is the menopause transition.
Wishing you good health, insight & inspiration, and a menopause tribe filled to the brim with loving sisters.
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