Photo credit: Sue Smith/iStock/360/Getty Images
Like most women my age, I've been heading into my 40s with a vague idea that menopause would, at some point, replace potty training as the topic du jour with my circle of girlfriends. I figured we had at least a decade and many more grey hairs before we'd be sharing hormone horror stories. For me, "the change" was a far off, nebulous concept associated with grandchildren, retirement and our moms. Surely, we weren't ready to be those ladies. Wrong. I turned 40 this year and like clockwork my hormones launched an internal roller coaster ride that is less thrilling and more disorienting with every monthly cycle.
Enter The Hormone Cure, by Dr. Sara Gottfried, my new imaginary best friend/fairy hormone mother. Her research and sage words are helping me (and countless others) navigate the uncharted path to menopause known as perimenopause. She describes it as the "hormonal upheaval before your final menstrual period" and it's a stage that most women unknowingly enter into from the ages of 35-50. Marked by dropping levels of progesterone and eventually dropping estrogen levels, this biological state is often responsible for wild mood swings, unexplained weight gain and low energy. Just a trifecta of fun to manage when you're also trying to nurture a career, raise humans and hold a marriage together.
What to do now
More than likely, you and your doctor are both largely undereducated when it comes to this stage in life. Learning everything you can about this process and keeping close track of your own monthly experiences can go a long way in easing your journey through perimenopause. Dr. Gottfried describes it as a "period of biological rough waters" with you as the captain of the ship. Educate yourself on the ever-changing hormonal balancing act, trouble shoot your own diagnosis and then take your findings to your own doctor so you can facilitate an informed discussion, while crafting a strategy for thriving, rather than suffering.
What to ask yourself
Are you suddenly struggling with depression, unexplained weight gain, sleep disturbances, unpredictable periods, lack of libido, sudden forgetfulness and increased self-doubt? Of course, there could be countless reasons for any one of these ailments, but when you're overwhelmed with most or all of these symptoms hormones are more than likely the culprit. According to Gottfried, these changes are signals from your ovaries that you are entering a new phase of life. It's a time when a woman relies on her ovaries, thyroid and adrenal glands to be humming. Unfortunately, they're likely as unpredictable as your own tween's behavior. Chaotic hormone levels during perimenopause are very similar to those you experienced in prepuberty. It's no wonder you're feeling so crazy. The changes taking place in your body now make menopause seem like a breeze.
Consider your options
There's no silver bullet or magic potion to correct all the internal craziness. Mainstream doctors are often prescribing birth control pills, antidepressants or hormone therapies. Nutritionists warn against alcohol, sugar and caffeine. And you're left wondering whether life will actually be worth living without those indulgences. Dr. Gottfried suggests another way. She'll have you asses your symptoms more closely, try to identify the role cortisol plays in your life and whether or not you are high or low in progesterone and estrogen and suggest significant lifestyle changes based on your own findings. She aims to empower women with choices regarding exercise, food, meditation and supplements before filling prescription.
The book is full of science-backed information and plenty of real-life examples of how women have improved their lives. I'm three months in to my own experiment. Four nights of insomnia, bouts of inexplicable rage and several months of unmanageable periods scared me straight. I've reduced my caffeine intake to one precious and life-affirming cup of coffee per day. I keep my alcoholic drinks to a maximum of three per week. (Seriously, I may be the only person you know who doesn't lie to her doctor about this.) And I've cut most refined sugar out of my diet. (Birthday cake doesn't count). I've also added a few select vitamins to my daily routine and I'm sleeping significantly better. Daily exercise in some form is now non-negotiable. I actually treat it like medicine. The mood swings are still an issue and the periods are still rough. But my overall body awareness has me feeling strong and confident as I cruise into my 40s.