It’s very rare that I speak to a woman that isn't dealing with some form of stress these days. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing so many women suffering more severe menopause symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, mood swings, hot flushes, insomnia, low libido, anxiety and more?
Although your diet is super important to support your hormones, in my experience helping many hundreds of women going through peri-menopause, I now think the number one determiner of how bad your journey will be is STRESS.
And although it is talked about a lot (especially by me!), it's STILL something we are finding difficult to manage.
Is all stress bad?
Stress isn't all bad! We need it to wake up in the morning, to survive and to function well.
But it’s when it’s relentless that it causes problems.
Our fight or flight response is not equipped for modern day stress. It’s great for acute stress like being attacked by a lion, but not so great for the little stressors we deal with every day.
In his book, The Stress Solution, Dr Chatterjee describes the barrage of ‘MSD’s', Micro Stress Doses, that we're exposed to every day. From the moment your alarm goes off in the morning, you can have hundreds of these micro stresses throughout your day.
You might be getting the kids fed and off to school, or deciding what to wear (that you like yourself in!). While your train is delayed or you're stuck in traffic, you might get a ping on your phone to tell you about the latest news of a murder or natural disaster. These accumulated stresses are just the start – that’s all before you’ve even got to work!
All these modern day stresses add up over time, and it’s the cumulative effect of all that cortisol and adrenaline that is the problem for many of us.
More Stress for Women over 40?
There may be good reason for more stress in your life if you're a woman over 40!
1. Menopause – this itself is a stressful event! The hormone changes that are happening during peri-menopause can last many years, and these imbalances can be a stress on the body.
2. Life stresses – including; kids (whether they're teenagers or you had them late and they're still young), relationships (divorce or family breakups), health issues (yours or your loved ones), grief or bereavement, financial worries, elderly parents or the whole JUGGLE of keeping everything (and everyone) happy!
3. Work stress – the Health & Safety Executive says that midlife women report more work related stress than any other group.
4. Internal stresses – this can include ageing, infection, illness, surgery, toxins, food intolerances, medications, nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar imbalances, dehydration and more!
5. Unresolved emotional stresses – if you're carrying around unresolved emotional or psychological stress such as past trauma or PTSD this will push up your cortisol.
So if your adrenals are already overworked from life, work, internal or emotional stressors, during menopause they are going to struggle to keep up with the added demands.
Reduced Stress Resilience
In addition to extra stress in our lives, our resilience to stress can go down too, making it harder for us to cope.
- Cortisol steal – the more we are in ‘fight or flight' mode, the more stress hormones we need to produce. Cortisol is made from the same pre-cursor hormone (pregnenolone) as our sex hormones, so when cortisol is prioritised, sex hormones can get sacrificed. This can lead to worse symptoms.
- Adrenal fatigue – our adrenal glands are meant to take over some of our hormone production when our ovaries are starting to shut down. But when the adrenals are overworked trying to cope with lots of stress, they can't take up slack and that can increase sex hormone decline (and therefore symptoms!).
Ironically, as competent women who want to have it all or please everyone, we can often try to ignore symptoms and push through, increasing the very stress hormones that are causing the problem!
Common Symptoms & Risks
If we are in fight or flight for long periods of time, we can have a lot of stress hormones produced. This can affect us both on a day to day basis, and also longer term.
Day to day symptoms;
- Weight gain – that stubborn belly fat that won't shift
- Brain – foggy, forgetful, hard to focus
- Mood – feeling low, flat, anxious
- Libido – low sex drive, dryness, painful sex
- Sleep – trouble falling asleep, interrupted sleep
Longer term effects;
- Weaker immune system – leaving you prone to colds and infections
- Digestive issues – stress can suppress your digestive function
- Bone loss – cortisol can negatively impact your bones
- Heart health – cortisol can increase blood pressure and risk of heart issues
- Increased risk of chronic disease
What to do?
1. Say ‘no’ more – go through your calendar and cancel stuff you said yes to out of obligation but really don't want to do! Get rid of ‘draining’ friends (you know the ones). Surround yourself with people that love and support you. Stop doing things you don’t LOVE if you can.
2. Slow down – if it feels boring or you feel twitchy not doing anything – you need to slow down even more. It's easy to get addicted to adrenaline!
3. Make your down time non-negotiable – do something to relax every day and keep it sacred (even if it's just 5 minutes).
4. Implement small habits first – don't try to change too much too soon. Try baby steps and build up after a month or so when you have ingrained the habit first.
5. Spend more time in nature – it’s a huge stress reliever. Create a calming playlist for your walk, or listen to your favourite podcast.
6. Prioritise your sleep – get to bed by 10.30, and get off your phone or gadgets so your brain has time to switch off.
7. Create and maintain boundaries – make sure there’s a cut off between work and home. If you work from home, shut the office door at 5 or 6 and don’t do any more work til the next morning. Tell people you’re not available between certain hours.
8. Try a regular digital detox – in the evenings or one day a week (this one is one I'm still working on!).
9. Listen to your body – when you feel anxious or stressed, change your state. Stop and breathe for 5 minutes or go for a walk.
10. Pay for a yoga or a mindfulness course – if you pay upfront you’re more likely to go!
Don't forget to support your adrenals nutritionally with some good supplements – a good multivitamin, some Vitamin C and Magnesium will help to replace the nutrients that are often depleted quickly when you’re stressed. And don't forget your Vitamin D during the winter to support your immune system.
You probably don't need me telling you what you need to do! You just need to put a plan in place if you’re not doing it. But start small. Don’t do all of these things if you’re not doing them now! I often see people trying to meditate from scratch for 20 mins a day – this is often too much to start with. Start with one or two baby steps (try my 5 minute meditation) to ingrain the habits.
As always if you need help with any of this, or get your cortisol tested to see how you're dealing with stress, do get in touch.
Listen to the podcast episode on this topic;