Woman to Woman
Preparing for Change of Life
By Lee Sandford
Charles Darwin famously said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” One might argue that that’s a very early girl-power quote, given the changes women’s bodies cope with in a lifetime, especially if their bodies have performed the mammoth tasks of bearing, birthing, and nursing children.
After the child-bearing phase the next phase, which women dread, is “the change of life”, with “menopause” remaining quite a jarring word. If you’re still reading after hitting “the M word”, peri-menopause is the mirror image of puberty, and carries with it a similarly vast array of side-effects, but which come at a time in life when you can’t just deal with it all by telling your parents you hate them and slamming your bedroom door.
I recently had the honor of sitting down with a physician who is a leading expert in this area. She explained how the scare around the Women’s Health Initiative (a major study on hormone replacement therapy) came about through misinterpretation. Now the medical profession mostly recognizes that hormone replacement plays an important role in managing peri-menopausal symptoms. The additional benefits for cardiovascular and bone health, as well as diabetes prevention and others, were also impressive.
However, that decision is one for you and your OB-GYN, not a health and fitness columnist who happens to have a slight passion (some might say obsession) that women should be embracing this time of their lives as much as any other. The message I’d like to get across is that like pregnancy, and any other changes (or illnesses) the body faces, the healthier and stronger you are going into the peri-menopausal years, the better you’ll handle them.
Looking at the top concerns, here are the ways you can build up your armor, which you should be doing by age 35, preferably earlier.
1) Bone health. According to my learned friend, all women lose 20% bone mass by the time they have come through the process. So, it’s obviously better to have super bone health scores going in. Build bone density with weight-bearing exercises. The “weight” can be just your body weight, but don’t be afraid to use actual weights.
Drink milk, and eat dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and fish. Canned fish is especially good for bone health, because small soft bones make it into the canning process.
2) Weight gain. Not only do we notice our metabolism slowing down as we age, hormone changes mean that excess fat is now more likely to be stored around the middle. This is not just a vanity issue; your waist measurement and waist-to-hip ratio are two reliable barometers of health. Foods that cause belly fat are sugar and processed foods, whereas high-fiber foods are known to help slim the middle, so you can help counter the hormonal affects with your diet. Cortisol also causes belly fat, so, as with so many other facets of your health, finding your Zen by doing things that make you happy and finding ways to cope with stress are invaluable.
3) Hot flashes. While the causes and cures for hot flashes are still a mystery, apart from hormone replacement therapy, you can try a cooler bedroom and bedding, avoid triggers like spicy food, caffeine, and alcohol, and experiment with natural remedies through your diet. It’s often quoted that there is no Japanese word for hot flash, so soy sources like edamame and oily fish are thought to help. Try adding nuts and seeds, especially flaxseeds, to your diet.
4) Mood swings. Most literature points out that mid-life brings more than physical changes, notably aging parents, and kids leaving — or not leaving — the nest. Help smooth out the emotional roller coaster by boosting your serotonin, the happy hormone, levels. While exercise provides a serotonin boost every time, it’s helpful to know that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. Keep your gut happy with a varied diet, high in plant content, and with daily probiotics (such as yogurt). Stop thinking of a food’s worth in calories. By mid-life, women have spent 20 to 30 years thinking all calories are created equal and high-calorie content is bad. This has led to women drinking Diet Coke instead of milk.
If your thinking shifts from “How can I eat fewer calories?” to “How can I best nourish my body?”, the difference is amazing. It’s an immediate change to a positive mindset around food, and your blood sugar levels will even out, preventing “hanger”, which is the last thing any women needs to add to the mix right now.
Finally, remember there’s a difference between symptoms being “common” and “normal”. If symptoms are making you miserable, keep working with your doctor on remedies. We can’t accept that it’s “normal” to have a diminished quality of life for these five to ten years.