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Few topics are as intimidating to address as female hormonal changes after the age of 40. Stringing those words together elicits visions of hot flashes, irritable lashing out, sexual decline, and eternal damnation—but that’s not a realistic expectation. Changes in female hormones are natural, and while symptoms are often inevitable, suffering from them is not. Let’s start with what happen as women pass the age of 40:
- Metabolism slows down
- Muscle mass decreases
- Bone density decreases
- Libido declines
- Stress levels tend to increase
- The likelihood of depression increases
None of these changes are dramatic or instantaneous. They occur slowly as women age and can be attributed to perimenopause, the transition into menopause as a result of a fluctuation in estrogen and progesterone levels as women enter their late 30’s and early 40’s. For some women the symptoms are worse than for others, depending on how well they support a healthy hormone balance. Symptoms of perimenopause and menopause can be easily and substantially mitigated through healthy lifestyle choices. Therefore, do not accept biological chaos as your fate during menopause. Discomfort can be mild to nonexistent if you treat your body right.
The first hormone of importance is estrogen. Estrogen starts to decline as women enter perimenopause. This directly increases the likelihood of depression as women with lower estrogen levels often suffer from depression as well as a low libido caused by vaginal dryness and mood swings. Estrogen therapy can assist with these symptoms, but for those interested in more homeopathic approach, try:
- Consuming soy products such as: soybeans, soy milk, and tofu; that contain compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen.
- Reduce sugar intake, eat nutrient dense foods and exercise.
- Eat flax seeds which have high concentrations of phytoestrogens
- Vitamin E and B supplementation to alleviate symptoms of hot flashes and increased stress.
Research also shows that women who smoke typically experience menopause 1-2 years earlier than their non-smoking counterparts, and that women who have never been pregnant can experience earlier symptoms of menopause than those who have.
Women going through perimenopause experience low testosterone levels as well, which can lead to lower bone density and decreased muscle mass. This is risky for women as they are significantly more at risk for osteoporosis than men. Yes, testosterone is typically thought of as a male sex hormone, but estrogen is derived from testosterone and plays other vital roles in the female body such as managing libido, weight gain and fatigue. Maintaining healthy testosterone levels is dependent on overall health—sufficient sleep, occasionally intense exercise and a nutrient-rich diet. Some doctors may recommend testosterone therapy as well. Recommendations for maintaining healthy testosterone levels through diet include:
- Eat healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, and Omega-3 supplements.
- Supplement with Vitamin D3 (particularly to help with the prevention of osteoporosis)
- Increase protein consumption: fish, chicken, eggs, nuts. (Older people have the same capacity to convert protein into muscle as younger people).
Intermittent fasting has become a popular anti-aging technique that helps reboot the metabolism and prevent heart disease. However, for women over 40, it can actually worsen glucose tolerance, (i.e. ruin your metabolism and put you at risk for diabetes.) Since the severity of menopausal symptoms is dependent on hormonal health, and hormonal health is dependent on overall physical health, fasting is something that should be avoided.
The next hormone of concern is cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Women in general are more biologically prone to stress than men and are more at risk for dysregulated stress reactivity, particularly as they age. Cortisol is detrimental because it’s a testosterone antagonist (meaning more cortisol = less testosterone), making it a catabolic hormone that promotes the breakdown of muscle and bone tissue. Stress management is also highly dependent on overall body health. Eating, sleeping, and exercising well are the best immunizations against an overwhelming stress response. Regular sexual activity and meditation can also help increase psychological balance.
I’m convinced aging can, and should, be enjoyable. Even though hot flashes might seem like a nuisance, they are indicative of your body properly calibrating as your hormones change. If you start taking care of your body, it will take care of you.