From hormones to heart health, we’ve rounded up the best expert advice you and your family need to stay in top health this month
The menopause can be a stressful time, and you can experience up to 34 different symptoms, including hot flushes, vaginal dryness, mood swings and joint pain. According to research by the British Menopause Society, over half of women say that the menopause has had a negative impact on their lives. Sadly, many women going through it believe that the menopause is not something to be talked about with others, particularly in the workplace, but we don’t think this should be the case. That’s why we’ve turned to the experts to find out how reducing our stress levels can improve symptoms.
Firstly, what impact can stress have?
“Falling hormones can often stress the nervous system during the menopause, making it much more sensitive to both external and internal stresses,” explains menopause expert Eileen Durward (avogel.co.uk). “Having a jumpy nervous system will react much more quickly to stressors and this, in turn, can either trigger symptoms, such as anxiety, panic attacks, palpitations, flushes, or make existing ones worse or more frequent.” Nutritionist Rob Hobson, head of nutrition at Healthspan, agrees, adding that stress and the menopause share many of the same symptoms, including mood fluctuations, trouble sleeping and irritability. “It has been suggested that stress can cause you to experience symptoms more severely,” he says. “Bothersome symptoms can also contribute to stress, as can the demands put upon women in work and at home, such as dealing with teenagers, ageing parents or career changes.” Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to support your nervous system, feel more relaxed and that will have a positive effect on symptoms.
Have enough sleep
“Getting good deep sleep is an important way to bolster your resilience during the menopause, because it enables the hormonal shifts to occur more smoothly and emotions to be more balanced and even,” says sleep therapist Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (drnerina.com). “When sleep is deep and optimal, the parasympathetic nervous system (which deals with rest, repair and recovery) gets a good reboot and the sympathetic nervous system (which manages stress) is dampened down. An overly active SNS can lead to more night sweats, hot flushes and anxiety rushes during the night, so boosting the PNS will help to minimise this. This can be done by making better lifestyle choices – good nutrition and hydration, not overindulging in refined sugars, caffeine and alcohol, getting regular exercise, practising yoga and relaxation techniques, seeking emotional support, keeping up hobbies and spending time in nature.”
Yoga can be a great way to relax your mind and improve your sleep, as Dr Nerina explains. We spoke to Carolyn Cowan of Triyoga (triyoga.co.uk) to find out her top tips. “As a yoga teacher who is 10 years into the menopause now, I am aware that heated studios can be an issue for many, so wear loose, comfortable clothes rather than the super-tight nylon outfits,” she advises. “Leave your ankles and forearms exposed to allow for natural cooling. Lie back between yoga postures to allow your internal system to settle, as this seems to minimise the flushing and it can be helpful to take a fan with you if you find you are getting too hot. Cobra would be the best pose to reset the anxious body, as it helps deal with a sense of overwhelm and it is also amazing before bed to help with sleeping. If you wake in the night and find sleep has eluded you, do three cobras in bed and then lie uncovered to re-release the sleep hormones. It’s also good to have layers of bedding if the over-heating happens at night. Finally, stretching the whole of the front of your body, including your mouth, tongue, neck and chest, when it feels too much is a great way to say to the internal sense of the self that all is good.” Turn to page 61 for our relaxing yoga flow!
Watch what’s on your plate
“Making healthy food choices is even more important when you’re stressed,” Rob tells us. “Your meals should be balanced to help create a more favourable hormone signalling environment that supports satiety, mood regulation, sleep and energy balance. Protein helps to slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream and is also required in greater amounts when you’re chronically stressed. Be sure to include oily fish each week, as it contains essential omega 3 fatty acids, which may help with menopause symptoms, as well as lowering overall stress and anxiety. Eat lots of colourful plant foods because they are key contributors of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that help to reduce inflammation, which can increase amid chronic stress. Bananas are a good pick-me-up and contain dopamine, a mood boosting chemical in the brain. Include plenty of dark green leafy vegetables, as they are a good source of magnesium and can help to regulate cortisol and blood pressure. Leafy greens also contain folate which is used in the production of dopamine. Try to avoid foods such as white bread, pasta, confectionery and sugary cereals, as they can impact on blood-sugar levels, causing imbalances and leaving you feeling less centred. In excess, these foods can also contribute to inflammation in the body, which may exacerbate symptoms of the menopause.”
Take a supplement
While we may endeavour to get all of the nutrients we need through our diet alone, there are some we might need a helping hand with. GP and founder of The Women’s Hormone Clinic (thewomenshormoneclinic.co.uk), Dr Rebecca Poet suggests that supplementing omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids helps to maintain optimal hormone production. “A supplement of vitamin B complex can be a good way to ease anxiety and irritability, while 100-300mg of magnesium taken in the evenings calms your nervous system ready for sleep and is a great way to deal with insomnia,” she adds.
Schedule in relaxation
It’s hard to find time for yourself, we get it – especially if you have a family to look after and a busy schedule to maintain. However, it could be key to revitalising your health, as GP and menopause specialist at Chiswick Medical (hcahealthcare.co.uk), Dr Stephanie Goodwin explains: “It’s important for women to prioritise their mental health when approaching menopause, particularly if they are experiencing anxiety, depressive periods or mood swings. Unwinding can be a challenge for a lot of women, but it is important for them to find time to relax wherever possible – as having a stress-free state of mind can help to strengthen the body against symptoms. For example, meditation-focused exercises, such as yoga or Tai Chi, have a self-soothing affect – with evidence to suggest that they lower cortisol levels (the ‘stress’ hormone), improve sleep, and stimulate brain function.” Meditation apps work too – try Headspace or Calm.
“A 2016 study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that an eightweek Pilates programme had positive effects on menopause symptoms and improved flexibility, balance and mental and physical fitness,” says physiotherapist and Pilates teacher, Lyndsay Hirst (yourpilatesphysio.com).” These are the moves she recommends to strengthen your bone health and your pelvic floor.
Swimming level 4
Starting on all fours, place your hands slightly forwards of your shoulders, soften your elbows, pull your shoulders down away from your ears and gently lift your chest (try to keep your mid back still). Keep a neutral position of your pelvis. Inhale to prepare and, as you exhale, draw in your lower abdominal area or your pelvic floor and at the same time reach your right arm forward and left leg back. Inhale to return. Repeat on the opposite side.
Breast stroke preps
Lay on your stomach with a cushion supporting your forehead. Rest your hands down by your sides. Inhale to prepare and, as you exhale, engage your lower stomach or pelvic floor muscle, lift your shoulders away from the floor, feel the tips of your shoulder blades pull down to the base of your spine and lift your hands away from the floor. You can also add a head lift in if you feel comfortable to do so. Inhale to lower back down to the starting position.
Make sure you have even weight through both of your feet, then press your weight through your heels, keeping your big toes and little toes on the floor. Lift your chest up and pull your shoulder blades down towards your back. Inhale to prepare, then exhale and engage your lower tummy/pelvic floor at the same time as tapping your bottom on an imaginary stool behind you (try to keep more weight through your heels). Keep your back long. Inhale and return.