Out of the more than two million women who go through menopause each year, one in five reports some level of physical and emotional distress that affects her quality of life. Typical side effects of menopause include insomnia, ongoing fatigue, mood swings, hot flashes, and a disappearing sex drive. These symptoms are all caused by hormones that are fluctuating during the transition. Experiencing these symptoms can be disconcerting, especially since menopause is not something that is often discussed in mainstream media.
Many women enter this phase of life ill-prepared, through no fault of their own. Fortunately, everything your body goes through during menopause is as natural as puberty or your period, and there are natural ways to alleviate the symptoms and make menopause your time to blossom.
HOT FLASHES AND MENOPAUSE 101
According to Dr. Melynda Barnes, approximately 75-80 percent of menopausal women in the United States experience hot flashes, making it the most common symptom of perimenopause. Hot flashes, also known as vasomotor symptoms (VMS), are mostly caused by the hormonal changes associated with menopause. In addition to controlling female reproduction, estrogen is also responsible for influencing the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for controlling appetite, sleep cycles, sex hormones, and body temperature. Somehow this drop in estrogen causes the hypothalamus—which is sometimes referred to as the body’s “thermostat”—to have a more difficult time regulating body temperature.
During perimenopause and menopause, the hypothalamus becomes more sensitive to minor elevations in body temperature and signals mechanisms to dissipate body heat. These mechanisms include dilation of blood vessels in the skin causing heat and flushing, sweating, and palpitations. In addition, certain brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, also play a role. In particular serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins are thought to be involved in the generation of hot flashes. Nonhormonal treatment modalities are thought to help by modulating these systems of neurotransmitters.
NATURAL REMEDIES FOR HOT FLASHES DURING MENOPAUSE
When most people hear ‘menopause,’ they think hot flashes. Suddenly, there is intense heat in your face and the rest of your body, your heart starts racing, and you may start sweating profusely. “The part of your brain that regulates temperature responds to both estrogen and adrenaline (the stress hormone that comes from your adrenal glands),” said Clinical Nutritionist Stephanie Dodier. The two are not connected, per se—you could have a low adrenal level and a high estrogen level and no hot flashes. But when adrenal levels that are usually low either rise or are chronically high (looking at you, overachiever!), the chain reaction it launches can give you a hot flash even with minor shifts in the estrogen levels typical for perimenopause Think of this time as your body pumping the brakes on estrogen production before coming to a full stop. The first thing you should do when getting a hot flash is trying to destress. Drinking a glass of water while sitting down and breathing deeply—inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth to naturally slow down your heartbeat—can give you immediate relief.
Try Herbs and Essential Oils
Essential oil expert Morgan Mider recommends Clary Calm for menopause symptom relief, as it contains clary sage, lavender, bergamot, roman chamomile, ylang ylang, cedarwood, geranium, fennel seed, carrot seed, palmarosa, and vitex leaf/berry essential oils. She says that Clary Sage is the number one oil for hormonal balance while geranium is a close second. Ylang ylang also helps with hormonal balance while inducing feelings of relaxation and combating low libido, another common symptom of menopause.
Vitex has been clinically proven to relieve hot flashes and has a lot of the same hormone-balancing properties as black cohosh, a medicinal root generally used to help with menopause symptoms. Vitex is also known to naturally increase progesterone production.
Having a bottle of peppermint oil will be helpful when a hot flash appears. Keep a bottle in your purse and apply to your neck and down your spine as soon as you feel the heat rising. You can put a drop into the palm of your hand and then massage it into your shoulders and neck. Using this prediluted peppermint rollerball makes it easy to roll the peppermint up and down your spine for even more relief.
ADD NATURAL FOODS AND SUPPLEMENTS TO YOUR DIET
Animals raised in factory farms are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics to help animals grow faster and stay healthy for the duration of their short lives. Unfortunately, if you consume this meat, those hormones and antibiotics may enter your system as well. As your body works through its own hormonal changes, the introduction of other hormones will only exacerbate the situation.
Alcohol and sugar will also make things worse. Alcohol consumption can increase mood swings, the intensity of hot flashes, and affect sleep quality. Sugar consumption can cause deeper dips in mood, affect sleeping patterns, and expedite weight gain associated with menopause.
Removing this processed foods from your diet and eating clean may help alleviate symptoms, but be sure to consult your doctor before making any significant dietary changes.
Menopause and Insomnia 101
Create a Ritual to Avoid Insomnia
With your hormones constantly fluctuating, falling asleep may become a challenge. But insomnia during menopause is more complex than just what’s going on in your body—it’s also a matter of the mind. This and the risks associated with traditional hormone replacement therapy make a strong case for a more mindful approach to dealing with menopause-induced insomnia.
“Self-care becomes fundamentally important when you are experiencing emotional instability [due to hormonal changes]. Sleep and meditation can help to relax and restore the nervous system and reduce stress hormones,” said Manhattan-based holistic doctor Julie Von. Rituals are a great way to give yourself a sense of familiarity in a time when everything about your life seems to be changing.
A set sleep schedule and physical activity, especially outdoors, are what most experts recommend for better sleep. Director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at the Boston Medical Center, Dr. Caroline Apovian, suggests the following:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- Power down electronics a couple hours before bed
- Stop drinking caffeine at noon
- Add physical activity into your daily routine
Practice Eating Healthy Before Bed
A balanced bedtime snack may help promote relaxation as well. Eggs and high-carb fruits such as mangos are both rich in serotonin-boosting tryptophan, the amino acid associated with relaxation and sleep. Studies show that after just three weeks, women reported improvement in sleep by eating a high-carb snack at bedtime. Beverages such as chamomile and valerian teas also boost sleep-inducing qualities.
While many women do not report feeling less attractive during menopause, many still often feel at odds with their own bodies. The main thing to remember during the transition is that these changes are perfectly normal. “Make space to express what you are feeling fully without over rationalizing it,” said Dr. Von. “It’s very important to allow what you are experiencing to flow out of your body. Physical expression such as dance and movement are great tools to release anger and irrationality.”
Menopause is the perfect time to discover a deeper, more meaningful connection with your body. Eliminating stress and creating daily rituals can help alleviate hot flashes and insomnia, just two of the symptoms of menopause. Keeping these in check can help you have a better menopause experience. Overall, being gentle with yourself emotionally and nourishing yourself physically will help you enjoy this stage of womanhood and everything it has to offer. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to talk about your experiences with your partner, friends, or doctor. The more women talk about menopause—and menstruation and sex—the more commonplace they become.