Navigating the Perils of Perimenopause

Perimenopause is a process, not a disease.

Let me say that again: Perimenopause is a natural process, a stage in the journey of a woman’s life. It is NOT a disease state that requires medical intervention.

Like puberty.
Like pregnancy.
Like labour & delivery.

In my practice, it shows up as

  • the 40-year-old who can’t get pregnant;
  • the woman who’s tried everything to lose the 20 lbs that showed up overnight and refuse to leave;
  • the woman who can’t sleep at night, yet can hardly keep her eyes open all day;
  • the confidant woman paralysed with anxiety;
  • the woman who wants a new job and can’t stand the site of her husband…let alone have sex with him;
  • the woman who walks into a room and…wait a sec, what was I saying?

She’s anywhere between 35 and 50, yet she feels like you may as well just buy her a flowered hat and sign her up for shuffleboard.

“Nobody talks about this,” my girlfriend complained the other day. And yet, we’re all (not so) silently suffering through its effects.

Is this all you have to look forward to?

Not at all.

Perimenopause is a transition. Depending on your attitude and willingness to work with the waves, it can be navigated smoothly, albeit not always gracefully.

As a holistic nutrition student, I learned that menopause is “simply” puberty in reverse.

Puberty:

  1. Ovaries produce estrogen (boobs, pubic hair, curves + uterus develops + bleeding starts)
  2. Progesterone kicks in (ovulation + body ready to maintain a pregnancy)

Perimenopause (= around menopause):

  1. Progesterone production declines (ovulation stops)
  2. Estrogen dwindles (stop bleeding = menopause after 1 year without a period)

But we aren’t simple creatures, as the men in our lives like to remind us: we’re complicated. (I prefer the word complex.)

First of all, puberty got rolling a good 3 years before you actually got your period and continued to fine-tune for a few years after. (Remember all those years of feeling more like a moody alien than a normal teenager?) The transition out of child-bearing mode takes its time as well, with just as many mood swings. About 10 years, and you might even start feeling the symptoms of hormonal shifts in your 30s.

The complexity comes from the fact that these processes involve much more than just your 2 female hormones.

All the glands of the endocrine system work in concert. (Skip the green box if you’re already familiar with this system.)

Endocrine System

The Endocrine System – Click on the image for easier reading

If other aspects of your endocrine system’s out of whack, your sex hormones won’t be able to do their job properly. (Which impacts periods & pregnancy as well as perimenopause.)

When your sex hormone production begins to wane in your 40s, the other hormones change their tune to create a new harmony. Generally, that interplay happens most dramatically with the thyroid and adrenals. If those two musicians aren’t feeling their best: the perils of perimenopause.

The key players in this crazy dance:

Cortisol (from the adrenals) gets into action to keep you safe and able to cope during occasional times of strife. It keeps you alert to potential danger and ready to make a hasty retreat if necessary.

Unfortunately, we’ve set up our lifestyles in such a way as to keep that state of emergency going constantly. (To read more about this concept, click here.)

When stress gets the best of you, or you can’t get out of bed in the morning, that’s cortisol out of whack.

On the other hand, you know that elated mood you’re in about a week after your period, like someone lifted a veil? You know the peaceful, blissful state, like you’ve never looked or felt better than in your 2nd trimester of pregnancy? That’s progesterone at work.

Progesterone calms the brain as part of its job to keep you zen & happy while pregnant.

Given the way that cortisol can dominate progesterone (see #3 in the green box), it’s not hard to see why so many women of this age suffer from anxiety.

Estrogen is like the Enjoli of the body. You remember the ad?

“I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you’re a man, ‘cause I’m a wo-o-oman.”

Ah yes, the epitome of the 70s women’s movement – elbowing in to take our place in the boardroom without giving up power in the bedroom, all while keeping up the housework.

The main peril of this life stage is estrogen dominance, the state in which estrogen is too high relative to progesterone.

It happens because of progesterone decline, progesterone resistance (see the green box), or because diet & lifestyle increase your exposure to xeno-estrogens & estrogen mimics from chemicals.

In terms of attitudes and ideals, it’s easy to see how this state has energetically become so prominent these days. Modern women focus most of the our energies into being sexy, successful, multi-tasking CEOs and push aside the instinct to make babies until much later, if at all.

Part of estrogen’s job is to enhance our female wiles to snag a mate, then give us the wherewithal to raise/maintain/hold together a family. One part of this particular super-power means that estrogen (along with her sister progesterone) makes us more, umm, let’s call it open to compromise.

I heard it best described in a conversation between Marc David and Dr. Sara Gottfried (during the Psychology of Eating Conference in July). One of them said something like, we spend childhood just being ourselves, go through the 1st change to become accommodating for about 35 years and then go through the 2nd change to be our (true) selves again.

Estrogen dominance also disrupts thyroid function (through iodine displacement as described in the green box).

Thyroxin modulates metabolism, that is, your energy levels and your ability to lose weight. The thyroid gland sits in your throat, the middle of the 5th chakra, the emotional centre of expression and judgment. Your Voice.

It’s interesting to note that the hormone, which defines the first half of womanhood, also keeps the ability to speak your truth in check.

One thing for sure, once you get to the end of the fertile leg of the journey, once the estrogen levels off to a minimum, you no longer give a shit what others think. I see women in perimenopause all around me compelled to say what they have to say, do what they have to do, wear what they want to wear. It’s no wonder job and husband dissatisfaction are high on the perimenopausal complaint list.

(This by no means insinuates you have to change them – unless you do – but it means you need to reassess priorities and relationships. You may need to learn a few new dance steps with your sweetie, your colleagues, even your girlfriends.)

I could go on about all of this. In fact, as I wrote this, I realized that I could develop each sentence into a paragraph, each paragraph into a chapter…hmm, now there’s an idea… For now, I’ll keep it “simple”.

Is there a “simple” way to address the complexity?

You bet: reduce estrogen dominance.

HERE ARE 3 WAYS TO START:

1. Reduce exposure to xeno-estrogens.

Opt for household cleaners with natural ingredients (never anything chlorine based).
Pull out your grandmother’s old cleaning tricks.

2. Clear out/displace the excess.

Eat 7-10 servings of vegetables each day. Vary the types and colours; always include leafy greens, sea vegetables and (cooked) cruciferous.
Eat legumes (pulses) at least 3 times a week.
Eat good quality protein and fats (building blocks for all your hormones) at each meal.

Make it simple: vegetarian chili with sliced avocado

3. Reduce mental-emotional stress

Hang out with your girlfriends
Hang out in Nature (sunshine!).
Move in a way that you love, be it Zumba or running, surfing or dancing,…

Even simpler: Take a walk in the park with your BFF.

(For more detailed information about reducing estrogen dominance, click here.)

As I said, this is really just the tip of the iceberg, but let’s get this conversation happening. I’d love to hear about your experiences. Let’s support each other through this transition, to land softly grounded on the other side.

When you share in the comments, you open possibilities for others.

Get your friends in on the conversation with the social media buttons too!

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12 Habits for Walkin’ the Self-Love Talk

Seems everywhere I’ve looked this February, there have been blaring neon signs directing me to appreciate self-love as the secret to all my desires. Ok, I posted some of that stuff right here on my own blog: Opening your heart to let love more deeply into your life, and loving yourself as the key to a lasting relationship.

Now that you’ve got the theory down, it’s time to put legs to the ideas and start walkin’ the self-love talk.

Sure, you can put on a fancy dress and treat yourself to a candlelit dinner at your favourite resto. I’m not talking about a rare occasion here, Sweetheart. I’m talking about regular relationship-building at its finest.

How do you practice self-love in a concrete, daily way?

Self-care. Plain & simple.

And what better place to start than with the food you eat and how you eat it.

The quality and energy of the food you put in your mouth is incredibly important. Light years ahead of the number of calories or grams of protein.

Food holds the nourishment for your body.

Notice I didn’t say nutrients.

Nourishment is the act of promoting growth, to “sustain life”. (Webster’s) The word actually comes from the Latin “to suckle”, and the Greek “to flow”.

Nourishment holds the warmth of a mother’s embrace. It flows life back in, as I give out to the world.

You see: change a word in your vocabulary, and the collection of ingredients on your plate transforms alchemically into a source of Love to be taken directly into your body, into your cells.

So now, here’s a list of habits and attitudes to integrate into the way you eat. Ways to raise the vibration of the food you feed yourself and your family. Ways to show yourself just a little more Love every day.

Like a new exercise routine, some parts will hurt more than others, but if you keep your eye on the prize of how it makes you feel: lower weight, better energy, smoother digestion, painless periods, or even a healthier planet,…then it’s a piece of cake!

When it comes to eating (or any) habits, try one new thing a week. Pick whichever one appeals to you the most, and DO it!

  1. Opt for locally grown food; ideally seasonal produce; ideally organic. Other than reducing your carbon & chemical footprint, you’re eating food that’s energetically better suited to your health. (Get a list of the Dirty Dozen – highly sprayed produce you want to make sure to buy organic.)
  2. Eat when hungry. Stop when you’re sated. Even if you think about food as fuel: without the gas, your car won’t run. Overfill the oil pump, and the excess can clog the valves and mess up the spark plugs. Marc David at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating calls this “eating to energy”. Eat until you feel the energy kick in/ stop before you hit the point of feeling dopey.
  3. No multi-tasking: when you eat, sit down and eat. Nothing else, with the exception of an uplifting conversation with someone you love and/or respect.
  4. Chew your food. Chew your food. Chew. Your. Food.
  5. Stick to regularly spaced meals. There’s a reason it’s called “regularity”. If you’ve ever been in NYC during a garbage strike, you know how important getting rid of the waste is.
  6. If it’s not delicious, don’t eat it. If you’re cringing as you put something in your mouth, no matter how “healthy” it is, that’s exactly what your digestive system and cells are doing at their end.
  7. When you eat the same number of calories as your BFF, they cancel each other out. OK, I’ll admit it, my friend & I made this up when were, like, 14. Not scientifically proven or anything, but I do know that, to this day, neither of us has ever had an issue with sitting down and fully enjoying truly yummy food. Especially with friends.
  8. Drink clean, fresh water. Add a squeeze of lemon or a dash of true apple cider vinegar as an apéritif or a digestif. Life doesn’t happen without it. Period.
  9. Eat protein with your breakfast to avoid the mid-morning slump and sweet craving.
  10. Eat a rainbow. As I tell kindergarten students, “Think of how you feel when you see a rainbow. That’s how your cells feel when they receive all those beautiful colours: green, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue” (At least 6 cups of veggies per day, or at least half your plate at each meal.)
  11. Eat whole food: Stay away from anything white: flour products, refined grains, sugar, salt. Stay away from ingredients a 6-year-old can’t pronounce. The more vitality in your meal, the more vitality in your life.
  12. Give your digestive system a regular break. This could mean avoiding a few choice items (sugar, alcohol, fried foods), or a full-on cleanse. You could do this weekly, monthly, seasonally: find a way to give your organs time to rest & regenerate, so they can work to your best advantage.

Don’t forget to pop into the comments below and tell me how you show yourself some love at meal time. When you share your thoughts, you open the possibilities for others.

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In Defense of Carbs

I’m getting tired of the bad rap given to carbs these days. I hear it from my clients, I hear it at book club, I read about it in magazines: everybody seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of “I’m avoiding carbs”.

Does this have something to do with an innate need we have to make part of our food the bad guy? It’s like we have to find some outside source to blame for the state of our health, not to mention those extra few pounds we can’t seem to shake.

Even the current term for belly bulge points the finger of blame on this part of our diet: muffin top.

Don’t get me wrong, we do have an unhealthy relationship with carbs, but that’s only part of the story. As we discovered with fats after the extreme diets of the 90s, it’s more about quality, sources and combinations than about quantity.

So, let me dispel a few of the myths we’re perpetuating and demystify some of the facts about carbs, so you can let go some of your fear and embrace this vital family of nutrients.

fiber-rich-foods crop1. Carbs is NOT a 4-letter word!

That’s right, it’s actually 5. Like heart, like blood, like brain. Essential to life.

Carbs is short for carbohydrates, molecules that contain carbon (carbo) and water (hydrate). It’s an umbrella that includes sugars, starches and fibres. And just like fats, there are healthy & poor choices.

2. MYTH: Low carb diets are good for you

I wish more nutrition experts, writers and speakers would be more specific in their use of language.

More accurate truth: Low refined &/or white carb diets are good.

Carbs provide our main source of energy.

Depending on your gender, age, build, activity level & health status, 55-75% of your calorie intake should come from carbohydrates – or, to put it another way, carbs provide the fire that keeps your engine burning.

No fire = no heat. And with winter around the corner, heat is just what you need!

To boot, adequate carbs spare the protein in your body for its essential jobs. Which also means the protein’s not “wasted” as an energy source that actually uses energy to make and produces potentially toxic bi-products in the process.

Good carbohydrate sources contain fibre, protein &/or fat to slow their release into your bloodstream and improve their impact on your body.

“Bad” varieties have a high sugar &/or starch content, without the benefits of the above.

To put it another way, your body deals with straight starch as if it were sugar – with blood sugar peaks & dips, stress response and fat deposits.

I keep that word, bad, in rabbit ears because the same food can be healthy as part of a balanced meal, as an occasional food, to boost glycogen stores after exercise, or to fuel the energy needs of a growing child.

Get the full skinny on “good” and “bad” carb sources at the end of the post.

3. MYTH: Whole grains = whole wheat bread & pasta

Bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, crackers, bagels, etc. are all flour products. As such they fall under the heading of refined carbohydrates.

Sure, flour made from the whole grain is higher in nutrients that its white cousin. But the milling that grinds the grain into flour makes the starch more readily available, and can be part of the problem in the way your body deals with it.

4. MYTH: Gluten is the root of all evil

For some it is. About 1% of North Americans are afflicted with Celiac disease, meaning these people don’t have the enzymes necessary to digest gluten, to painful effect.

My own respiratory system cleared remarkably after a colleague suggested I give up gluten a few years back. This was just before the whole gluten-free trend really took hold, which meant that I basically gave up pasta and baked goods entirely.

However, thanks to all the products showing up at the supermarket by the truckload, we’re I’m getting back to eating too many flour products again. And true to my argument about starches and sugars, my nose and lungs reflect the excess when I let the temptation of cookies get the upper hand. Regardless of gluten.

Still not convinced?

Here are a couple more reasons to indulge your craving for carbs this Fall:

5. Carbs improve your mood

November has a bleak quality about it because of the diminished light. Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) cripples 10% of the population in northern countries with depression. The decreased exposure to sunlight upsets the balance of melatonin and serotonin in the brain, resulting in varying degrees of symptoms.

Tryptophan in whole grains and squashes converts into serotonin in the body, when the diet is also rich in the nutrients necessary to support that conversion. Good quality protein, B vitamins, certain minerals, all found in…you got it!…whole grains & squashes. Paired with a vitamin D supplement to enhance some other benefits of sunshine, carbohydrates ground you on a mental-emotional level all winter.

6. Carbs help you lose weight

Complex carbohydrates (read: whole plant foods) contain soluble & insoluble fibre. Necessary to keep the blood clear of excess cholesterol and other fatty waste, fibre is Nature’s delicious way to maintain weight and reduce many disease states.

Distinguishing the “good” from the “bad”

Poor carb choices include:

  • Added or excess sugars of any kind – yes, even the “natural” ones

Baked goods, soft drinks, chocolate bars & other candy, coffee chain drinks are obvious no-nos. Even with the organic stuff from the health food store, be wary of packaged cereals, cookies, granola bars, juices.

  • “White” food: white rice, pearled grains (like barley), split peas, flour products
  • Alcohol

Limit whole grain flour products.

“Good” carbs = whole, complex carbohydrates:

  • Starchy vegetables: squashes (spaghetti, acorn, butternut, pumpkin, zucchini), roots & tubers (sweet potato, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips)
  • Cabbage family (cabbage, bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, rapini, Brussels sprouts, kale):  Cook to avoid the goitrogenic effect that impacts your thyroid, i.e. your metabolism.
  • Leafy greens (mustard, turnip, collard, Romaine, chard, spinach) – think fibre mixed with minerals
  • All vegetables are full of fibre, plus protein, fats, vitamins & minerals that support the healthy use of carbs in your body.
  • Raw or dry-roasted nuts & seeds, dried fruit: In moderation.
  • Legumes (beans, pulses): kidney, chick, navy, black, lentils, adzuki, mung. Throw a handful into a pot of soup, make turkey & white bean chili or garbanzo & cheese loaf
  • Whole grains – the grains themselves: quinoa, brown rice, barley, millet, amaranth, teff, buckwheat, steel cut or rolled whole oats, rye flakes; spelt, kamut, or wheat berries; sprouted or sourdough breads.

If you have a particular condition, please consult your health practitioner for details on the most effective sources and quantities of carbohydrates for you.

Click here for easy steps to eating more vegetables.

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