Don’t rebel against the changes menopause imparts on the body. Instead, allow yourself to create a new rhythm in tune with them.
With every act of self-care, your authentic self gets stronger, and the critical, fearful mind gets weaker. Every act of self-care is a powerful declaration: I am on my side. —Susan Weiss Berry
As we have seen, lifestyle and the state of our adrenals can have a huge impact on our menopause. This time of our lives can be a wake-up call to begin to assess what our bodies need and how we are living, and a prompt to take better care of ourselves. It is kind of like the old adage of the frog—if dropped into boiling water, it will jump right out; but if you put it in lukewarm water and slowly increase the temperature to boiling, it just keeps on adapting and dies as a result.
Many of us have been slowly adapting to more and more stress over the years, to the point that it now seems normal to us. Ways of being we could tolerate and adapt to, or even enjoyed, when younger just do not work for us anymore. I have had many women tell me that they used to be able to go out for drinks every night after work and stay up late with no lasting effects, or run on adrenaline and coffee with four or five hours of sleep. Their bodies no longer do well with these behaviors, but they find it hard to change them. Some say they resist changing because it makes them feel old, or it feels like a last rebellion. For others, it is as if these behaviors form a kind of scaffolding, which holds them up. They are just making it day to day and are too busy to think about it.
It should come as no surprise that the lifestyle adjustments that support the adrenals will also help to prevent and lessen the symptoms of menopause. Healthy adrenal glands will support overall health and strengthen the immune system, as well as support good hormone balance, since your body will not be turning your sex hormones into stress hormones. (Remember, Nature will always prioritize survival over reproduction.) Instead, the adrenals can do their intended job of supplying the hormones for the second half of life. There are some very simple things you can put into place now that will make a huge difference in terms of how you experience menopause, whether or not you are already having symptoms.
Old habits can be very difficult to break however, and new habits difficult to form. The brain is a very habit-forming organ, and it can take six weeks to six months of a new behavior (depending on the individual) before the brain creates the new pathways that support maintaining a new habit.
Women in the second half of life benefit tremendously from creating rhythms in their lives. This both helps to conserve energy in the body and helps the brain to form new habits. The amount of energy we have available to use on a daily basis is created by a delicate balance between building up the biochemicals that we need for our energy and the running of bodily processes and using up these resources. Establishing a rhythm to your life allows your body to anticipate at what time of day you will be eating, exercising, or sleeping and therefore have the appropriate amount of energy ready for you at the right time. If, on the other hand, you are random about your activities, your body must have a lot of energy available at all times because it never knows what is going to be asked of it. Generating this energy, to keep you in a constant state of readiness, makes it more likely that you will run low.
Again, the metaphor of a bank account is useful here. The money you have available to use for your daily spending is dependent on what you have in the bank. If you use more than you save, or if you spend needlessly, you will eventually be overdrawn and not have what you need on hand. So, it makes sense to conserve and not to spend needlessly. It is the same with our energy stores. We can take supplements until the cows come home, but if we are not making changes to our lifestyle and we are using up everything that we put in every day, we will never make progress. Creating a rhythm can make a huge difference in helping you conserve while trying to heal.
Following are some basic lifestyle adjustments you can put into place that will make a big difference to your adrenal health, your immune system, and your overall well-being. I have had clients for whom just changing one made all the difference with their menopausal symptoms. Remember, it is all connected and one change will have a ripple effect.
Eight hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep every night is one of the most critical foundations for good health, especially in the second half of life, and it is the holy grail for a lot of menopausal women. It is one of the first things to go as the adrenals become fatigued, as we enter midlife and our hormone balance begins to shift. This is because cortisol (the main stress hormone) and sleep disruption go hand in hand.
There is a natural rhythm to normal cortisol production during the day. Our highest levels are thirty minutes after awakening—the rising level of cortisol in our bloodstream is partly what wakes us up in the morning—then there is a steep drop around noon, and then it slowly tapers off until bedtime. Our lowest levels are between 10 and 10:30 p.m., which encourages the body toward sleep. However, if we stay up much later than this (which most people in our culture do), then our cortisol levels will begin to rise again; our body will mount fight or flight in order to give us a second wind and the energy with which to stay up and do what we need to do. High cortisol levels make sleep much more difficult when we do go to bed.
[Discover best practices for getting better sleep.]
Many of us also watch TV or spend time on the computer right before bed, either to relax or because it is our only time to catch up with email and other tasks. For those of us with children or who are working from home, it might be the only quiet time we have to ourselves all day, to get things done. But watching TV and, to a lesser extent, being on the computer will raise cortisol levels slightly, enough to make a difference in our sleep. While watching TV—laying on the couch and staring at a screen—may feel relaxing, something very different is happening in the body.
Studies have shown that the brain receives information while we’re watching TV, as if the body were actually experiencing it. This information bypasses the part of the brain that analyzes and filters the information. Particularly with television, and the frequent cuts from scene to scene every few seconds, cortisol levels are raised and create a mild fight-or-flight response in the body, even if we don’t feel the adrenaline. Television stations and advertisers design programming purposefully to raise cortisol levels, heighten our senses, and keep us riveted, the way we are during fight or flight. In addition, the blue spectrum light emitted from computers stimulates the same centers in the brain that tell us it is time to wake up in the morning.
When we go to bed with higher cortisol levels, we will have difficulty falling asleep or we will find that we awaken after just a couple of hours. Even if we fall right to sleep, the sleep is not as deep and therefore not as restorative. High cortisol levels also make it easier to be awakened.
The adrenals do their repair in the deepest stage of sleep. If we are staying up past 10 or 10:30 pm, then we will slowly and consistently get less and less of the repair and regeneration our adrenals need, and we will continue to burn up more and more of our existing biochemicals, leading to fatigued adrenals. Add to that the stresses of our normal day-to-day modern life—caring for family, increased stresses of work, relationship problems, physical illness, financial crises—and we can see why women arrive at midlife with compromised adrenals that are unable to support the work of the menopausal transition.
Research also suggests that lack of sleep is related to weight gain, depressed immune system, and psychological depression. Think back to the four things that happen when the body goes into fight or flight—elevated blood sugar, elevated blood pressure, less blood to the brain, and a suppressed immune system—and the symptoms make sense. These are all related to stressed adrenals.
Excerpted from MAKING SENSE OF MENOPAUSE: Harnessing the Power and Potency of Your Wisdom Years, by Susan Willson, CNM. Sounds True, February 2022. Reprinted with permission.
Want more on menopause? Read: “Discover the Seven Gifts of Menopause.”