Understanding Your Reproductive Hormones
“Why am I exhausted all the time?”
“Why am I always so stressed out?”
“Why can’t I sleep through the night anymore?”
“Why can’t I lose this weight around my middle? I’m exercising and eating like I always have!”
“Why can’t I remember anything? Why is my mind so cloudy?”
“What the heck is going on?!”
Hormones are chemical messengers that regulate most everything that happens in your body: appetite, metabolism, hair growth, sleep, body temperature, mood, sex drive, and menstruation. The female hormones of estrogen and progesterone play starring roles in our reproductive cycles, so it’s no surprise they get top billing during puberty, when we transition into our fertile years, and perimenopause and menopause, as we stop getting our periods. But they aren’t onstage alone. There is a whole cast of hormones that play a critical part in your health and well-being during both these transitional times as well as every single day in between.
Because our body’s systems are so interconnected, hormones work together in a sort of grand symphony to maintain a harmonious balance and keep everything running optimally. If one hormone goes off-script, other hormones are thrown off balance--throwing you off balance. But it is precisely this complexity that makes it nearly impossible to isolate one hormone as responsible for all of our problems. Instead, we must look at the interplay of a variety of them.
That’s why it’s so important for you to understand some hormone basics. With a clear grasp of what your hormones do and how they fluctuate, especially before, during, and after menopause, you’ll see that none of the symptoms you are experiencing are random or coming out of nowhere. There are reasons why you’re feeling like you do based on your own specific chemistry, your past and present experiences, your lifestyle choices, and your environment. The good news is that we can anticipate these changes and symptoms, and adapt your lifestyle to find solutions that work specifically for your needs.
Let’s start connecting the dots with a closer look at the nonadolescent hormonal changes: perimenopause, menopause, and the dubious new term, “postmenopause.”
The quick answer: an unpredictable time of transition. The truth is that most people mistake perimenopause for menopause, not realizing the distinction between the two. “Peri” means “around” or “about,” so any time before your period has been gone for one solid year falls within the perimenopause spectrum. It can start as early as your mid to late thirties and last anywhere from four to twelve years.
During perimenopause, you still have periods even if they become irregular. This means you can still get pregnant. But know that estrogen levels fluctuate rapidly, spiking up and down as the ovaries begin to slack off in production. Some women breeze through perimenopause, while others experience a spectrum of hormone fluctuations so wild and erratic that they cause a wide range of undesirable changes: hot flashes, night sweats, sleep problems, severe PMS, heavy bleeding, memory issues, vaginal dryness, fatigue, and brain fog, among others. Perimenopause can be enormously disruptive physically and emotionally, but it doesn’t have to be. The goal is for you to prepare for the worst, but adapt for the best!
Perimenopause is a natural phase of life. Your body is beautifully designed to wind down at a certain point, giving you a release from reproduction. Your body is also unique to you and there is no way to predict exactly how it will respond to these hormone changes. But I see perimenopause coming on earlier and more intensely for many women because so many of us are completely stressed and burned out. In putting others before ourselves, we delay self-care, contributing to widespread hormone imbalance and inflammation--and a rocky perimenopause.
The most important thing to remember is that your body is supposed to go through this natural, biological change, and you can control how you prepare and respond. Supporting and nurturing your body during this time by prioritizing self-care and a lifestyle that supports hormone balance offers you the best chance for an easy, graceful transition. Just ask my mom!