Menopause, and the 5 or 10 years leading up to it, should be easy. But for many women, just slight imbalances in body systems can turn this natural event into challenging times, and, for some, a living hell.
Menopause and peri-menopause are Neuro-Endocrine-Immune processes; Neuro meaning brain, Endocrine meaning hormones and Immune meaning Immune system. This sounds complex, and it is, but I am going to spell it out in simple language, so read on to learn how to turn Menopause Madness into Easy Street.
It all starts with stress depleting the adrenal glands, also known as the stress glands. By “stress” I mean all the stresses (mental, social, chemical, relationship, financial…) that have accumulated over a lifetime. If stresses have been numerous, or the body has not recovered from each one, it can leave the adrenal glands depleted. Common symptoms of depleted adrenal glands are salt or sugar cravings, fatigue in the afternoon, needing caffeine to get going in the morning, poor sleep or a weak immune system. If these symptoms are present before menopause they will likely get worse as the female hormones begin to dwindle.
Happy adrenals mean happy hormones, because as the female hormones start to fluctuate with menopause approaching, the adrenals will produce estrogen to keep you in balance. Therefore, menopause puts more demand on the adrenals. When they are already fatigued, they can’t handle it. That’s when problems become apparent.
Declining estrogen, in the absence of adrenal compensation, has profound effects on the brain, immune system, and other hormones. It can even lead to new or worsening gut problems, pain, irritability and be a setup for dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer. We all know weight gain and osteoporosis are associated with menopause.
How can estrogen, one little biochemical, upset the applecart so badly? The drop in estrogen stimulates the release of chemical messengers that cause inflammation in the brain. It’s like the brain is swollen. It doesn’t necessarily hurt, but the inflammation makes it hard to think clearly or remember things. It causes the fight or flight and emotional centers in the brain to become overactive, leaving a woman with a short fuse and unable to handle things as well as she used to. Adding fuel to the flame, inflammation depletes neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, leading to fatigue, depression, anxiety and insomnia. Temperature regulation happens in the brain so hot flashes too, are brain related.
Those very same chemical messengers, called cytokines, trigger an increase in fat cells, more stress on the system and blood sugar imbalances; all leading to weight gain and other health concerns.
Hormone replacement therapy is often the go to treatment for menopause. It is sometimes thought of as the fountain of youth. However, many doctors believe HRT is dangerous and fraught with risk. I have seen it help some women some of the time, but rarely does it address all the problems.
In the Functional Medicine arena, we always seek to restore function rather than only treat symptoms. In the case of peri-menopause and menopause, the most often overlooked problem is the brain. Once brain related symptoms, like moods, memory and brain fog have appeared we must find the underlying factors and address them. It is often necessary to look at the immune system as well as the brain and the hormones. Selective lab tests, depending on one’s particular set of symptoms, are useful in making the right assessment. Diet, lifestyle and/or supplements used appropriately and scientifically to address the primary problems can make life better today while assuring a healthier future.
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