Women's Health

Celebrating the Change: A Mind/Body/Spirit Guide to Menopause

Menopause isn't an illness, an ailment, or a disease. It's a normal, natural phase in a woman's life cycle, a rite of passage, and (if you let it be), a breathtaking opportunity for enormous power, potential, and transformation.

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If we’re going to change the way we look at menopause—and we should!—we first need to stop calling things like hot flashes and mood fluctuations “symptoms.” Instead of trying to fix, fight, flee, or wrestle menopause to the ground, let’s instead celebrate those changes. Here’s what happens during menopause, and ways to ease discomforts, protect your body, and emerge wiser, stronger, and more confident than ever.

What actually happens in menopause?

In the most basic terms, the ovaries stop releasing eggs, their production of estrogen drops, and monthly menstrual periods cease. The body’s production of other hormones, including progesterone and testosterone, also declines. It’s a natural, and potentially powerful, passage in a woman’s life—but those shifts in hormone levels can cause discomforts and annoyances, including hot flashes and brain fog. More important, decreased hormone levels can up the risk for more serious conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, cognitive decline, and some forms of cancer. Here’s what happens, and why.

  • Hot flashes. Low levels of estrogen make the hypothalamus—the part of the brain that regulates temperature—more sensitive to changes, triggering mechanisms that throw off heat and manifest in hot flashes.
  • Mood changes. Estrogen influences serotonin, associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. Declining estrogen levels can prompt mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and sadness.
  • Brain fog. Declining hormones impact cognitive function, and research links low estrogen with disruptions in memory, focus, and concentration.
  • Sleep disturbances. Shifts in estrogen and low levels of progesterone, the hormone associated with calm and well-being, can disrupt slumber. Hot flashes and anxiety also interfere with sleep.
  • Low sex drive. Decreased production of estrogen and testosterone—linked with sex drive—dampen libido and exacerbate vaginal thinning and dryness.
  • Osteoporosis. Estrogen plays an important role in bone-building. When levels plummet during menopause, the risk for bone loss and osteoporosis increases.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Decreased estrogen is associated with higher levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, lower levels of protective HDL cholesterol, and a greater likelihood of cardiovascular disease. Weight gain after menopause further heightens risk.
  • Cognitive decline. Research suggests that estrogen guards against brain changes and Alzheimer’s disease in several ways. When levels dip, so do those protective mechanisms.
  • Cancer. Menopausal changes don’t directly increase the risk of cancer. But a longer exposure to estrogen and later onset of menopause are linked with higher rates of uterine, breast and ovarian cancers.

Instead of dread, approach menopause with a supportive, whole-body approach that eases daily discomforts and protects against serious long-term conditions. Seven ways to smooth the passage, support your health, and prepare for powerful years to come.

1. Nourish and protect

Let go of dieting and instead, focus on nourishing and fortifying your body. Emphasize foods rich in calcium, magnesium, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, omega-3 fats, and other nutrients that protect the heart, bones, and brain, and reduce the risk of cancer. Some of the best:

  • Calcium and bone-building nutrients: yogurt, collards, spinach, kale
  • Fiber: beans, peas, lentils, berries, apples
  • Magnesium: pumpkin seeds, almonds, legumes, dark leafy greens
  • Lycopene: tomatoes, papaya, pink grapefruit and watermelon
  • Carotenoids: carrots, mangos, sweet potatoes, leafy greens
  • Omega-3s: salmon, sardines, chia seeds, flax seeds

For extra cancer (and heart) protection, up your intake of cruciferous veggies. Broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and radishes are rich in glucosinolates, compounds that lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and other cancers. If you’re not a broccoli fan, reinforce with a supplement; try Life Extension Optimized Broccoli and Cruciferous Blend.

2. Rethink your relationship with exercise

If you’re working out to burn off your breakfast bagel, beat your belly into submission, or fit into your skinny jeans, you’re using exercise as a form of punishment. Stop slogging through a routine you dread, and ask your body how it wants to move. Almost any kind of regular, lively movement increases cardiorespiratory function, enhances bone health, prompts weight loss, lessens tension and anxiety, and boosts feel-good chemicals in the brain—so do what makes you happy.

Design a fitness and movement routine that not only supports your outer body, but also cultivates a more meaningful relationship with your inner self. Try expressive movement forms; dance, NIA or contact improv encourage you to focus on internal sensation. Inspire your inner badass (and build stronger bones) with empowering practices such as kick boxing or martial arts. Or indulge sensuality with pole dancing—a sultry but serious workout that promotes positive body image. Check out bodyandpoleonline.com for video intros and classes near you.

3. Feel sexy again

Hormonal fluctuations during menopause can sap drive and diminish your youthful sexuality. Get your mojo back, with supplements that influence desire-promoting brain chemicals, improve blood flow, and make you feel frisky again. Try these:

  • Maca boosts libido, without impacting hormones. Plus, other research shows it enhances mood, supports sleep, and protects the heart.
  • Ginkgo biloba promotes sexual desire and pleasure, and may be especially effective for people taking antidepressants—notorious for interfering with libido.
  • Panax ginseng improves blood flow to the genitals and influences hormones that play a role in desire; in studies, it’s been shown to enhance excitement and arousal in post-menopausal women.

If vaginal dryness is curbing your enthusiasm, black cohosh or red clover can help. Studies show they improve vaginal thinning and dryness, soothe irritation and inflammation, and increase enjoyment and sexual gratification. Add natural topical creams to enhance moisture, comfort and pleasure. Try Good Clean Love Organic Personal Lubricant, or plant-based oils like coconut oil or jojoba oil.

4. Sleep better

Tossing, turning and restless all night? Your perfume, scented lotions, laundry detergent, or dryer sheets may be messing with your sleep. Research suggests exposure to phthalates—chemicals in artificially scented household and personal care products—disrupt hormones and contribute to menopause-related sleep disturbances. They’re part of a broader group of chemicals known as xenoestrogens, toxins that mimic estrogen, disrupt hormones, and increase the risk of breast and other cancers. You’ll find these hormonal mischief makers in everything from plastics to tap water to conventional produce, meat, and dairy.

To purge your home of these unhealthy invaders, minimize plastics, invest in a high-quality water filter, buy organic foods as often as possible, and choose fragrance-free household products or those scented only with pure essential oils. And support sleep with a serene environment: spray bed linens with calming lavender, turn down the thermostat, and keep your bedroom as quiet and dark as possible. Invest in light-blocking shades and a serious-but-comfy mask. For 100 percent blackout and zero eye pressure, try Manta Sleep Mask. Bonus: the cooling versions soothe eyes and sinuses, minimize morning puffiness.

5. Cool down

Sudden sweats disrupting your life? Cool hot flashes, with simple dietary shifts. Avoid hot beverages and stimulating ingredients such as caffeine, spicy foods, and alcohol, and incorporate more foods that balance hormones and minimize temperature fluctuations into your diet. Tempeh, edamame, sesame seeds, cashews, whole grains, and legumes all contain phytoestrogens, compounds that mimic the actions of estrogen. Studies suggest they may reduce the frequency and intensity of hot flashes. For supplemental support, try royal jelly; research shows it lessens hot flashes and in one study, it was more effective than prescription estrogen in improving quality of life. And make yoga a part of your daily routine. Full, relaxed stretches and deep, slow breathing support endocrine function and hormone balance, and studies show that yoga and other breathing and relaxation practices cool hot flashes and enhance quality of life in menopausal women. An interactive app makes it easier; explore free versions for beginners, or for a robust variety of offerings, check out glo.com.

6. Chill out

Has menopause put your normal equanimity on a roller coaster ride? Ease anxiety, soothe irritability, and elevate mood, with tranquility-promoting fixes. Start with your surroundings: are they supportive of serenity, or is your home a dysfunctional mess? A dissonant, jumbled environment increases mental agitation and stress, which can worsen hormone imbalances. Start by cleaning up clutter—menopause is the perfect time to start anew. Purge anything that doesn’t contribute to joy, peace and personal power. Then infuse serenity into every room: swap harsh overhead lights for lamps, candles, and natural light, and play classical music at a low volume; studies suggest it boosts mood and eases stress. Add fresh flowers and green plants, shown to foster happiness and well-being. Infuse rooms with essential oils, not chemical fragrances. Research shows that aromatherapy can regulate hormones, calm irritability, and uplift mood. Soothing choices include rose otto, clary sage, sandalwood, bergamot, geranium, lavender, and ylang ylang. And support your belly. Gut health plays a critical role in mood, and some studies link probiotic supplementation with a significant reduction in depression and anxiety. Choose one with a variety of strains, such as NOW Clinical GI Probiotic Veg Capsules.

7. Cultivate stillness

If you’re like most women, you’ve spent the past decades focusing on kids, spouse, career, home, PTA meetings, volunteer commitments, and a never-ending parade of household pets. Now it’s your turn. Menopause is a time of turning inward, rethinking priorities, and finding deeper meaning. Start by doing less—take time off, just for you. Critically examine your to-do list, trash anything that’s stressful or soul-sapping, and fill in those hours with activities that prioritize your physical health, mental well-being, and emotional serenity. Cultivate the ability to turn inward with practices that embrace introspection and support a deeper connection with your innermost self. Encourage stillness with a simple daily meditation practice; pay attention to the messages coming up, and write them down in a beautiful journal. Go into your inner cave; in the stillness, you’ll discover who you want to be in this potent and powerful stage of your life.