6 Things Every Woman Should Know About Hormone Imbalances & Menopause
Peri-menopause and menopause, which span the 40s and 50s, are normal events in a woman’s life when a woman experiences shifts in her hormonal balance.
Menopause is defined as a: “lack of period for 12 months or more, in a woman who is over age 40.”
Peri-menopause entails the years leading up to menopause — a time of hormonal imbalance, when the production of sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) begin to decline.
The average age of menopause onset is 51 years. However, this isn’t the case for everyone.
The menopausal age of a woman’s own mother is often the best predictor and indicator of her own. For some women, this means older, for others, menopause can happen a little younger.
That said, the perimenopausal (i.e. before menopause) years are anywhere from age 35 to 55. This window is typically when many women begin to see their bodies and hormones become “imbalanced.”
In fact, menopause and peri-menopause are often negatively associated with a wide array of “unpleasant symptoms” including:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Weight and body fat gain
- Slowed metabolism
- Waking insomnia
- Brain fog
- Mood swings
- Vaginal dryness
- Decreased libido.
Unwanted Hormone Imbalance
To say the least, menopause is anything but fun for most women… much less a celebrated milestone.
Unlike the excitement many girls experience when they get their first period and “become a woman” in younger life, the dreaded “M” word conjures up more negative connotations than positives for most women.
Despite the images of raging emotions, sweat-infused hot flashes, jiggly underarms and belly rolls in menopause, menopause does not have to mean any of these.
At the very least, the intensity and degree that approximately 75 to 90 percent of women experience these symptoms are way higher than should be “normal.”
In short: menopause does NOT have to be a time when a woman feels like her body is fighting against her.
While menopause (and hormonal imbalances) are normal, the dreaded symptoms don’t have to be…
Especially once you are aware of what’s really going on in your body and you know how to support your hormonal balance accordingly.
Here are 6 Things Every Woman Should Know About Hormonal Imbalance
1. Hormone Imbalance & Menopause Are NORMAL
First things first, we need to redefine what “normal” hormone balance and imbalance means.
After all, “hormonal imbalances” are not always abnormal; particularly for women during transitional times in their age, health and body.
For example, the first signs of “normal” hormone imbalance (i.e. shifts in the hormones) for women typically occur during the adolescent or teen years.
The woman is somewhere between ages 11 and 16, with the onset of “Red Tide” and an increase in estrogen levels around “that time of the month.”
From then on, other notable times of “normal” hormonal imbalances in a woman’s life include: Pregnancy, post-partum, peri-menopause and menopause.
During the menopausal years, the production of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone naturally decrease.
This is a normal hormonal imbalance that comes as a right of passage with age.
Concurrently during these years, a woman’s metabolic rate and bone density naturally decrease and body fat naturally increases (other normal biological “imbalances” that are actually not directly due to menopause itself).
Cause or effect of hormone imbalance?
Unfortunately, most women blame body fat, weight gain and other frustrations they have with their bodies on menopause. Common phrases heard during the peri- and menopausal years include things like:
- “I don’t get why I am gaining weight, no matter what I eat?!”
- “Where did this under-arm jiggle come from?”
- And, “Is it hot in here?”
You are not alone.
Nearly 75 percent of peri-menopausal and menopausal women experience hot flashes.
Approximately 90 percent experience weight gain, with about a five pound average weight gain, during the menopause transition. In addition, research shows that many women’s body fat moves to their abdominal region during menopause. (1), (2).
However, despite all the seemingly unavoidable, and widespread negatives that arise during the menopausal years, many health experts and research studies agree that a majority of the “menopause symptoms” are actually more likely related to normal, natural shifts in metabolism that come with age, and other lifestyle factors.
In other words: “Menopause symptoms” and hormone imbalances point back to imbalances in OTHER areas of your health and lifestyle. These aren’t the result of menopause itself—many are within your control, including:
2. Stress is the #1 Driver of “Menopausal” Symptoms
During the peri-menopausal and menopausal years, the production of sex hormones shifts from the ovaries primarily to the adrenal glands.
These same glands are also responsible for producing and regulating cortisol (your stress hormone).
Cortisol is necessary for helping us combat stress when we need it most.
For instance, cortisol kicks into high gear if we are running from a bear, or helps us get through a tough workout.
Healthy cortisol levels also help keep our sex hormones in a yin-yang balance throughout our lives–fighting to keep other hormones from getting “too high” or “too low.”
However, when cortisol is challenged to work harder than it should to fight constant stress (i.e. dieting, to high sugar or caffeine consumption, medications, environmental toxins, etc.), then we run into problems.
What do you think happens if we have other stressors going on in our lives to the balance of hormones overall?
Stress plus, well… more stress, equals –
“Hormone imbalance” along with a variety of symptoms, highly connected to imbalanced cortisol itself (i.e. weight gain, stubborn body fat, hot flashes, etc.)!
Stress is the number one driver of hormonal imbalances and the intensity of menopausal symptoms women experience in their 40’s and 50s.
The bottom line: Regular stress management must be a component of any hormone-balancing approach.
This is why “addressing stress” is perhaps more important than ever in a woman’s life during menopause.
Since menopause shifts sex hormone production to the same region of cortisol production, supporting women’s HPA-axis (i.e. adrenal glands, cortisol balance) is essential to make menopause go more smoothly.
Do Now Action Step: Address Stress
“Addressing stress” goes far beyond saying “om” in yoga class or meditating every morning for five minutes.
This means physically supporting your body’s hormonal stress levels inside and out. Even the little things add up, such as:
- Reducing inflammatory foods in the diet (processed, fast-food, takeout, sugar, grains, conventional dairy and meats) and replace with organic, real-whole foods
- Sleeping 7 to 9 hours each night
- Limiting coffee and caffeine to 1 cup of quality, organic coffee each day.
- Ensuring you get vitamins A, D and K2, zinc, B6, magnesium, B12 and folate, choline, and long-chain omega-3 fats in your foods or supplements.
- Avoiding environmental estrogens (i.e. replace plastics with stainless steel, and toxic beauty and cleaning products with natural, chemical-free products)
- Incorporating mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation, yoga, tai chi or deep breathing
- Making time to tap into your creative self (paint, listen to music, write)
- Laughing. Spending time with people you enjoy, watching funny videos and keeping negativity out.
- Getting outside — fresh air and sunshine at least 30 to 60 minutes each day.
- Supporting gut health.
- Balancing circadian rhythms by eliminating blue light exposure at night
- Talking about your stress, praying or processing–rather than holding stress or worries in.
By actively seeking to eliminate stress, women can empower both their mental & physical health.
3. The Gut is the Gateway (to Hormonal) Health
The gut is the gateway to (hormonal) health.
Think about it: Every single cell in a woman’s body is nourished, fed and supported by what goes into the gut.
In addition, one of the major centers of hormone production occurs in your gut itself. In fact, the gut is now being termed an “endocrine organ.”
Thus, when (or if )we have a weak foundation in our gut (such as a “leaky” gut, bacterial overgrowth, low stomach acid, an irritated gut lining, etc.), then the rest of our body takes a hit — cortisol and hormone levels included.
Since essential nutrients are unable to reach these hormones or other cells that govern our metabolic processes, stress is much more likely.
Even if you do eat “healthy,” if you have an underlying gut imbalance or you are not supporting the health of your gut and digestion as a whole, then your body is simply not going to absorb and digest the foods you do feed it.
In short: A common reason why women experience all the “usual” symptoms of menopause goes back to the gut.
Heal the gut, reduce hormone imbalance
So what to do?
To get to the bottom of your own health or gut imbalances, it’s always advised you consult with a doctor or other healthcare practitioner trained in a functional approach for addressing the roots of these imbalances (rather than band-aiding symptoms).
Much of our contemporary medical way of thinking is the replacement model.
This is simply replacing hormones or treating hormone imbalances with hormone replacement drugs and therapies before looking into the reasons why hormones are significantly out of balance in the first place.
- For some patients, gut testing (SIBO, stool, organic acids, etc,) can be a game changer in understanding why their hormone imbalance may be more “out of control.”
- For others, simple implementation of a basic digestive support protocol can be equally “game changing” to minimize or lessen any compounded stress.
Do Now Action Step: Implement a Basic Digestive Protocol
Some simple DIY steps you can take to support a healthy gut include:
- Eat fermented foods daily and take a quality probiotic supplement (fact: 95 percent of probiotics on shelves do not contain the number of probiotics or strains they claim on the label)
- Drink half your bodyweight in ounces of water each day
- Consider taking digestive enzymes with each meal, and possibly HCL tablets (or 1 tbsp. Apple cider vinegar in water) to boost stomach acid if bloating is commonly experienced)
- Chew your food well and slow down at meals
- Cook in more than you eat out.
4. Your Liver Needs Love During Menopause
The liver is your detoxifying organ responsible for controlling the flushing out and balancing of hormones in your body. Additionally, your liver health is affected by hormones.
This means it not only can cause hormonal changes, but hormonal changes — particularly estrogen — also decide how the liver will behave.
The metabolism of estrogen itself takes place primarily in the liver.
However, if estrogen is unable to be detoxified (due to a sluggish or malfunctioning liver), excess estrogen in the body can cause weight gain.
And that weight gain causes the body to make even more estrogen!
By that point, more hormonal imbalances are a given.
It is a self-fulfilling cycle that is hard to break.
If the liver is unhealthy, increased estrogen is unable to be flushed out. It then recirculates into the bloodstream, often leading to many of the “unpleasant symptoms” in menopause.
How to improve liver health
How does your liver “get unhealthy?”
There is typically no single one reason. For an unhealthy liver, as your liver does a lot of work over the course of your lifetime.
Some common stressors that take a toll on your liver’s ability to detoxify include:
- Longterm medication use (birthcontrol, prescription meds, NSAIDS)
- High alcohol consumption
- Low-fat diets
- Packaged and processed foods
- Non-organic food sources, conventional meats, fish with heavy-metals and conventional dairy
- Exposure to environmental toxins (plastics, cleaning and hygiene products)
- Mold exposure
- Poor quality, contaminated water
… just to name a few.
So what do you do to heal your liver?
Do Now Action Step: Liver Healing Protocols
- Eat leafy greens, healthy fats and cholesterol, especially egg yolks and liver, fresh herbs, plenty of fruits and vegetables;
- Try Milk Thistle
- Drink Dandelion tea
- Decrease alcohol intake to 1 to 2 glasses/week
- Consider some liver-boosting supplements (Fermented Cod Liver Oil and/or Liver Capsules, Ox Bile)
5. Balance Blood Sugar to Feel Balanced Overall
Increased abdominal fat and weight gain, experienced by nearly 90 percent of women during menopause, are often directly connected to blood sugar “imbalances.”
The number 1 issue? Insulin resistance.
Your blood sugar levels are responsible for giving you stable energy and a feeling of overall body balance throughout the day.
Roller coaster-like blood sugar levels, on the other hand, bring about many of the same symptoms associated with menopause.
Insulin Resistance 101
Insulin is a hormone that is responsible for controlling your blood sugar balance, acting like a director for how your body uses the food you eat.
Insulin ensures that the “just right” amount of glucose (i.e. sugar) and energy (i.e. food you eat) is in your blood at any one time.
However, if we have too much insulin circulating in the body at once (insulin resistance), fat storage and menopause-like “symptoms” of blood sugar imbalances are common byproducts.
How does insulin resistance happen in the first place?
Imbalanced nutrition, poor gut health and elevated cortisol (stress) levels.
You don’t necessarily need to be eating Hershey’s candy bars or donuts every day for breakfast to experience insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can happen when:
- You don’t eat balanced meals, inclusive to enough proteins and healthy fats to provide your cells with longer lasting energy (than carbohydrates)
- Restrict carbs (too much) and don’t eat enough fat to support low carb intake
- You have an underlying gut imbalance—preventing your body from absorbing and using the energy and nutrients you do provide
- Cortisol levels rise or fall, in response to stress. Since cortisol feeds off sugar, it demands insulin go into “hyper drive” in order to support it with enough energy
The bottom line: Insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalances are common during the menopausal years. This is primarily because your body is more sensitive (overall) to the impacts of stress.
The GOOD news?
You can positively impact and support healthy blood sugar levels with these Do-Now Action Steps:
Do-Now-Action Step: Balance Blood Sugar
- Eat Healthy Fats with each meal (egg yolks, avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, olive oil, etc.) for lasting energy
- Reach for to 1 to 2 starchy carbs and 1 to 2 fruits, at most, each day (Carbs are necessary, but balance is more necessary)
- Keep coffee and caffeine to 1 cup per day
- Replace low fat diet snacks and foods with a protein, healthy fat and veggie at meals, and a protein or healthy fat source at snack time
- Eat 3 balanced meals throughout the day
- Drink water throughout the day
- Aim for 30-60 minutes of movement most days
- Start a strength training program 2 to 3 days per week to support healthy insulin levels
6. Be Wary with Hormone Replacement Therapy
Many women experiencing the “negative” side effects of menopause are often told to “just use hormone replacement (HRT) to improve symptoms.”
Hormone replacement therapy (be it bioidentical hormones or synthetic hormones) can significantly reduce perimenopausal symptoms. They work by reducing the extremes sometimes experienced with the decline of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone production.
However, HRT can also make symptoms worse in the long run.
This is especially true if the other causes of “hormone imbalance” (i.e. stress and adrenals, gut health, liver and blood sugar) are NOT addressed in the first place.
Why Fake Hormones Don’t Help
When you take exogenous hormones, the levels of those hormones go up in the bloodstream.
In response, your pituitary gland reduces your own natural production of that hormone.
Now, this may not be much of a problem when you’re actually taking that hormone. But another problem begins to develop behind the scenes: Hormone resistance.
When we have chronically higher levels of hormones in our blood (from HRT), the receptors for our hormones throughout our body get down-regulated.
Thus, the HRT hormones in our blood begin to have a lesser and lesser effect over time because our hormone receptors aren’t sensitive to that hormone anymore.
Long-term side effects of HRT in our blood are associated with heart disease, stroke, blood clots, breast cancer, and further adrenal (stress) imbalances.
Summing It Up
Menopause may be defined as “unpleasant” by most women in society.
But when you address the underlying causes of hormonal imbalances, then you may very well find that menopause is not all that bad after all.
And while these points may seem overwhelming, the best, fastest and most simple approach to supporting hormone balance include focusing on one stress reliever at a time.
Pick one from the points above to start and heal thyself.
About the Author:
Dr. Lauryn Lax is a Doctor of Occupational Therapy, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Functional Medicine Practitioner, health journalist and speaker with over 20 years of clinical and personal experience specializing in gut health, intuitive eating, food freedom, anxiety, hormone balance and women’s health. Dr. Lauryn operates a virtual Functional Medicine & Nutrition practice, Thrive Wellness & Recovery, and works with clients around the world to reinvent the way their body looks, moves and feels. She is also a published journalist, and her work has been featured in Oxygen Magazine, Women’s Health, Paleo Magazine, Breaking Muscle, CrossFit Inc, USA Today, ABC, CBS News, her blog and her “Break the Rules” podcast.