Stress is a fact of life, and we can’t avoid all sources of stress in our lives, nor would we want to, but managing stress during the perimenopause phase becomes more important in order to reduce the added symptoms that come with menopause such as hot flashes, insomnia, weight gain and fatigue.
We all face stressful situations, ranging from minor annoyances like traffic jams to more serious worries, such as a loved one suffering from chronic illness. No matter what the cause, stress floods your body with hormones. Your heart races, your breathing increases and your muscles start to tense up. This so-called “stress response” is a normal reaction to threatening situations.
It is possible to counteract the damaging effects of stress by calling upon your body’s natural ability for self healing. The Relaxation Response is the opposite of the Stress Response. It’s a state of profound relaxation that can be induced in many ways. With regular practice, you can create a state of calm to help you transition through menopause more easily.
In order to understand how to create the Relaxation Response, we firstly need to understand the Stress Response.
First, not all stress is bad and can be distinguished between eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Stress is a normal response and can even have positive effects on us. In the right amount, it can benefit brain function, creativity, and help us in becoming fitter amongst other things.
When we experience stress, bodily processes unessential for emergency survival such as digestion, reproduction, and the immune system, are inhibited, and the emergency survival mechanisms such as circulation and respiration are stimulated.
When we perceive any kind of threat to our survival or to our sense of well-being, it is registered firstly in the amygdala (our fear centre) and then the hypothalamus (our metabolic control centre). The hypothalamus in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system to initiate reactions via the nerve pathways and the adrenal cortical system initiates reactions via the bloodstream. These combines reactions make up the fight-or flight response.
The adrenal glands play an important role in this process, secreting adrenaline and cortisol to stimulate the body. The pancreas also plays a key role by secreting hormones, which provide the body with energy.
The brain and nervous system cooperate by altering the neurotransmitters throughout the body, ie the opioids, such as endorphins, are increased to reduce pain and Serotonin, the “feel-good hormone” is lowered to increases aggression; this helps us to defend ourselves (Sapolsky 2004).
What a beautiful built-in survival technique! But if the fight-or-flight mechanism becomes a habit, stress becomes chronic. This is when it can become detrimental to our health if we don’t employ stress management techniques.
Dr. Selye described the progression of acute stress into a chronic condition in a process he called GAS (general adaptation syndrome).
Symptoms of Being Over Stressed
Common symptoms include anxiety, mild depression, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, and cold extremities.
Chronic stress affects just about all the systems of the body. It affects the circulatory system, which can lead to angina, migraines and headaches, hypertension, heart attacks, and even strokes. It affects the digestive system, which can cause altered microbiome, GERD, stomach ulcers, colitis, changes in body weight.
The muscles, joints, and bones can be affected, causing tension headaches, back and neck aches, fibromyalgia, TMJ, osteoarthritis, and osteoporosis.
Chronically raised levels of cortisol can lead to cravings for carbohydrates and an increase in abdominal fat. There may be an increase in proinflammatory substances, high blood pressure, poor glucose metabolism, increased triglycerides, lower HDL cholesterol and higher LDL cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and even diabetes.
Other problems can include dysregulated thyroid function, decreased immunity, decreased levels of estrogen and testosterone, mood changes, memory loss, and low levels of growth hormone.
These links highlight the need to incorporate stress management techniques into our lifestyles and workplaces when going through menopause.
So…what can we do about it!
There are many ways to reduce stress, such as eating a healthy diet and keeping our weight down, exercise, and meditation, that go a long way in preventing heart disease, as well as other chronic conditions.
Lifestyle Strategies during Perimenopause
We have control of what we eat and how we live, doing regular exercise, listening to music, spending time with loved ones, and spending time in nature. We can practice yoga and learn to meditate. We can learn how to do breathe work and how to practice mindfulness. Self-care during perimenopause should be a priority learning how to nurture oneself as much as we nurture others.
Dietary habits for Perimenopause
Changing eating habits from the standard Western diet to one that is more natural and nutritious such as the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be beneficial. The best diet is one of whole, fresh unprocessed foods, preferably organic.
When using our diet for reducing stress, we need to stay away from refined sugar, which contains no essential nutrients. We also need to limit caffeine, ie. coffee, tea, chocolate and soft drinks containing caffeine, which acts as a stimulant on our already overactive nervous system. When eating, think about being relaxed and not eating food on the run.
We can supplement our diets with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs for stress, if necessary. We get our energy from carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Some have more nutrients than others.
We need forty to sixty nutrients to stay healthy. These include vitamins, minerals, amino acids (from proteins), enzymes, and essential fatty acid.
We tend to use more nutrients when we are going through periods of stress, especially the B vitamins, magnesium and calcium. The B vitamins and Magnesium act on our nervous system, and calcium counteracts the lactic acid that is produced by tense muscles.
We need enzymes to properly digest and utilise the nutrients in food and supplements.
Disease, stress, aging, petrochemicals, and processed food contribute to a lack of proper levels of enzymes. Drugs, household cleaners, cleansing solvents, microwave radiation, and high heat also can inhibit enzyme production.
Herbal Remedies for Perimenopause
Herbal medicines improve physiological functioning and a sense of well-being and boost energy.
If you are on medication, it is important to check with your Naturopath, Doctor or Pharmacist about possible interactions with natural remedies. Just because they are natural does not mean they are safe for you.
When I recommend herbs, I advise that they be taken separately from any allopathic medication and that they be started with a low dose and gradually built up to the maximum recommended dose.
Here are some other herbs I like to recommend for natural stress relief; these are usually found in capsule, tablet, power, tea and tincture form:
- Withania (Ashwaganda) —an adaptogenic herb from India
- Chamomile — a Western herb that has a mild sedative effect
- Passiflora (passion flower) — a Western herb that has a mild sedative effect
- Hops — a Western herb that has a mild sedative effect (the ingredient in beer that makes us relaxed)
- Valerian — a sedating Western herb that can be helpful for sleep
Essential oils benefit both the body and emotions as a form of natural stress relief. They are believed to support the immune system, provide natural pain relief, reduce inflammation, supply antimicrobials, nourish and strengthen the hair, improve mental clarity and lift the mood.
There are many ways they can be used. They can be applied to the body or breathed in with a diffuser or steam. They can be added to bath water or placed on a pillow or eye cover.
Essential oils can differ widely in quality, so I always recommend buying certified organic oils.
Listed below are just some of the essential oils that are considered to help the body in managing stress:
- Lavender — Soothes and balances the body
- Cedarwood — stimulates the limbic region of the brain, especially the pineal gland, which releases melatonin
- Roman Chamomile — calms the central nervous system
- Neroli — considered to strengthen and stabilize the emotions and encourage confidence and a sense of peace
- Sandalwood — balances and stabilizes the mind and helps to release negative emotions
- Orange — has an antidepressant effect
- Jasmine — considered to have a relaxing as well as an antidepressant effect
- Frankincense — considered a “spiritual oil” that has an antidepressant and antianxiety effect by stimulating parts of the limbic system, including the hypothalamus, pineal gland, and pituitary gland
- Ylang ylang — considered a “spiritual” oil, believed to filter out negative energy and help with focus and confidence
Seek Professional Help
There are many other simple tools and techniques for stress management, including meditation and mindfulness, yoga, massage, EFT (emotional freedom technique), and tapping.
If you feel the need to seek professional help, as a Naturopath my services provide a holistic approach to supporting emotional wellbeing, with nutrition and herbal medicines to manage the physiological effects of stress.
The main thing to remember is that we are not victims. We can take control of our situation and turn it around.
Book a consult here so you can start feeling less overwhelmed and calm again!
Miriam is an online Naturopath and Nutritionist with a special interest in helping women transition perimenopause and menopause with ease.