“Is it me or is it my hormones?” This is a question you may find yourself asking as your menopause starts affecting the way you’re thinking and feeling. It may be difficult to determine whether your symptoms are caused by shifts in your hormones, life circumstances, or the ageing process itself.
It can make a conversation with your GP tricky, frustrating and leave you wondering if you’re getting the best solution for your individual needs. Let’s start to build a clear picture of what’s going on with your body by understanding what your hormones are and how each hormone can affect you in different ways.
By simply recording how you’re feeling can help you to get clarity – and most importantly – stop blaming yourself. This is a normal thing for your body to go through! (You can also use your notes as a basis for a discussion with your GP or health professional to look at treatment options – we’ve got more resources on this later).
Back to basics: What are hormones?
A hormone is a chemical that is made by specialist cells, usually within an endocrine gland, and it is released into the bloodstream to send a message to another part of the body. Your hormones are special ‘chemical messengers’.
These messengers control most major bodily functions, they regulate our heart rate, metabolism – how the body gets energy from the foods we eat. They control our appetite, mood, sexual function, reproduction, growth and development, sleep cycles, and more. When they are in proper balance, hormones help the body thrive.
The major hormones affecting your menopause
Oestrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone are the main three hormones that change during menopause. Cortisol, Thyroid and Adrenals can all also have a major role to play so you’ll find it helpful to understand the role of each one and how it may apply to you.
Progesterone normally declines quite dramatically and then levels out, testosterone is a more gradual decline and oestrogen can be a bit like a rollercoaster, fluctuating throughout your menopause journey.
Let’s take a closer look at each one and their relationship to each other:
Growth: As well as being the main reproductive hormone, oestrogen is also a growth hormone responsible for muscle and brain growth
Mood: Oestrogen has a big effect on our mood – oestrogen improves:
- GABA – your relaxing neurotransmitter of the brain
- Dopamine – your neurotransmitter for reward and pleasure (we are much better able to cope with stress as this is released)
- Serotonin – your neurotransmitter for maintaining mood and balance
Fat Distribution: As our oestrogen levels drop our bodies become more insulin sensitive and less stress reactive. These changes are more likely to lead to weight gain, especially around our mid-section
Impact on Progesterone: Progesterone and oestrogen work in balance – they need each other to allow the body to be receptive.
Impact on your Thyroid: Excess oestrogen can block the thyroid function
Impact on Testosterone: Oestrogen can stop testosterone from working as it should
As you can see from all the functions of oestrogen, when it is out of balance (too high or too low in relation to your other hormones), it leads to a huge impact on our bodies and how we feel. If you think about some of the main symptoms you may be struggling with – weight gain, mood swings, anxiety, feeling low, feeling tired and stressed all the time. This should help to explain why and that it’s normal.
Growth: Progesterone balances the production of oestrogen – keeping the right levels
Mood: Your progesterone is seen as the hormone that manages anxiety
Fat distribution: Progesterone works with oestrogen to keep the traditional female weight distribution (hour-glass figure) as opposed to male weight distribution, where excess weight accumulates around the middle.
Progesterone is beneficial for healthy thyroid function.
- Affects libido
- Affects Mood
- Impacts Fat distribution
Testosterone will fall during menopause. As oestrogen and progesterone fall further, the relative levels of testosterone may be higher. Excess or low testosterone isn’t good for the female body.
- This is one of your first hormones to be released when under stress
- Cortisol maintains the fight or flight response by increasing your blood sugar levels to keep your energy going and by retaining sodium to keep your blood pressure up
- To continue providing the fast energy that you need, cortisol creates cravings and increases appetite to ensure good supply of necessary fuel
- Unless something physical happens and the threat goes all your extra energy gets deposited as fat
The thyroid has been described as the “Queen” of the hormone system. If your thyroid isn’t happy it makes many other things unhappy. Your thyroid controls your metabolism and regulates your body temperature.
Issues with your thyroid can lead to weight gain that is hard to shift, especially around the stomach. Your thyroid function is linked to the balance of progesterone and oestrogen. If your progesterone and oestrogen are unbalanced they can block the thyroid from functioning properly.
You may test normal for Thyroid function but if your other hormones are blocking the thyroid you can still struggle with symptoms. Remember, nothing happens in isolation!
The adrenal glands are small but important. As with the thyroid, if the adrenal glands aren’t happy your body won’t be happy. When you are under threat/stress your adrenal glands produce cortisol and adrenaline. When the threat is removed, your adrenals stop and your body returns to normal.
The challenge we face it that for some of us stressors don’t go away:
- Caring for older relatives
These stressors are always there and they come at us from lots of directions so we need to build our defenses. There is more about this in our article Stress – Why We Must Tackle This Today! It’s important to understand the stages of stress and what they do to your body and hormones.
If you are reaching perimenopause / menopause, tackling stress and your ability to cope with stress is one of the most important steps you can take. This will help you reduce symptoms and leave you feeling strong, healthy and happy.
What Can I Do?
There is a huge amount you can do yourself to manage your way through these hormonal changes but it all starts with awareness.
To make it super simple – download and use my Hormonal Happiness Action Sheets to plan what actions you’re going to take to improve how you’re feeling and how you’re able to cope with these hormonal changes.
If you begin by simply recording how you’re feeling so you gain understanding and be ready for a discussion with your GP or health professional.
I also can’t say enough how it’s the small things that you can do for yourself that will make a HUGE difference to your life. Try to cover all of these elements:
- Stress management
- Diet and hydration
- Sleep hygiene
- Rest and relaxation
- A dose of fun
- ‘Me’ time
For further reading you could try:
- Menopause: The One-Stop Guide: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Dealing with the Menopause (Kathy Abernethy) – available on Amazon here
- Menopause: The Change for the Better – Henpicked (Deborah Garlick) – available on Amazon here
It’s time to stop surviving and start thriving!
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