Dr Ruth Briant-Jones
Managing the Menopause the Functional Medicine Way
Menopause is part of a woman's natural life cycle, but for many unfortunately, the symptoms in the period leading up to it (called the perimenopause) can be very difficult to deal with. The average age of menopause in the UK is 51, with most women going through it between the ages of 45 and 55. Perimenopause can begin up to 10 years before the menopause; that's a pretty long time to be dealing with some very unpleasant symptoms, including:
loss of libido
dry skin and hair
bloating or weight gain
The reason these symptoms occur is because in perimenopause, the ovaries produce less oestrogen, which is associated with many functions in the body, including the brain and emotions, temperature regulation and sex drive. Some of the symptoms can be mistaken for depression, and many women are prescribed antidepressants as they go through this phase of their life. For women who have suffered PMS or postnatal depression in the past, there is a higher risk of developing these symptoms, as they are likely more sensitive to hormonal changes.
A medical 'fix' for the perimenopausal period is hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which replaces the oestrogen not being produced from the ovaries, although it doesn't address lots of the underlying factors that may be making the hormonal imbalance more pronounced. For those less keen to rely on medication, or for those who wish to delve deeper than symptom management alone, a functional medicine approach can be very effective.
1. Managing adrenal hormones
Adrenal hormones affect our ability to control temperature. A chronically high-stress life can lead to raised baseline adrenal hormone levels - associated with a rise in temperature and heart rate, with spikes causing hot flushes. A high sugar diet has a similar effect, through stimulation of insulin production (insulin controls blood sugar levels). Cortisol, an adrenal hormone, is produced when insulin is produced, and so choosing high sugar foods has the same affect as stress on adrenal hormone levels. With less oestrogen around to counter this, as is the case in the perimenopause, the likelihood of hot flushes occurring rises - therefore, managing stress and consuming a low sugar and low GI diet can decrease adrenal hormone levels back to a normal range and help to reduce hot flushes.
2. Consuming a balanced diet
Aside from having an impact on hot flushes, diet can play a huge part in managing hormone imbalance. We need a range of nutrients to allow hormones to be produced and processed properly, including B vitamins, zinc, selenium, magnesium and protein. Other considerations in diet include being aware of the xenobiotics, antibiotics and hormones found in commercially procured meat and dairy, which can disrupt hormonal balance, combatting insulin resistance with a low GI diet, and ensuring that any gut dysfunction is corrected via adequate fibre intake and other measures.
3. Optimising other aspects of your health
Other factors affect hormonal balance - so many, in fact, that this would be a very long article to cover them all. Key ones are obesity, smoking and drinking alcohol. Losing weight, particularly if you carry lots of weight around your waist, stopping smoking and cutting alcohol intake will all help.
4. Considering supplements
As the hormone levels in your body change with age, the risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease rise. Some supplements can help to reduce this risk, as well as to reduce symptoms of perimenopause. As with all advice of this nature, it must be tailored to the individual.
The menopause doesn't have to be a dreadful process that we have to live with and over which we have no control of symptoms. There are evidence-based methods to reduce symptoms and to re-balance your system. If you are concerned about your symptoms, or are looking for alternatives or tailored advice to complement your current treatment, seeing a functional medicine practitioner is a great option. A functional medicine approach offers gentle re-balancing from the inside out, with treatment based entirely on your unique body and its story, grounded where appropriate in the science of testing and measurement of your hormone levels and other biochemical markers for hormonal imbalance. The perimenopause and menopause constitute a large chunk of a woman's life; working to make this period manageable through optimising your health and restoring balance will not only improve your symptoms while going through it, but the healthy habits you develop as a result of it will benefit you for the rest of your life. What's not to love about that?
If you're seeking a functional medicine doctor to help you with perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, then look no further. Book an online call to discover how I can help. Both virtual and in person consultations are available.