Hot flushes, fatigue, aches and pains, mood swings, sugar cravings, insomnia, skin irritation, nausea, night sweats... if you didn't know this blog was about hormones, you'd be forgiven if you read that list and assumed I was describing the symptoms of a nasty bug. But for those of us who have experienced extreme fluctuations in hormones, whether that be PMS, pregnancy or menopause, to name three very common scenarios, you will know all too well, the impact that hormones can have, emotionally and physically. The list above highlights just a few of a great many signs and symptoms of PMS and perimenopause, which affect more women than you might realise. According to the National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome, 30% of women suffer from PMS. During perimenopause (the years leading up to menopause when menstruation ends), it's extremely uncommon to find women that are completely asymptomatic.
Whilst fluctuations in hormones are a natural part of both the menstruation cycle and perimenopause, suffering with severe symptoms every month (if we're talking PMS) and for a number of years (during perimenopause), is not a pleasant prospect. We might not be able to magic every one of these symptoms away completely, but we can reduce and manage them, so they no longer have such a detrimental impact on our lives.
During my 20s the pace of my life was hectic, and whilst I didn't realise it at the time, I was pretty stressed. I was either in "work hard, play hard" mode or "study hard, work hard" mode. I didn't know how to switch off and every month for days on end, leading up to my period, I would feel anxious, exhausted, physically sick and sometimes, totally defeated. I got more and more frustrated that I couldn't keep up the pace and I grew to resent my monthly cycle. At 27 I had a massive wake up call when I found out I had type two diabetes. I realised that I had to learn how to slow down and switch off properly, because if I didn't, no amount of exercise or healthy meals were going to compensate for the state of my nervous system. The transformational journey I went on over the coming years (and still am on, as there's always more to learn and try), has helped me to understand and accept PMS. To this day I still get it, but do I want to hide under the covers because I can't cope now? Absolutely not! Do I want to slow things down, get cosy at home, run a bath with candles and essential oils, instead of going out to socialise with a big group? Yes, most likely - but I totally embrace that!
The point I want to get across here is that regardless of wherever you are on your hormone journey, there is so much you can do to reduce and support hormone imbalances and the related symptoms. For me, that really had to begin with a mindset shift and calming my nervous system. (High stress and hormone imbalances often go hand in hand because the endocrine system regulates our stress hormones as well as reproductive hormones). My starting point was giving myself permission to take better care of me - mind, body and soul. That meant learning to say no a lot more, so I could properly rest and recharge (shifting out of "fight and flight" and spending more time in "rest and digest"). I have always loved nature, so spending time outdoors is now a daily essential. But also acknowledging the ebb and flow of the natural world has really helped me to appreciate that being on the go all of the time is simply not natural nor is it sustainable. If I'm totally honest, there was a time when I viewed busyness as a badge of honour, so it took some time and adjustment to be ok with pressing pause and learning to be present and mindful. Just like I've learnt to embrace the seasons, I've learnt to embrace the 'time of the month' and now I want to slow down, reflect and nourish myself by introverting more when my period is due. As a result, I'm more accepting of the PMS symptoms I experience which for the most part, are a lot milder than they used to be. The other benefit of calming my nervous system is that I feel in tune with my circadian rhythm (natural body clock). This means I sleep better now, even when I'm due on, and who doesn't feel so much more resilient and switched on after a decent sleep?
Balancing blood sugar levels is another big factor and I should point out that this isn't just for those with a blood sugar condition. Modern diets are often high in energy, low in nutrients, fibre and quality fats which is a real problem when it comes to regulating hormones. When we eat foods with high sugar or carbohydrate content (including refined grains that no longer have fibre to slow the release of carbohydrate), our blood sugar levels spike. The endocrine system once again is responsible for producing hormones, (insulin and glucagon) to regulate our blood sugar, maintaining a safe level. So the higher and more frequent the spikes, the more hormones our endocrine system needs to produce to create homeostasis. Many women get sugar cravings with PMS and perimenopause - sugar can instantly create a wonderful hit of serotonin, the feel-good hormone, and it's so tempting to reach for a quick fix when you're feeling low, tired and irritable. It's important to remember that what goes up (e.g. your blood glucose levels) must come down - and that can lead to a pretty big energy (and mood) crash sending you and your hormones on vicious cycle. Here are my top tips for maintaining optimum glucose control (and avoiding the crazy roller coaster of energy and mood highs and lows):
Eat two or three substantial meals a day and avoid snacking - that way you reduce the demand on your endocrine system and the amount of insulin required to balance blood glucose levels.
At each meal include quality fats (avoid trans fats), protein and fibre - combining these with sugars / carbohydrates helps to slow the release of energy and lowers the impact on blood glucose levels.
Avoid refined grains such as white bread, white pasta, white rice - always opt for wholegrain varieties as these not only have fibre (which helps to stabilise blood sugar levels and feeds the gut microbiome), they contain nutrients like B vitamins and magnesium which support your nervous system.
If you do need to hit that sweet tooth craving treat yourself to a few squares of quality dark chocolate or a lovely bowl of berries with cream and raw honey. These provide lots of nutrients whilst curbing that craving for sweetness without massively impacting blood sugar levels.
Alcohol and caffeine can also be very tempting when you're feeling low in energy or mood but consume with caution - they can play havoc with your nervous and endocrine systems. Both can impact stress hormones and neurotransmitters (and impact sleep), and blood glucose levels, not to mention gut health and detoxification (more on these next time).
You might be thinking there's no way you can ditch your morning cappuccino and Friday night G&T and no one is saying you have to if you've already mastered the art of balance and moderation. But if you're relying on frequent caffeine hits to get you through the day and a very large glass of vino to switch off every night, it might be time to ask yourself if these are actually serving you well. What life style and dietary shifts will enable you to truly look after you, and help to balance out your hormones again?
There is so much more to discuss when it comes to natural support for hormone health, so I will be writing a part-two blog to unpack more about detoxification, gut health, and the remedies and therapies I've found useful over the years.