Modern-day living is full of pressure. Combine that with the big hormonal shift of perimenopause and it’s the perfect storm, putting you at greater risk of suffering the effects of excess stress. Learn the signs to look out for when it comes to stress and menopause and get our tips on how to reduce stress during menopause through your eating and lifestyle.
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What does stress do to your body?
Your body perceives danger when you are exposed to positive or negative stress. It responds with a fast and effective hormone release designed to support your body and escape a life-threatening situation.
Initially, the body produces adrenaline which you feel as an increased heart rate, the breath quickening, muscles tensing, senses heightening, and a rush of glucose to the blood. You are primed to fight or run away which is helpful in dangerous situations. Once the stress passes, your body returns to its normal state.
With modern living, you are exposed to constant non-life-threatening stresses such as work deadlines, zoom presentations, family dramas, and busy commutes. This repeated activation of the stress response impacts your health and wellbeing. Adrenaline is only designed to be short-lived and your body releases cortisol if the stress is long-term so the stress response can continue.
Cortisol itself is a necessary hormone and typically peaks to give us energy in the mornings and reduces in the evenings so you can sleep. Constant and elevated cortisol drives up blood pressure, slows metabolism, is exhausting, damages arteries, and increases the risk of strokes, diabetes, and heart attacks.
Addressing your stress can improve your wellbeing and reduce your risk of stress-related issues in later life.
Why is stress an issue during perimenopause?
You might understandably feel stress during menopause, especially if you’re experiencing early menopause, but when it comes to the link between menopause and stress there’s a bit more to consider. There are several reasons why stress might exacerbate symptoms while your body is going through such a big hormonal shift during perimenopause.
Here are the key five reasons why you might want to look at reducing your stress load:
1. You can’t tolerate stress as well during menopause
The menopause transition is a stress on your body with all the changes that are naturally occurring. This means baseline cortisol levels may be higher throughout this time and the elevated cortisol then impacts the production of progesterone. You need progesterone to balance out the impact of estrogen – without that buffering effect, you are likely to have symptoms such as:
- Heavier and more painful bleeds
- Breast tenderness
- Worsening PMS symptoms
2. It’s stopping you sleeping
Melatonin is your sleep hormone and has a direct relationship with cortisol levels. When you wake in the morning cortisol levels are naturally high enabling you to wake up and go about your day. At this point, melatonin levels are at their lowest. Cortisol levels then fall throughout the day and are lowest in the evenings. When cortisol is low, melatonin can be produced at high levels enabling you to sleep.
When you are under constant stress cortisol levels remain elevated. This has the impact of dampening the production of melatonin levels which are likely to result in either trouble getting to sleep or trouble staying asleep. Sleep can be an issue for many during menopause as it is, so trying to reduce your stress levels where possible could help reduce your number of sleepless nights. Wondering how menopause and sleep are linked? Find out more about sleep symptoms during menopause.
3. It makes you gain belly fat
During perimenopause, the production of estrogen switches from the ovaries to the adrenal glands. It’s these adrenal glands that make the adrenaline and cortisol. If the adrenal glands are too busy making stress hormones they might not be able to take on the role of making estrogen. A perceived threat will always take priority.
Your body needs to find another way to naturally increase estrogen production and it does that through storing fat around your tummy. The fat stored here is known as adipose tissue and it’s been found to produce estrogen. The more stressed you are, the quicker this weight gain will occur and to a greater extent.
4. It upsets your mental health
Estrogen has many positive impacts on the brain including boosting serotonin, the happy hormone, increasing blood flow, and supporting memory. A natural decline in estrogen during your menopause transition can often impact brain function with many reporting memory issues, reduced mood, and brain fog. Being stressed is likely to exacerbate this. Here’s what happens:
- Persistently elevated cortisol levels readily enter the brain and are known to increase irritability, anxiety, fluctuating emotions, and depression
- Increased cortisol reduces how much serotonin you have available which will further negatively impact your mood
- Increased anxiety is then linked to increased frequency and severity of hot flashes
If you feel that your mental wellbeing is not where you need it to be, seek help and support from your healthcare provider. There is help out there for you.
5. It’s messing with your digestive system
Your digestive system needs to be able to pass nutrients through small holes into the bloodstream to be taken all around the body to be used by other organs and cells. Increased stress levels increase how leaky your gut is and result in larger than normal particles of foods entering the bloodstream. This may result in an immune response and increases your risk of food intolerances. Classic symptoms of food intolerance include bloating, excessive gas, constipation, diarrhea, itchy skin, acne, and fatigue.
What can contribute to stress?
Many factors can impact stress levels and these can be grouped into four main areas:
- Emotional stress: Relationship strain, bereavements, psychological stress, and phobias
- Physical stress: Overexertion, wound healing, allergies, and autoimmune conditions
- Environmental and lifestyle stress: Smoking and vaping, poor sleep, alcohol, not enough exercise, tobacco, toxins in household products and toiletries, and no relaxation
- Food stress: Processed foods, sugar, fried foods, nitrates, snacking, and skipping meals
The stress from each of these four areas can then be added together to assess your overall baseline stress load.
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Tips for reducing stress during menopause
There are some stresses that you have very little control over and these include more of the emotional and physical types of stresses such as bereavement and allergies. The key to reducing stress is to work on the factors that are in your control and these are generally the lifestyle and environmental stresses and the foods that you choose. Managing your feelings of stress and menopause changes at the same time might seem challenging.
Here are a few tips that will help you to keep your stress levels low:
1. Significantly reduce sugar intake
Even if you feel yourself reaching for a tub of ice cream or slab of chocolate to reduce your emotional stress after a long day at work, it’s not the best idea.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommends no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar a day for adults – a third of the current average. Watch out for hidden sugars too which can be found in cereal bars, flavored yogurts, cereals, and sauces.
When you do feel you need a sweet hit, try and go for naturally sweet foods such as:
- Homemade, reduced-sugar, oat-based cookies
- A small pot of natural yogurt with fresh berries
- Pear slices dunked in almond butter
- A small handful of nuts or seeds with a few 70% dark chocolate chunks
Read more about menopause and sugar.
2. Wash fruits and vegetables well
Produce is often sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, and preservatives to make it look appealing. You don’t want to be eating any of that so it’s best to wash all fruits and vegetables very well or buy organic where possible. Make sure you still wash those!
Washing with water is enough so you won’t need any of the special solutions marketing for cleaning produce. For firm fruits and vegetables use a scrubbing brush and water and for the softer varieties a nice soak and rinse will be enough. Fruits and vegetables that are to be peeled won’t need to be washed.
3. Go easy on the alcohol
Alcohol is a big stress on the body and is also likely to negatively impact your sleep. It might be ok for you to drink in moderation (less than 1 drink per day is reasonable) or you may find it is better to avoid it. Just don’t overdo it. Ideally have more alcohol-free nights each week than nights where you drink and keep within the government guidelines of no more than seven drinks per week.
Alternatively go for a different drink that feels indulgent, such as a flavored kombucha. Kombucha, fermented tea, contains live bacteria which is likely to support your digestive system.
4. Avoid plastics
There is a lot of controversy around plastic food containers. There is, in theory, a potential that the hormone-disrupting chemicals in the plastics can leach into our foods and are then consumed. Where possible it’s best to avoid using these plastics. Ideas to be more plastic-free include:
- Using silicone food pouches or glass containers to store foods
- Covering foods in wax sheets or parchment paper rather than cling film
- Heating food in glass
- Using metal water bottles for on-the-go drinks
Menopause in itself is stressful for your body, and the link between stress and menopause might sometimes feel like the two are causing a feedback loop. Figuring out how to target stress during menopause to help improve your symptoms and mood will look different to you compared to your friends as no one has the same sources of stress. Evaluating where your main sources of stress come from is the first step to reducing them.
Many factors trigger the stress response that relates to food, lifestyle, and physical and emotional factors. All of these factors can increase cortisol levels which in turn may exacerbate perimenopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia, digestive upset, weight gain, and anxiety.