By Dale Wallis
Many people still see menopause as a time of hot flashes, night sweats and other irritations. But a growing number of women have discovered that the “change of life” can be nothing less than life-changing—if you adopt the right attitude.
“The menopausal years are about the self coming to the forefront,” says Christiane Northrup, MD, author of The Wisdom of Menopause (Bantam). “Your changing biology is enabling you to be more attentive to the dictates of your soul, instead of focusing so much on others. It’s asking you to wake up.”
Menopause is defined as the time when a woman has had her final menstrual period (determined after 12 period-less months have passed). But it all begins up to 13 years beforehand, at perimenopause (meaning “around menopause”), when hormone levels begin to change.
Contrary to popular belief, the first hormone that decreases is progesterone, not estrogen, although that, too, eventually begins to ebb (although never going away completely). Once periods end, most menopausal signs dissipate within one to two years.
Memory lapses, among the most annoying difficulties associated with menopause, may actually signal something more significant going on.
“You’re not losing your mind,” assures Northrup. “The logical, linear thought process of the left brain is no longer so dominant, and the right brain is becoming more active. Hormonal changes also affect the temporal lobes, the part of the brain associated with intuition, and you begin to shift your attention inward. That’s where the wisdom comes in.”
An increase in wisdom doesn’t mean constant serenity, however. Don’t be surprised if menopause arrives as anger and frustration, insecurity and fear—all possible catalysts for positive change. What’s more, even as you cope with your own bodily and emotional changes, you may also be facing an empty nest, aging parents and other challenges.
A Natural Approach to Menopause
Think you’re in perimenopause? Start by getting a blood test to confirm your hormone levels. You want to check for hypothyroidism, which may mimic menopause, and to know where you are in the menopausal timeline.
A diet rich in phytohormones (natural hormones found in plants such as soy and lentils) can be helpful. So can foods high in omega-3 fats, such as salmon and ground flax seeds, which are also rich in fiber. Northrup recommends a low-glycemic diet—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and no sugar or processed foods—while steering clear of bad fats, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.
Stay physically active, and don’t forget yoga, tai chi or meditation as ways to promote calm and relaxation. In addition, certain botanicals have a long history of usage in supporting women through various menopausal discomforts; these include black cohosh, chasteberry, dong quai, maca, passionflower and St. John’s wort.*
Straightening Out Relationships
For many women, much of the stress they experience during their premenopausal years stems from dysfunctional, energy-sapping relationships.
“Having healthy, meaningful relationships is just as important to your well-being as being at a healthy weight and not smoking,” says cardiologist Malissa Wood, MD. “In fact, research shows that the relationship advantage is about the same as the mortality difference between smokers and nonsmokers.”
One way to fortify yourself against toxic relationships you can’t simply walk away from—an overcritical parent, for example—is to surround yourself with positive, supportive people.
Wood cites a UC San Diego study that found having a generally happy friend who lives nearby raises your chances of being happy by 25%. “I love this study because it proves that your happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom you are connected,” she says.
Positive friendships also form a bulwark against loneliness, a significant stressor that leads to such measurable cardiovascular risks as high blood pressure. (Loneliness is not the same as solitude, the quiet alone time that everyone needs to a greater or lesser extent.)
You may have heard that health benefits are associated with marriage. Unfortunately, those advantages can be negated by marital difficulties. According to Wood, problems in a partnered relationship can compromise immune function as well as produce changes that can burden the heart.
Wood says one way to head off relationship problems, especially with a spouse, is to spend time together that isn’t taken up with discussions of bills and soccer schedules.
“For any relationship to grow, you need to take time to nurture it,” she notes. Many couples set aside a weekly date night so they can reconnect as friends and lovers.
All relationships will hit rocky patches; it’s the response to those times that determines whether people pull closer together or push further apart. The key? “Respect, respect, respect,” says Wood. “Treat your partner as you expect to be treated.”
What’s more, don’t forget the power of positive reinforcement, even in small doses. “Give a boost to any relationship by doing something special for that person. It doesn’t have to be huge or expensive,” Wood advises.
The Inner Woman Emerges
Of course, the most central relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself. And you should work on that one, too.
Northrup explains that hormonal fluctuations can lead to a sort of “adolescence in reverse,” a time when many women uncover discomforting memories from their childhoods.
“That’s what’s happening at menopause; you go back,” Northrup says. “It’s your job to take that birthing energy—because you’re giving birth to your essence—and it’s your job to use that for you.”
The idea, Northrup says, is to probe what your memories and emotions are trying to tell you and to deal with them honestly and openly, instead of suppressing or medicating them away.
The same goes for your undreamed dreams. Northrup suggests asking yourself a question: “What about all those things that I’ve always wanted to do?”
Emotionally, this is hard work. But going through the process—and taking a positive approach to menopause in general—can pay significant dividends.
“[I]t is possible for your expectation of your menopausal experience to become your reality simply because it’s what you believe will happen,” says Northrup. In the end, “it is your attitude, your beliefs and your daily thought patterns that have the most profound effect on your health.”