Let’s be real…this world we live in is stressful. Finding peace and serenity amongst the chaos is becoming increasingly difficult. As a woman in midlife, this stress is not just something you feel emotionally, but it has farther reaching consequences within your body.
Read more: Not Just Survive) in Midlife (Part 1)
The Effects of Midlife Stress
The effects of stress on the body are many. In perimenopausal women, stress can exacerbate the symptoms we are trying to minimize. Here are just a few of the negative effects:
Stress affects your digestion.1 Your body cannot properly digest food in a state of stress, known as the sympathetic state, or the fight or flight state. And the funny thing is our bodies can’t tell the difference between stress in our minds and our environment. So your body will react the same whether the stress is from a problem at work, a fight with your teen, or you are being chased by a tiger. When digestion is impaired, it starts a cascade of problems from interfering with proper nutrient absorption, to intestinal permeability to problems with elimination and more.
A stressed body also releases extra glucose into the bloodstream (you need the quick burst of energy to escape from that tiger!) If this stress isn’t alleviated, over time this increase in blood sugar can contribute to insulin resistance, weight gain, and Type 2 Diabetes.2
Stress screws up your hormones - period! Stress and happy hormones cannot co-exist. As a woman in perimenopause, your hormones are already in decline and adding constant stress can cause further shifts. When there is prolonged stress, your body raises cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone that is released in response to stress. Normally, when the stress subsides, cortisol lowers and there are no lasting effects. However, many women today experience ongoing, chronic stress and cortisol is constantly flooding their bodies. High cortisol is responsible for a whole host of problems - reduced immune response, elevated blood pressure, and even high cholesterol.3 In a perimenopausal woman, with shifting hormones, chronically elevated cortisol is a major hormone disruptor. It will rob you of precious progesterone and set you up for estrogen dominance. What is estrogen dominance? Let me put it this way ... painful periods, heavy periods, bloating, breast pain, moodiness, and feeling like you want to slap someone, those are courtesy of estrogen dominance. If you're going to recover your hormone balance, consider how you can manage your stress (real and perceived).
Here are my favorite stress-reducing tips:
- Yoga – Restorative, Hot yoga, Bikram, Hatha or any yoga/stretching/pilates that you enjoy can be beneficial. Numerous studies have shown that practicing yoga has positive effects on stress, anxiety and other menopausal symptoms such as insomnia.4,5,6
- Meditation – One eight week study of women in perimenopause showed a 67% reduction in hot flashes after guided meditation twice weekly and daily at home meditation.7 If you’ve never tried it before just start with just 5-10 minutes. A great way to incorporate this practice is to find a time either at the beginning or end of the day and use an app to guide you. Calm is a great app for beginners.
- Breathwork – Breathing is automatic. But focused breath work can be a powerful tool to alleviate stress. The 4-7-8 method is a great way to immediately find a sense of calm. To do this, put your feet on the floor, close your eyes, breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7 and out for 8 counts. Feel the breath come from deep within you and really expel all of that stale air. Do this as many times per day as you’d like.
- Doing things you love – This part is important: not what your family loves — what YOU love! If you are like most women in midlife, you’ve spent a lot of years tending to the needs of others. This is the time to get back to those long-forgotten passions and hobbies or to cultivate new ones. Whether it is painting, knitting, gardening, or archery, set time aside to make it happen. Hobbies provide a sense of purpose, distraction, and an outlet for creativity. Doing something we enjoy releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone, thereby reducing stress and alleviating feelings of anxiety and depression.
- Knowing when to say "NO". Most women are not good at this, but we need to get better. It matters. Being over-scheduled leads to stress. And while there is some stress associated with saying “no,” you cannot prioritize yourself if your calendar is full with activities you were pressured into doing.
To reap the benefits, you must do these things regularly! Midlife is a challenge for so many reasons. Work, our children’s schedules, and other commitments leave us both anxious and drained. Add to that declining hormones and the symptoms associated with these changes, and it is a recipe for disaster. The tips I’ve laid out here are a good start towards easing some of that stress and putting you on the path to a happier, calmer life.
In the next part of the series, we’ll discuss the importance of sleep and how it affects our bodies as we transition into menopause.