This essay is a guest author contribution from Dr. Marina Abrams.
The hot flashes, the irritability, the night sweats. You’ve heard the stories. Whether she found it liberating or excruciating, you wonder whether you are genetically predetermined to have the same menopausal experience as your mother.
Because menopause is a physical condition, much of what you feel will be genetically determined. However, a large portion of your personal experience with menopause is shaped by how you treat your body now. The two most influential factors affecting how menopause will treat you are: diet and exercise.
The Role of Exercise in Menopause
Consistent exercise, usually of at least 30 minutes per day, three times a week, can greatly reduce menopausal symptoms, no matter what your mother went through. Even twice-weekly exercise, according to a study conducted in 2006 by the North American Menopause Society, has been known to decrease symptoms in one quarter of women. Becoming physically active can also help to combat the weight gain often associated with menopause and helps to increase bone density, reducing the likelihood of osteoporosis.
The Role of Diet in Menopause
You are what you eat, especially when it comes to hormonal balancing. Following a low-glycemic diet and avoiding foods that raise your blood sugar, such as candy and even certain fruit, like pineapple, which can trigger stress hormones and cause rapid fluctuations in estrogen levels, leading to hot flashes and more, are vital steps to take. Alcohol and caffeine are also trigger foods, so be sure to steer clear in order to avoid severe and unpleasant symptoms.
Foods that once fit neatly into your diet now compromise the fit of your skinny jeans, so fast food is not recommended if you want to maintain your figure. Healthier choices include edamame and tofu, which can reduce hot flashes and even bolster bone health.
According to Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause, plant foods in general, including fresh greens, can help to alleviate breast pain and hot flashes due to their own hormones, which behave like estrogen in the body. Herbs like dong quai and flax also produce natural hormones that can help remedy uncomfortable symptoms. Herbal supplements may be helpful, but reviews of a few popular choices like evening primrose oil and red clover require more evidence to prove their symptom-alleviating effects.
The Importance of Balancing Your Hormones for Menopause
Prepare yourself physically and mentally for the time of change. You can dramatically change the course of your aging by addressing your hormonal health as early in your life as possible. The following are steps you can take now to address potential hormone fluctuations that may be contributing to your mother’s current experience of menopause:
Obtain a baseline hormonal evaluation by an experienced medical professional. This will help you to identify your hormonal deficiencies and strengths and help you to balance them earlier in your life in order to greatly reduce or prevent violent perimenopausal hormone swings.
Ask yourself some good questions: do I have heavy periods? Do I have significant PMS symtoms? Do I gain weight and retain water before my periods? Do I suffer from migraines, insomnia, or vaginal dryness? All of these symptoms are signs of hormonal imbalance which can worsen during your time of transition. Address those symptoms now by balancing your hormones for a graceful entry into menopause later on.
Advise your mom to seek the help of a physician who has training and experience with balancing hormones. Your mother’s symptoms could be dramatically decreased or completely cured with the help of treatments using hormones from nature that act naturally within the body to balance and restore. Proper hormonal testing to determine the underlying causes of hormonal fluctuation is key to obtaining successful results from hormonal treatments, and a naturopathic doctor can lead you through the process.
Relax. The body produces less estrogen and progesterone during menopause, which can affect both your emotions and your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Taking a few minutes to yourself can help ease these symptoms and allow you to get some rest. Dr. Northrup recommends making time for two 20-minute meditation sessions each day and emphasizes that these sessions can reduce and even eliminate hot flashes. Bioidentical hormone therapy, as well as natural sleep remedies, including valerian, can also bring you relief.
Remember, you are not your mother
Whether you are close with your mother or working to understand her better, you are your own person. As such, your individual experience of the physical and emotional symptoms that come with menopause are specifically tailored to you. There is a balance between empathizing with your mother’s feelings and stepping back in order to experience your own transition the way only your body and mind can.
If you are currently witnessing your mother going through menopause and wondering if your experience will be similar, remember the power of self-care. By learning what works and does not work for your mother, you can create your own plan for a positive experience, both now and into your menopausal years. Consider the following tips for active empathy while owning your individual feelings:
1. Active listening
Be there for your mother and listen to what she has to say about her body’s responses. You will learn a lot and support her when she needs it most.
2. Ask questions
Being an active listener means clarifying what is being said. Learn more about what your mother is going through by asking her about what she is experiencing.
3. Journal your thoughts
Throughout our lives, issues come up that require careful examination. If you find yourself feeling nervous or concerned after chatting with your mom, write out your feelings for clarity.
Once you have written out your anxieties, write out some solutions. These may include focusing on the present moment or releasing your fears back to your mother. By allowing yourself to live your own experience rather than your mom’s, you empower yourself and respect your mom enough to let her have her own feelings.
5. List experiences that you have had that were different from your mother’s
Similar as we may be to our moms, we have grown up to make different choices and become different people. Make a list of what makes you different from your mom - in perspective, life choices, or even body type - to remind you of who you are and how you will approach your own unique menopause experience.
Lastly, Remember the Positives
No matter what you may have heard, menopause is not all doom and gloom. Some women even look forward to it. Consider the following benefits:
No more menstrual cycle: Menopause can be incredibly liberating for women who were once limited to their homes on days when heavy bleeding interfered with other activities, or for whom wearing white was a hazard. Pads and tampons become a thing of the past, and as soon as the irregular bleeding of perimenopause ends, the years of physical liberation begin.
End to PMS: For many women, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can cause a host of emotional and physical symptoms, including headaches, breast tenderness, mood fluctuations, and irritability. Although PMS can temporarily worsen due to rising and falling estrogen levels, these symptoms do disappear after menopause—forever. For women who have suffered most of their adult lives with challenging monthly cycles, this change brings a sigh of relief.
Sex without risk of pregnancy: Without a menstrual cycle to worry about, menopausal women are now able to enjoy sex without having to worry about getting pregnant. Without concern about protection, many women report enjoying sex more.
Smaller fibroids: While it is common for women to develop fibroids (uterine tumors that are usually benign and grow when estrogen levels in the body are high) in their 50s, these same growths shrink when women reach menopause due to declining estrogen levels. Many women follow their fibroid growth for years, debating the option of surgical removal due to heavier menstrual periods and pressure on the bladder. The shrinkage that occurs during menopause can be a big relief.
Will you experience your mother’s menopause? The short answer is no. Although your physical symptoms could be similar to your mom’s, the level of intensity relies heavily on your own physical self-care, in the form of diet and exercise, as well as your attitude toward the process. With a positive outlook and an overall healthy body, you can realistically look forward to a transformative experience that leaves you liberated despite a few challenges.
About the Author
Dr. Marina Abrams, MD, ND, MSAOM., is the Medical Director of Water’s Edge Natural Health Services and has been practicing medicine since 1992. She blends traditional western medicine with naturopathic remedies, acupuncture and Oriental medicine to offer patients safe and gentle therapies for hormone imbalances, weight loss, digestive problems, immune deficiencies, and much more. To learn more, visit Dr. Abrams’ website: Naturopathic.com or Facebook.