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Stress, Menopause, and Your Built-In Backup System

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The modern view of menopause, from a medical perspective, is extremely body-focused and tends to play on the fear of a woman losing her youthful looks and sexuality. To that point, menopause actually comes with its own diagnosis code and is categorized as “ovarian failure.” It has been referred to by the mainstream medical establishment as a deficiency syndrome.

Well, I am here to tell you (and will keep telling you) that menopause is a natural and normal phase of a women’s life! I don’t believe that anything in nature, especially our bodies, has a design flaw. Believe it or not there is a built-in backup system for pre- and postmenopausal hormone production that, if functioning optimally, can help you avoid a symptomatic and turbulent menopause.

This backup system is the adrenal glands. These glands step up to the plate when your ovaries take a well-deserved and natural break. The adrenals are part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system (HPA). When your HPA is functioning well, your transition through menopause can be smooth. Unfortunately, our modern lives take a toll on this system, and at times override it so that it doesn’t turn off. That leads to a turbulent, symptomatic and less-than-ideal transition into menopause.

The adrenal glands are known as our stress glands and, let’s face it, “stress” in our modern day has taken on a whole new meaning!

The traditional definition… a physical event or a mental state requiring the body to respond…just doesn’t cut it anymore in a society where there are stressful influences coming at us from all different directions. Making the issue worse is the way individuals choose to respond to their perception of stress. The increased use of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sugar and energy drinks in response to dealing with everyday stressors creates an even more stressful situation in the body. That contributes even more to adverse health conditions.

We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge. But by understanding this new paradigm, we can take a deeper look at how we can support, not destroy, this system, live full lives and have a wonderfully healthy menopause transition.

An important point to understand is that our body’s response to stressors is a survival mechanism. A healthy human stress response involves many components. First, the brain initiates the most immediate response, signaling the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine. This is the chemical that makes you feel jittery immediately after someone scares you or if you have had too much coffee!

Then the hypothalamus and pituitary activate another part of the adrenals releasing a hormone called cortisol. This is followed by the nervous system initiating behavioral responses including alertness, focus, reduction of pain receptors and the inhibition of reproductive behaviors and desires.

The sympathetic nervous system then kicks in to increase the heart rate and blood pressure and releases fuel to help fight or get out of danger. Blood flow is redirected to the heart, muscles and brain, away from the gastrointestinal tract and digestive processes. To accommodate these demands there is a huge increase in energy production and utilization of nutrients and fluids in the body.

Once the stressful situation has passed, the brain signals the responses to be “turned off” and finally recovery and relaxation allows the body to re-establish balance in all systems, replacing lost nutrients and eliminating waste products accumulated during the process.

Today, the key element in this stress response that is missing is recovery. While there are usually recovery times for life-threatening events such as getting chased by a polar bear, there are few for the recurring events like backed-up traffic, relationship troubles, financial pressures, job stresses, negative self-talk and self-image, poor physical conditioning, artificial lighting, malnourished diet, inadequate sleep, genetically modified foods, environmental toxin accumulation and so on. In fact, these types of stressors each day can string themselves together rendering the stress response to be “turned on” all of the time.

This is causing many of the health issues I see in my practice each and every day—including a blustery menopause transition. People are complaining of anything from a compromised sleep/wake cycle, a decrease in libido, poor digestion, constipation, hormone imbalances, thinning hair, adult acne, chronic and persistent fatigue, weight gain around the belly, mood swings and depression. You may blame these symptoms on menopause, but restoring your adrenal system plays a key role in re-establishing your body’s balance. It’s your built-in backup system.

So what can you do about it? First of all, increasing awareness, knowledge and identification of your own unique situation is imperative. This is paramount, as reality orientation is necessary for any health change.

Second, start responding to any fatigue with…rest. It sounds simple but it’s powerful. Rest happens when the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of our survival response) is initiated. That allows the body to relax and repair.

Finally, I am a big proponent of “supplementing your lifestyle.” Two nutrients essential to this recipe are vitamin C and vitamin B-5 (pantothenic acid). Our adrenal glands contain large quantities of both of these nutrients and they can be rapidly depleted in times of stress. This starts a cascade of biochemical reactions and a myriad of health problems since these nutrients are vital components of many bodily functions, including the regulation of blood pressure, synthesis of neurotransmitters and the production of energy.

My recommendation is to make sure you have at least 1,000 mg of vitamin C, three times a day. Both vitamin C and the B vitamins are water-soluble, so it is important that they are taken in divided doses in order to obtain their most nutritional value. Vitamin B-5 should be taken at least twice a day at a dosage of 200 mg.

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