Drug-free remedies to help you ease into menopause.
When the dark hairs began sprouting on her chin and her libido plummeted, Sherrill Sellman of Tulsa, Oklahoma, suspected changes inside her body. When she started kicking off sweat-drenched sheets every night and rocketing out of bed because of predawn anxiety attacks, she resigned herself to the inevitable: Perimenopause had set in.
Sellman assumed these symptoms stemmed from her body reducing its estrogen production to shut down her baby-making ability. She’d heard about the dangers of conventional hormone-replacement therapy (HRT)—a synthetic estrogen-progesterone cocktail linked to breast cancer in major studies, including the 160,000-participant Women’s Health Initiative of 2002. But she’d also heard that using progesterone alone could relieve her perimenopausal symptoms. So Sellman tried a natural progesterone cream, and for three months felt like a 30-year-old again. The night sweats stopped and panic attacks ceased. “Then the progesterone started to lose its punch,” she says. As the symptoms returned, Sellman decided there had to be a better solution. Putting her medical training as a psychotherapist to work, she investigated the causes of perimenopause and menopause.
What Sellman discovered convinced her to change careers. She became a naturopathic doctor and wrote the book Hormone Heresy: What Women Must Know About Their Hormones (Bridger House Publishers, 2009). “Our bodies have the amazing capacity to transition through life symptom-free,” Sellman says. “But to do that, we have to understand that our hormones are not separate from all the other systems functioning in our bodies.”
The current research suggests that looking beyond the ovaries is key to reducing or even eliminating the symptoms associated with perimenopause. Scientists are finding that the entire endocrine system—from the hypothalamus in the brain to the adrenal glands above the kidneys—contributes to the hormonal changes that cause everything from hot flashes to mood swings to osteoporosis in women in their 40s and 50s. Here’s a look at the latest theories on treatments for menopause.
Boost the adrenals
Estrogen levels fluctuate during perimenopause and drop drastically in the year or two before menopause (defined as 12 months without a period). Sellman says that when the ovaries begin operating irregularly in the early stages of perimenopause, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which regulate hormone production, send extra estrogen to the ovaries to “try and kick-start them one last time.” Simultaneously, the body reduces progesterone, the hormone that tells the uterus to shed its lining—because without ovulation there’s no need for a monthly lining flush (your period). The result? A condition called “estrogen dominance,” which creates symptoms like weight gain, anxiety, bloating, hot flashes, and poor concentration, says Elizabeth Yurth, MD, founder of the Boulder Longevity Institute, a Colorado clinic that specializes in hormone testing and modulation.
The adrenal glands supply two key hormones associated with perimenopause: testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Low testosterone in women reduces libido and can cause weight gain, Yurth says, while too little DHEA can cause bone loss and symptoms of aging like wrinkled skin. The adrenals also produce small amounts of progesterone, but Sellman says if your adrenals are exhausted because of too much stress or a poor diet, they will devote all their remaining energy to one of their primary jobs—producing the hormone cortisol, which helps with immune functions, mineral absorption, and energy production.
Sellman’s research shows that progesterone is a precursor hormone, meaning it can turn into other hormones the body lacks, especially cortisol. So if your stressed-out adrenals can’t produce enough cortisol, they may steal from your body’s progesterone store. “That’s why progesterone cream may seem to lose its punch after a few months—instead of balancing estrogen, it is being diverted to make cortisol,” she says.
What to do: Sellman says a good way to reinvigorate your adrenals is to keep blood-sugar levels steady: “One of the adrenals’ jobs is to balance blood sugar; if you do it for them, they won’t have to devote energy to that task.” Don’t skip meals, and eat complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein at every meal to slow the release of blood sugar into your body, she says. (For more about adrenal fatigue, plus recipes, type “The Adrenal Fatigue Fix” into the search box at naturalsolutionsmag.com.)