Similar to puberty, we experience another process of hormonal change between our reproductive/cycling years and menopause. The transition period between these two life stages is known as perimenopause – a highly symptomatic period for many people. Many symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, including mood issues, sleep disturbance, and fat gain, are part of a hormonal recalibration process of the brain during perimenopause and the first few years of menopause.
During our reproductive years, the brain gets used to having progesterone and estrogen around. Without it, the nervous system has to reorganize itself and become used to a new physiological normal. Remember what puberty was like? There is a good reason that perimenopause is called second puberty.
There is more to perimenopause and menopause than estrogen and progesterone. But I’d like to review both of these hormones in more detail to illustrate how a drop-off in these hormones contributes to common symptoms experienced by many people at this phase of life.
Progesterone calms the brain and nervous system because it converts to a neurosteroid called allopregnanolone (ALLO) that acts like GABA in the brain. This calming effect in the brain helps blunt the effects of stress on the body. Progesterone levels decline steadily during the perimenopause transition, and then rapidly decline with the cessation of menses. Losing progesterone during perimenopause marks the beginning of a lot of change – both in the body and in the brain. For some, this could be the reason for sleep disturbance, migraines, “brain fog”, and a reduced ability to cope with stress.
The solution: “Eat Less, Exercise Less”. That’s right. Do less – not more, by prioritizing rest and relaxation-based activities, especially leisure walking. This is the best way to support your metabolism and prevent SHMEC from going out of check.
Estrogen is a hormone that supports a number of functions in the body, including:
- Growth (female reproductive tissues, bone, muscle, and others)
- Energy metabolism in the brain (helps the brain use glucose from our food)
- Improved insulin sensitivity (allowing us to tolerate food better, especially carbohydrates)
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps regulate our circadian rhythm (and the important hormones associated with our sleep/wake cycle)
- Boosts serotonin, contributing to a sense of happiness and satisfaction
The effects of estrogen on mood are an important one, especially in the context of perimenopause and menopause. When it comes to feeling motivated, energized, and happy, estrogen is a key hormonal player. As estrogen levels decline or stop being produced altogether, the brain needs time to adjust and to function under new hormonal conditions.
The solution here is the same. “Eat less, Exercise less” to get SHMEC in check first. Then, if desired, experiment with other metabolic toggles such as EMEM or “Eat more, exercise more”. As a starting point, this metabolic toggle can help tip the scales toward a balanced, and resilient brain and body, setting the stage for future body change goals.
Channeling your inner Metabolic Detective
On average, the entire natural perimenopause transition occurs over 4 phases and takes about seven to ten years. Although many symptoms are temporary, this is a long time to suffer from perimenopausal symptoms. And more often than not, physical and psychological symptoms feed into a self-perpetuating cycle. Most (if not all) of my clients feel upset, frustrated, and hopeless about their changing bodies. Naturally, feelings like this lead to coping mechanisms – behaviors and habits that feel good at the moment but ultimately, move people further from their goals and desired behaviors.
Luckily for us, there is an opportunity here to build the healthiest version of ourselves. During this period of change, we can support the metabolism in ways that prevent long-term health risks (especially the ones associated with overweight and obesity) and move us closer to goals. Not further from them.
And it all starts with becoming your own metabolic detective. Navigating this process of change requires flexibility, awareness, a bit of structure, and compassion. Heaps of compassion.
- The structure: ELEL as a starting point to get SHMEC in check first. Then, experiement with the other toggles according to your goals. EMEM is a great way to build muscle!
- The flexibility: Your approach to the 4Ms of Metabolism (mindfulness, movement, meals, and metabolics) using SHMEC to guide you. Don’t forget to factor in the 4Ps as well (your unique physiology, psychology, personal preferences and practical circumstances). Together, SHMEC and the 4Ps will help you adjust your approach every step of the way.
- Awareness: This comes from listening to your body’s biofeedback cues (SHMEC), and adjusting your approach accordingly.
- Compassion: Always bring it all back to self-compassion. Be kind to yourself through this transition. Transitions are never easy periods. In many ways, this is a critical window of opportunity to improve our overall sense of wellbeing and prevent larger health problems down the road.
“Perimenopause ends in a kinder and calmer phase of life appropriately called menopause.”Endocrinology professor, Jerilynn Prior