Menopause has gotten a bad rap. Women in their 40s and 50s who have any symptoms – from moodiness to insomnia and headaches – may believe that it’s a normal part of aging and there’s not much they can do about it.
Fluctuating hormones caused by the normal decline of ovarian function can trigger the typical symptoms associated with menopause. One approach is to give the body a drug that mimics ovarian function, such as estrogen or hormone replacement therapy. This was a common treatment, until multiple studies showed increased risk of urinary incontinence, stroke, dementia and breast cancer from using menopausal hormone therapy.
Fortunately, there is another approach to improving the body’s ability to adjust to hormone fluctuations that doesn’t increase the risk of breast cancer and dementia. This approach looks at the other organ systems that are involved in addition to the ovaries. For instance, hot flashes will be greatly exaggerated in a woman who has blood-sugar problems – even if those don’t show up on a standard blood test.
Some women use bioidentical hormones instead. While they appear to have fewer immediate side effects, there is no evidence that they have fewer long-term risks.
At a recent functional medicine conference I attended, there were several discussions on how to address hormone “saturation” – the experience many women have after being on bioidentical hormones for several years and then having a return of their previous symptoms. We’re learning that underlying imbalances in gut function, adrenal hormones and blood sugar can have a major effect on a woman’s experience of her perimenopausal years.
It’s not just the ovaries
Technically, menopause occurs when a woman hasn’t had a period for 12 consecutive months. The symptoms that can occur for years before that are due to the ovaries becoming less predictable in their hormone production. This means that estrogen levels can spike and fall like a roller coaster.
Unfortunately, once a woman knows that her hormones are fluctuating, she is likely to explain away all her symptoms as perimenopausal. But ovaries are not the only glands affected by hormone changes. The pancreas, thyroid and adrenal glands play key roles in determining how easy or difficult the perimenopausal years will be.
The most common, end-stage effect of pancreas dysfunction is diabetes. But long before the body reaches a disease state, there are more subtle effects. For instance, a woman with low blood sugar or insulin resistance will experience more severe hot flashes than a woman with normal blood-sugar regulation.
Following are common symptoms associated with perimenopause and factors that can determine the severity of those symptoms.
• Heavy or frequent periods. These can be worsened by blood-sugar and thyroid imbalances that don’t show up on routine blood work. Checking free and total levels of T3 and T4 as well as thyroid antibodies can be helpful.
• Hot flashes or low libido. Underlying adrenal stress can result in cortisol levels that are too high or too low, or reduced DHEA (precursor to several hormones). Cortisol levels are best tested with multiple saliva samples over a 24-hour period.
• Insomnia. With or without hot flashes, insomnia is often due to chronic stress, which causes the adrenals to produce excess cortisol.
• Mood changes and brain fog. Moods can be affected by the stress hormone cortisol as well as imbalanced neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin are made primarily in the gut and can be evaluated with a urine test. Low levels of serotonin can also increase overall pain levels.
• Hair loss and weight gain. There may be underlying thyroid stress that doesn’t show up on routine blood work but requires a more detailed look at free and total levels of T3 and T4 and thyroid antibodies.
Once these underlying issues are identified, they can be addressed through food choices, lifestyle factors and specific supplements.
Marina Rose, D.C., is a functional medicine practitioner, certified clinical nutritionist and chiropractor with an office at 4546 El Camino Real in Los Altos. For more information, call 308-9355 or visit