When I started my Chinese medicine training in 2000, I had already been working for 14 years in finance. I was 30, well travelled and I worked and played hard. While none of my female work colleagues were ‘ready’ to have kids most of my school friends had either started or literally finished their baby making. My aunt had her 4th child at 47 and my mother at 52 was still having her periods. I was quite oblivious to how long my fertility would last or how it would end.
During my Chinese medicine training the term ‘geriatric mother at 30’ gave me pause for thought and I started to think about having a family. I finished my studies in 2003 and with a special focus in women’s health I started work on others and on myself. Luckily my own two children came when I was 34 and 36 years old and around this time I went to work at Zita West fertility clinic in London. I worked with women of all ages but especially those in their late 30s and 40s and learnt that the fertile years did not come to a sudden end but would start to decline for most between mid 30s and early 40s. As periods themselves don’t usually give an indication of fertility we didn’t know for sure what stage women were at until we ran blood tests that checked things like FSH, oestrogen and AMH levels which gave a much better ‘background’ picture.
So at this stage I still didn’t think much about menopause. Why would I? My mother had apparently floated through hers so my gene pool seemed to say ‘its a long way off and when it comes you’ll be symptom free’ Besides, I knew so much about hormones, lifestyle and diet…I was going to be FINE!
Famous last words….
The world sped on with technology, international moves, growing kids and a 4 year degree course but I felt fine arbeit a little ‘stressed’ sometimes.
Then at 46 years old suddenly my periods moved to every 3 weeks. ‘This is exhausting’ I thought but put it down to the stress of moving through multiple time zones over the course of a year and just finishing the degree (and looking after kids).
This went on for about 4 months, by which time I was iron deficient, irritable and starting to have some emotional moments. I did what any good chinese herbalist would do – I took some herbs to rebuild the iron and help handle the stress. By the time Christmas came everything went back to normal. I figured my body had sorted itself out and decided that 47 years old would be a great age to start a business and a clinic with a colleague.
Starting a business is pretty stressful, and a story for another time, but I resolved to prepare myself by going for a week detox in Byron Bay. It was just the thing right? A week of juices and 3 colonics left me feeling very rejuvenated for about 4 weeks and then things started going … well ….not so good…
Chinese Medicine is a wholistic medicine and specifically states specifically states that people of my constitution should not eat cold foods and should not do colonics. In doing both, I had, in Chinese medicine terms put my body through the freezer. My body responded by falling over the hormone cliff.
At this point I’d like to give my analogy for your hormones. You can skip this bit if you already know about how the hormone (endocrine) system works or if you don’t care! but I thought I’d put it in for the sake of education…
Your hormones are a family. Imagine them all living in the same house and all leaving at predetermined times each day to do their jobs. Some on night shift (melatonin), some on early morning shift (cortisol) and some waiting for the lover at the door (oxytocin ) or changes in the menstrual month ( progesterone and oestrogen). Some are in charge of metabolism (thyroid) and some are designated for digestion (insulin). They all report into their mum – the pituitary gland.
The pituitary gland is one very busy organ because not only does she have to run the family but also she has to report into the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus lives next door to the pituitary in the brain and gets feedback from the body 24 hours a day on what is going from the nervous system.
What food is coming in, what the environment is like, what air we are breathing, how much sleep the body is getting etc. As this comes in the hypothalamus starts to make decisions for the pituitary. Too much work, well let’s wind up the cortisol. Too much sugar – increase the insulin.
The impact of these instructions is that the pituitary is no longer sending out instructions to a body in harmony but to an imbalanced body and the rest of the hormones start to take the brunt of this. If this is a short-term issue, the body can adapt. The problem is when it becomes a long-term lifestyle.
Now if the pituitary is sending out imbalanced instructions for months and years it will start to make an effect. For some women the most they might feel is some pre menstrual tension. For others it can progress to painful periods, endometriosis, thyroid disorders, polycystic ovaries and even auto immune issues. This is because within the female hormone family oestrogen is the big sister. She is the dominant force in the fertile woman. Handed out at puberty in the form of oestrodial, she keeps us looking luscious, helps keep the energy up, our minds sharp and our bones and joints supple. But she has a retiring date.
Now her retiring age may be genetically determined at 54 but all this extra work over the years has made her decide to throw in the towel a little early. Some days she’s ok and can manage to stay on top of the load and other days she’s sitting on the couch watching netflix and telling everyone else to bugger off.
So back to my story..
So at 47 I’d been given some warning shots by oestrogen the previous year that not all was going to plan. Changes to the menstrual cycle are a definite sign that you are entering the ‘peri-menopausal zone’. I had been burning the candles at both ends and then I decided to really throw my digestion and metabolism into a spin by heading off on a detox and send my cortisol levels rocketing by starting a new business.
So, Oestrogen gave me the finger and walked out the door.
What happened next?
Almost overnight my sleep stopped. I had always had amazing sleep but suddenly 3am became the new wake up time.
Of course I became totally fatigued and what do you do when you have no energy…you eat…so I also put on weight.
I also experienced some very very hot moments especially at night! One July (middle of winter here) I was so hot that I jumped into the ice cold pool at about 2am.
I cried a lot – both rationally and irrationally.
I couldn’t remember where I put my keys, the car, my glasses (oh yes.. now I needed glasses! …) and spent time going round the house asking ‘has anyone seen….’
My knees and neck started to ache and spasm at night to the point I had to stop exercising which really didn’t help the weight thing…
I think that was it..I honestly can’t remember…like childbirth…you forget as soon as you can.
You could say it was a train wreck or trauma or a bit of both. How did I not see what was happening? I was trained in this field for Gods sake. Denial is definitely in there somewhere. I believed that all my pilates, zumba, clean living and good genes would see me through like my mother. But my mother didn’t have 2 coffees every day after the yoga, she never drank alcohol and she certainly wasn’t living the fast paced lives of today. Her children were adults and firmly out of home and not requiring being ferried to every sporting event. Neither (and this is a big one) was there internet or social media . So no need to be on the computer by 8am or looking at what your friends are doing across the city/globe via snapchat or twitter or shopping at 10pm via the phone.
The world may have changed rapidly but our bodies have not and nor can they. We are part of this planet and were made to live with the rhythms of seasons and cycles of life. If we don’t pay this some respect we pay the price.
So what did I do?
I made a lot of adjustments to my life to stop all the symptoms. I had to stop the wine and the coffee for a period and have to leave the phone and the computer FAR FAR away at night to resist the temptation. I spend time every day in mindfulness and have learnt to say NO. I do less and I care less. I’ve had to adapt my diet which limits inflammation and suits my body. I’ve also had to take herbs and supplements to help with the sleep and the joints. The flushes sorted themselves out pretty quickly and the brain fog cleared.
I’m now at 50 and it’s two years since my last period. I have to be honest – I am LOVING where I am at. The freedom of no periods is quite liberating. The mood changes have all gone and I feel almost zen like most days (Is this why men are so calm??) I’m taking all the necessary steps to make sure I’m fit and gorgeous at 60, 70 and beyond. It’s not that I’m going down without a fight. Quite the opposite, I’m grabbing this wise woman and stomping through to the next stage. I’m certainly ready for it.
If you’d like to know more about how chinese medicine and acupuncture can help menopause see here