I will be 1/2 a century young in 2 weeks! My 40s birthdays have been mostly uneventful, but 50 feels like a right of passage and I plan on celebrating throughout my entire birthday year.
What’s to celebrate? My 40s were a decade of MAJOR self-growth. I learned the art of listening. I dropped my people pleasing (well, a lot of it). I mustered the courage to say NO and to ask for help. I consciously re-wrote my self-stories. I left my princess gown by the side of the street and I put my Queen Crown firmly on my head.
The wisdom of my 40s was hard won though and there were many rough patches. As I look back I have some nuggets of wisdom I want to pass along.
1. Perimenopause sneaks up on you.
At 40 years old I actually started optimizing for menopause. I read the books and did the things. Still, menopause felt like a distant shore that I would wake up on one morning in a decade or so with no more period… end of story. I thought I was ready for smooth sailing, but I was SO NOT.
I had no idea that the hormonal changes that get this party started actually begin in our mid-30s when we may be symptom free. I now understand that the emotional mayhem, exhaustion and sleep trouble I experienced in my early 40s were the first signs of this hormonal transition. Knowing this would have given me peace of mind. I also would have taken an entirely different approach to managing my mystery symptoms.
2.You are going to feel like you are losing your mind because of HIGH levels of estrogen.
This one is contrary to everything I thought I knew. I was under the impression that estrogen gradually decreases in perimenopause, like a leaky faucet with a slow, continuous drip. However, many women actually experience symptoms related to high levels of estrogen at this stage.
I was unaware that the first hormone that typically decreases in perimenopause is progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone are two hormones that must be in relative balance to each other. So when progesterone levels drop, an imbalance that favors estrogen can result. This is called estrogen dominance.
If you are not having hot flashes, there is a good chance that your doctor will not recognize your symptoms as perimenopause. After 2 years of repeated visits to my GYN about the mystery symptoms, she finally conceded to hormone testing. I guess my unconsolable sobbing made her uncomfortable enough.
The thing is, hormonal testing only gives us snap shot of our constantly shifting biology. So estrogen dominance can be tricky to diagnose. I recommend getting tested when you feel most symptomatic. Once I knew that high estrogen was the issue, I was able to recognize when I was in a surge. I was also able to make targeted life-style changes to manage the estrogen spikes. I am happy to report that I am feeling better than I have this entire decade.
This knowledge also helped me to steer my future onto the right path because there are long-term health risks associated with excess levels of estrogen in perimenopause
that include hormone-dependent cancers, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and diabetes.
If you have any of these symptoms, consider finding a qualified doctor who can help you manage high levels of estrogen.
• Weight gain, especially around the hips, abdomen and thighs
• Brain fog
• Mood swings
• Severe PMS
• Slow metabolism
• Water retention & bloating
• Irregular periods
• Polycystic Ovaries (PCOS)
• Cold hands and feet
3. You are going to feel and look 80% better when you put down the booze.
I have never been a heavy drinker, but when 2 glasses of wine took me 2 days to get over, I threw in the towel and gave it up for good at 48. I learned that our tolerance for alcohol tends to decreases as we age because our body makes less dehydrogenase – an enzyme that helps metabolize alcohol.
The truth is that drinking alcohol is terrible for perimenopause and taking care of our liver is PARAMOUNT. We need our liver to clean our blood, remove excess estrogen and to metabolize fat. So when we give it extra, unnecessary work to do, we are setting ourselves up for more symptoms and poor long term-heath outcomes. Yes, even if it’s just one glass a day.
Giving our liver busy work makes us fat too because our liver will always prioritize clearing the alcohol from our body because it is a poison and put all other metabolic functions on the back burner. We end up storing fat (and excess estrogen) rather than metabolizing it in the meantime. As we age, staying hydrated on a cellular level also becomes more challenging. Drinking contributes to dry looks. So if you want to look and feel your best, consider kicking booze to the curve.
P.S – I also gave up coffee because, like alcohol, caffeine is metabolized in the liver. It was a hard decision for me, but I am happy to report that I have been sleeping like a log and slobbering all over myself ever since.
4. Every fight/flight/freeze episode will rob your health.
We have all heard about how harmful stress is for our health and many of us are struggling mightily to manage stress with this crazy world-wide predicament.
But when we allow ourselves to enter fight, flight or freeze our sympathetic nervous system actually robs our health. Think of it like a bank account. All of the good things we do to
cultivate our health like exercise, healthy food and relaxation add up to our immediate and long-term health picture. When our sympathetic nervous system activates, it makes a big withdrawal from our bank account that has long-term effects.
People who tend to go there are wired to do so and their neural pathways become well paved roads. Cultivating self-soothing practices and taking a new path when stress comes up takes commitment and practice that is not only worthwhile, it is necessary to living better and longer. The good news is that perimenopause is the perfect time to create new habits because our minds and bodies are literally in the process of re-wiring as we go through this major transition.
5. Your body is not your enemy.
There are times that I wondered if my body was turning on me or failing me in my 40s. The things that used to work just stoped working. So many of us have experienced a lack of medical support. So where does that leave us? It leaves us to be present with our experiences as unbearable as they can feel, instead of stifling them.
Perimenopause is MOTHER OF ALL WAKE UP CALLS. This transition is a time when all of the shit that’s under the carpet rears its ugly head – health issues, money, relationships. When my carpet began to overflow I could have tidied up and hid the dirt, but I decided to look at it, decipher it and own it. What am I meant to learn here?
When I started to look in the shadows, I found a paradox. In order to create change, I had to start by fully acknowledging and accepting my circumstances, while refusing to accept that this was just part of being a woman. Perimenopause symptoms are common, but the are not normal or at all necessary. I made a conscious commitment to listen to and honor my body – it has, after all carried me through a 1/2 century.
My body was screaming at me to make big changes in how I was living. Was it fun work? Not always. But the changes I made helped me to feel better than I had in a decade and that was enough to keep me motivated. I also knew deep down that in order to live the next 1/2 of my life the best I could, I was going to have to go back to the drawing board and “love my body into permanent changes.”
6. How you think about aging directly informs your experience of it.
I could write a whole book on this topic, but I will keep it short and sweet. Our mindset actually trumps everything else including: diet, exercise and lifestyle. This time can be rife with shame, denial, fear and rage. All of those feelings are valid. What is important is what we do with them. The limiting self stories we tell ourselves will become true. So chose wisely. That’s right CHOSE – that’s what it’s all about. You get to chose how you live this next 1/2 of your life. The only thing we have is this present moment and we can make choices that set us up for the best possible future if we start right now.