Silken Laumann on menopause and mental health

When the night sweats started, I figured it was a response to a new medication I had started. When they continued, I swapped out my expensive Canadian goose down comforter for a summer weight one. I changed sides of the bed with my husband and kept the window open at night. Still sweaty, I bought a silk comforter from Costco which promised to regulate body temperature. Nope. I was determined to figure out what was going on. Then I read the red wine could be the culprit, that sugar was pretty much poisonous and that caffeine was toxic to a woman my age. I started eliminating and after three weeks of trying, I did it – I kicked one of my life’s greatest pleasures: the morning cappuccino. I can’t really explain how much I mourned that last loss; it was like someone had stolen the last remaining good thing from my morning, the thing I most looked forward to each day. My husband noticed that my morning aggression had lessened since losing the coffee, and while I agreed with him, I was not exactly happy about it.

Two years ago, I began to notice a layer of belly fat that seemed to grow by the month. I went Paleo, upped my lifting regime, and cut out all sugar. I put on some more muscle mass, but it did nothing for the tummy. I bought a belly band, upped my cardio and started walking in between workouts. My legs got a little trimmer, but the tummy – nothing.

And then the realization hit me as clear and as blunt as a brick. I was in menopause. Me: a fit, healthy, fifty-year-old woman was in menopause. It hardly seemed possible.

I had just spent 650 dollars on a new IUD (my gynecologist might have warned me it would be as useful as a set of snow tires in Florida). Blood tests confirmed it: no estrogen. Not a drop. Little bit of progesterone, and almost no testosterone. Done.

When the hot flashes – the ones that start in your chest, rise up through your neck and create a heat so incredible it could be harnessed for energy – started, I decided I needed to do something about it. This was getting ridiculous. The no sugar, no caffeine, no bread, no wine regime was not only no fun, it wasn’t actually helping all that much.

My doctor indicated this was a normal part of aging, and I could consider hormone replacement if the symptoms got too bad. What is the measure of “too bad”? Not sleeping for ten years? Or how about feeling emotionally unstable for no reason a good part of the time? The emotionally unstable part was unnerving. Sometimes I would just look at my husband and feel angry. I would have no idea why I was mad, but I was. Working through a small issue with my kids would suddenly overwhelm me and I would have to leave the room. I remember eating dinner at a restaurant and the first three things I ordered they didn’t have. I looked at the waiter and – in all seriousness – said, “Are you trying to make me feel bad?” and then I started to cry.

Having suffered from depression much of my adult life, I wondered if my medication may have stopped working. Somehow though, these mood swings felt different. It was as if my capacity for life had been cut in half. All the little things that bug me like waiting in line, or people speaking too slowly, or talking too loudly seemed amplified. In my life, I seem to thrive on a healthy dose of chaos, but now the chaos of four kids, and deadlines, relationships, and the two dogs just seemed way too much. Was I going to have to settle on living life with half my normal capacity?

I sought out advice from many different sources including a naturopathic doctor and an eastern trained acupuncturist. It turns out that in my case, there was a lot I could do before settling on hormone replacement therapy.

Traditional medical doctrine tells us that there is nothing we can do about menopause. It is a natural part of aging and, short of going on hormone replacement therapy, our only choice is to suck it up and wear cotton. I respectfully disagree.

I learned some pretty valuable stuff when visiting the naturopath. The first is that one of the way of treating menopausal symptoms is to treat the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands produce the master hormones, the precursor if you will, to the sex hormones. Fifty years ago, women didn’t have such difficult menopausal times because their adrenal glands were still working. Treat the adrenal glands, and the symptoms of menopause often lessen.

Simple changes, when followed closely and consistently, began to make a big difference for me.

I started my day with hot water and lemon juice a half hour before eating anything. I began digestive enzymes, magnesium sulphite before bed, nutritional supplements to support the adrenals and a drug called DHEA. You need a prescription to get DHEA in Canada – my doctor happily wrote me a prescription because she was taking it herself.

I kept the other things going, the difficult things like no wine, chocolate, sugar, caffeine. I felt more motivated when, after a week, I started sleeping through the night. After three weeks of actually sleeping, I felt like a new person. This felt like a divine miracle. My blood pressure went down as I began to sleep and the hot flashes totally disappeared.

I believe there are different answers to the complex symptoms of menopause, and that each of us are individuals with our own stressors and our own unique chemistry. What worked for me may not work for you. What I do want to convey is that although menopause is a normal part of aging, we don’t just have to suck it up. My symptoms were seriously affecting my life and doing something about them has made me a healthier and happier person. We need to start sharing our stories, because I know there are many women out there who beat themselves up when they begin to gain weight, or that may change their medication for a mental health challenge without factoring in the affect that menopause may be taking on their overall mental health.

Going to see a naturopath and following through on her recommendations as well as working with my GP made a huge difference in my life. As my naturopath said, women do not have to suffer needlessly, there are things we can do to take the reigns of how we want to feel and mitigate some of the difficult parts of this time in our life.

I am still working on the tire around my belly. I suspect a washboard is out, but if I can get it down to a bicycle tire size, I would consider that a good compromise.