LIVING WELL AS WE AGE
Navigating the Menopause Wilderness
I started to get into trouble with my health and wellbeing when I hit perimenopause in my late forties.
Only I didn’t know it was perimenopause at the time as no one ever spoke about what happened in the run up to menopause or even mentioned the term “perimenopause” and its own particularly debilitating issues. It was like trying to find your way across a rocky terrain in the dark with no one to guide you or light your way. Not even my gynaecologist at the time could explain to me what was happening and why I was feeling so sad and lifeless.
I remember being given some herbal tablets which, I was told, would “take the edge off” but there was no mention of bio-identical hormone treatment when I was obviously crying out to have my life given back to me. There were many things happening in my life at the time, my eldest son had just gone to university, and I had mistakenly thought my gloomy mood, lethargy and nightly sleep disruptions were caused by anxiety about the future already mourning the empty nest.
In America, as with most things, they were way ahead with hormone therapy treatment for menopause symptoms.
I remember watching Oprah one day and listening to a very vibrant, sexy Suzanne Somers talking about the benefits of HRT and how more women should know about their transformational effects. At the time I was living in London, so I went to see my young over-worked female NHS doctor and enquired.
My symptoms were typed into a computer’s algorithm and out came a generic prescription for oestrogen and progesterone. No actual concern or interest was shown about my symptoms nor was I given a run- through of the different options to fit my lifestyle such as gels, patches or pills.
Despite this, I felt very quickly better, more like my old self with energy and a brighter mood. Reflecting on my struggles to get there – 3 years of misery – I decided that from now on I was going to take my health into my own hands. When I discovered that the menopause is an elective course for doctors in training which very few enrol on, I realised I was on my own. Half of the UK population will go through the menopause and yet our NHS doctors are woefully ill-equipped to help us.
At the age of 50, armed with oestrogen patches and nightly progesterone tablets, I felt good enough to train as a yoga teacher. I signed up for a vinyasa flow teacher training course with one of the best yoga teachers in London and my journey to optimum health and wellness began. I was also finally sleeping through the night thanks to HRT so my energy levels had returned to pre-menopause levels.
I was determined not to be that woman who retired to the countryside, stopped wearing make-up, wore baggy clothing and whose idea of fun was the weekly pub quiz (apologies if this is you). I had two young adult daughters looking up at me and I wanted to be a role model to them. Life post-menopause does not have to be the beginning of the end, with a little help from bio-identical hormones it can be the beginning of a new lease of life.
Mixing with the younger yogis on the teacher training course (I was one of the three over 40 and by far the eldest) I started to think more about my diet switching to a vegetarian diet for a while before finally finding my balance as a Pescatarian. I also trained as a meditation teacher which is a technique I turn to when life gets complicated. I did not become a yoga teacher at the end of the year long course or even a meditation teacher. I see this year of my life - transitioning between my fertile years and beyond - as my adult “gap” year. I am grateful to have yoga and meditation as important tools in my health and wellness box and practice both today.
As you age, you either become ill, someone around you becomes ill or sadly someone dies. In 2013 my sister was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma. This stage of diagnosis leaves very few options and all science had to offer was a medical trial.
As for lifestyle and nutrition there is no follow-up or advice given to those going through cancer (like the menopause, doctors are given very little nutritional training). My sister and I researched and created our own nutritional protocol not dissimilar to the Gerson dietary based alternative cancer treatment with plenty of fresh juices and raw vegetables, keeping sugar low to zero. Eight years later she is in remission and regarded as somewhat of a miracle by her oncologist.
I had discovered the powerful effect of nutrient dense foods, the damage that sugar and processed foods can do to the body and the importance of alkaline balance, especially for cancer patients. An interest was sparked and in 2019 I took my next step in my health and wellness journey by going back to school to study naturopathic nutrition.
If I thought I had a healthy diet prior to this, I now took everything up a notch. I started making my own kefir and took a long sabbatical from alcohol brewing my own probiotic kombucha instead. Alcohol was the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place on my journey to health and wellbeing. I was a daily glass of wine or two with dinner girl and perhaps a few more at the weekends. I had an off-switch and knew when to stop but had not realized that even small daily amount puts a heavy burden on the liver and greatly affects mood and motivation.
As we age our organs work less efficiently and when the liver is spending all its time metabolizing alcohol none of the hundreds of other functions we rely on to feel energized and well can be completed. Going without alcohol for 6 months allowed me to experience how good I could feel: better sleep, better skin and hair and increased energy. Now I moderate my alcohol by only drinking socially, achieving a good healthy balance of having fun but not so much that my energy, sleep and mood are affected.
Today, 2 weeks away from my 60th birthday, I am in a great place feeling better than ever. My course in naturopathic nutrition has taught me that not one size fits all. We are all individuals and we must find what works best for us when it comes to diet, relaxation and lifestyle choices. One woman may enjoy a daily run at 60, one may thrive on pilates and yoga, one may need more protein than the other, one may feel best on whole grains. We are taught to treat each person holistically and as an individual always looking for the cause not just treating the symptoms.
I have learned that aging requires constant tweaking.
I no longer run but I have added some weight training into my pilates and yoga routine.
I make sure I eat some protein with every meal to keep my blood sugars in balance and my urges for snacking under control.
I make sleep a priority with 7-8 uninterrupted hours a night.
I have had my DNA analyzed by a DNA nutritionist who advises me on my supplement regime so I can avoid nutritional deficits.
I filter my drinking water, sprout broccoli seeds, ferment my kefir grains and brew my kombucha.
The probiotics in kefir and kombucha feeding the commensal bacteria in my intestines help keep my digestion healthy but in addition, twice a year in the spring and autumn, I will undertake a three-week probiotic protocol. The health and importance of the microbiome (bacteria in our gut) is a recent discovery.
Scientists now acknowledge that there are pathways between the brain and the gut. They are interconnected; our mood is governed by the health of our gut and our brain affects how well we digest and eliminate our food. If we are constantly stressed, operating in the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system mode, our digestion, absorption and elimination will all be compromised with our health will deteriorate rapidly.
Life can be lonely without some good friends and family around to support you so most importantly I nurture my friendships and relationships with my loved ones. I often send voice messages instead of a text message, so that the intention, emotion and warmth of my message is not lost.
I run a Living Well Woman group for healthy aging creating community and friendship as we go through this life stage together. I have ignited my inner teacher through my love of correct nutrition and the effects on the body. Nothing makes me happier than to pass on my knowledge and empower other women to take charge and navigate their way through this life stage.
When I look at vibrant and happy older women, I do not look for beauty, a small waist size or designer clothes. I look for sparkle; a curiosity about life, an ability to laugh easily, enjoyment of the company of others, excitement about new projects and an openness of mind. Above all I am attracted to energy levels, a humming just below the surface that is full of life and vigor.
That to me is true health.