…is that it can be a highly inflammatory time for your body!
All the things you used to be able to get away with like strange sleeping positions, eating the wrong thing, or taking on too much at work; suddenly you start to experience critical mass in all of these areas of your life – not to mention the emotional toll of the added stress from hormonal fluctuations. So now you’re even less well equipped to emotionally cope with these sudden chemically based inflammatory triggers in your life – none of which previously would have been a big deal at all.
Have you ever heard anyone describe the time leading up to menopause as feeling like PMS 24-7? Well, since every woman’s PMS feels different, regardless of what exactly that means to you, that analogy is not actually too far fetched. As we approach menopause our hormones start to take on a sustained state of affairs that hormonally mirrors the time in our cycle right before menstrual flow.
The thing about female reproductive hormones is that the multitude of actions they coordinate day in and day out throughout a one month cycle is more like a sophisticated concert symphony rather than a simple switchboard-like action => reaction and on/off function. The harmony of this symphony that is being played by many different hormones at the same time, is highly dependent on how they interrelate rather than on their individual measurable levels alone. The concentration and resultant effect of circulating estrogen is to some degree only significant in relation to the concentration of progesterone. Because they dampen or heighten each others impact on the body, it’s more about proportion than it is about their sole presence.
Using just the main two groups of hormones, estrogen and progesterone in our example, here’s roughly how a smoothly played symphony goes for the duration of a four week / one month cycle:
1st two weeks of the month:
Estrogen rises – going up first then not until a few days later Progesterone starts to rise – going up as well.
Estrogen peaks then starts to decrease – going down but Progesterone is still increasing…going up
Beginning of the 3rd week: (or whenever ovulation occurs for you)
Estrogen still goes up slightly then levels out and stays steady for a little while but Progesterone is still on the rise…going up
Beginning of the 4th week:
Progesterone peaks and then starts to decrease – going down but Estrogen is still level – same for a few days…
once Progesterone and Estrogen levels are equal again then they both start to decrease – going down together at a similar rate all the way until bleeding phase of the cycle happens.
Then it starts all over again!
When this symphony is in complete harmony, we don’t experience very significant symptoms even during that pre-menstrual time.
If this all happens according to plan, harmony is high and symptoms are few. Women experience symptoms of PMS mainly when these events happen out of order or each group of hormones rise or dip to strange levels – in relationship to the others and this is what creates disharmony. It’s not just one poorly behaving hormone it’s the whole symphony of hormones losing their way and becoming unsynchronized – creating noise rather than music.
The three main players are: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Each of these can cause symptoms of excess if they are high in relationship to one or both of the others.
Progesterone Excess = Inflammation
Progesterone can seem high when estrogen is low – this happens to varying degrees during the second two weeks of the menstrual cycle aka: the two weeks before menstrual flow. This is when women often experience greater levels of inflammation which can lead to sudden strains and sprains or headaches or an increased stress response or simply more generalized aches and pains.
Progesterone definitely will seem high for some women approaching menopause because of the steadily but erratically declining estrogen levels. Again the body becomes more inflamed but now at odd times – much less predictable than during the regularly cycling lifetime.
Testosterone = Anti-Inflammation
Women produce testosterone from the ovaries and adrenal glands and this notoriously “male” hormone actually stays the same before and after menopause. It only seems higher after menopause because of the absence of estrogen and progesterone to dampen its effect, so it becomes dominant and we start to notice symptoms associated with testosterone effects like facial hair, deepening voice, balding etc.
Estrogen Excess = can be Both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory depending on the situation.
Estrogen dominance is a big problem in our society because of all of the chemicals that we are exposed to that mimic the structure of estrogen. But this is a much larger topic for a different blog post.
What I want you to take away from this necessarily over-simplified snapshot of peri-menopause, is that if you or anyone you know are in the throws of it, you should be aware of the fact that this can be a very inflammatory time for the body. While this simmering inflammation will be part of what feels discouraging and as though you’re aging before your time, be patient, be careful and respect the process. But know that it will end and if you care for the inflammation now even though it seems so out of proportion, you will be okay and in fact better off once the fluctuations end.
There are many resources out there on natural food based anti-inflammatory nutrients including turmeric (curcumin), boswellia serrata, ginger and quercetin.
Stress management is also a great way to deal with the overall inflammatory response in your body. Magenesium is an important mineral that can help the nervous system with this.
Speak to your natural health care provider for more specific guidance as to what your body needs during this time. He or she will know best based on your full clinical picture.
Read more about pain and inflammation at Stop Everyday Pain
References and Further Reading:
Eur J Clin Invest. 2006 Jan;36(1):58-64. Menstrual cycle symptoms are associated with changes in low-grade inflammation. Puder JJ, Blum CA, Mueller B, De Geyter Ch, Dye L, Keller U.Source: Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Clinical Nutrition, University of Basel Hospital, Basel, Switzerland. firstname.lastname@example.org