Five Reasons Why Menopause and Stress Are an Issue - Stella
Long-term health
7 mins

Five reasons why stress and perimenopause are an issue

byJanet Padfield

Modern-day living is full of pressure. Combine that with the big hormonal shift of perimenopause and it’s the perfect storm, putting women at greater risk of suffering the ill effects of excess stress. Nutritional expert and women’s health specialist, Janet Padfield explains what signs to look out for when it comes to stress and menopause, and shares six tips on how to reduce stress during menopause with your food and lifestyle choices.

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What does stress do to your body?

When you are exposed to any stressor – positive or negative – the body perceives danger. It responds with a fast and effective hormone release designed to support the body and escape a life-threatening situation.

Initially the body produces adrenaline which you feel as an increased heart rate, the breath quickening, muscles tensing, senses heightening and a rush of glucose to the blood. You are primed to fight or run away which is helpful in dangerous situations. Once the stress passes, the body returns to its normal state.

With modern living, you are exposed to constant non-life-threatening stresses such as work deadlines, zoom presentations, family dramas and busy commutes. This repeated activation of the stress response impacts your health and wellbeing. Adrenaline is only designed to be short lived and so, if the stressors continue, the body releases cortisol to ensure the stress response can continue.

Cortisol itself is a necessary hormone and typically peaks to give us energy in the mornings and reduces in the evenings so you can sleep. Constant and elevated cortisol drives up blood pressure, slows metabolism, is exhausting, damages arteries and increases the risk of strokes, diabetes and heart attacks.

The good news is that addressing your stress can improve your wellbeing and reduce your risk of stress-related issues in later life.

Why is stress an issue during perimenopause?

You might understandably feel stress during menopause, especially if you’re experiencing early menopause, but when it comes to the link between menopause and stress there’s a bit more to consider. There are several reasons why stress might exacerbate symptoms while your body is going through such a big hormonal shift during perimenopause. Here are the key five reasons why you might want to look at reducing your stress load:

1. You can’t tolerate stress as well during menopause

The menopause transition is a stress on the body with all the changes that are naturally occurring. This means baseline cortisol levels may be higher throughout this time and the elevated cortisol then impacts the production of progesterone. You really need progesterone to balance out the impact of oestrogen – without that buffering effect you are likely to have symptoms such as: 

  • Heavier and more painful bleeds
  • Bloating
  • Breast tenderness
  • Worsening PMS symptoms

2. It’s stopping you sleeping

Our sleep hormone, melatonin, has a direct relationship with cortisol levels. When you wake in the morning cortisol levels are naturally high enabling us to wake and go about our day. At this point melatonin levels are at their lowest. Cortisol levels then fall throughout the day and are lowest in the evenings. When cortisol is low, melatonin can be produced in high levels enabling us to sleep.

When you are under constant stress the cortisol levels remain elevated. This has the impact of dampening the production of melatonin levels which are likely to result in either trouble getting to sleep or trouble staying asleep. Sleep can be an issue for many women during menopause as it is, so trying to reduce your stress levels where possible could help reduce your number of sleepless nights. Wondering how menopause and sleep are linked? Find out more about sleep symptoms during menopause.

3. It makes you gain belly fat

During perimenopause, the production of oestrogen switches from the ovaries to the adrenal glands. It’s these adrenal glands that make the adrenaline and cortisol. If the adrenal glands are too busy making stress hormones- as a perceived threat will always take priority – they might not be able to take on the role of making oestrogen. 

Your body needs to find another way to naturally increase oestrogen production and it does that through storing fat around the tummy. The fat stored here is known as adipose tissue and it’s been found to produce oestrogen. It’s like a plan B for the body but is undesirable for us! The more stressed we are, the quicker this gain will occur and to a greater extent.

4. It upsets your mental health

Oestrogen has many positive impacts on the brain including boosting serotonin (the happy hormone), increasing blood flow and supporting memory. So, a natural decline in oestrogen during your menopause transition can often impact brain function with many women reporting memory issues, reduced mood and brain fog. Being stressed is likely to exacerbate this. Here’s what happens:

  • Persistently elevated cortisol levels readily enter the brain and are known to increase irritability, anxiety, fluctuating emotions, and depression
  • Increased cortisol reduces how much serotonin you have available which will further negatively impact mood
  • Increased anxiety is then linked to increased frequency and severity of hot flushes

If you feel that your mental wellbeing is not where you need it to be, seek help and support from your doctor. There is help out there for you.

5. It’s messing with your digestive system

Our digestive system needs to be able to pass nutrients through small holes into the bloodstream to be taken all around the body to be used by other organs and cells. Increased stress levels increase how leaky our gut is and results in larger than normal particles of foods entering the bloodstream. This may result in an immune response and increases your risk of food intolerances. Classic symptoms of a food intolerance include bloating, excessive wind, constipation, diarrhoea, itchy skin, acne and fatigue.

What can contribute to stress?

There are many factors that can impact stress levels and these can be grouped into four main areas:

  1. Emotional stress: Relationship strain, bereavements, psychological stress, phobias etc
  2. Physical stress: Overexertion, wound healing, allergies, autoimmune conditions etc
  3. Environmental/lifestyle stress: Smoking, poor sleep, alcohol, not enough exercise, tobacco, toxins in household products and toiletries, no relaxation etc
  4. Food stress: Processed foods, sugar, fried foods, nitrates, snacking, skipping meals etc  

The stress from each of these four areas can then be added together to assess your overall baseline stress load.

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Tips for reducing stress during menopause

There are some stresses that you have very little control over and these include more of the emotional and physical types of stresses such as bereavement and allergies. The key to reducing stress is to work on the factors that are in your control and these are generally the lifestyle/environmental stresses and the foods that you choose. Managing your feelings of stress and menopause changes at the same time might seem challenging but here are a few tips that will hopefully help you to keep your stress levels low:

TIP #1 – Quit, or significantly reduce, sugar intake

Sugar is a big stress on the body and is guaranteed to boost your stress hormones. Even if you feel that tub of ice cream or slab of chocolate is reducing your emotional stress after a long day at work, it’s not the best idea.

Aim to keep within the government guidelines of 30g sugar per day which is the equivalent of one can of fizzy pop or one standard chocolate bar. Watch out for hidden sugars too which can be found in cereal bars, flavoured yoghurts, cereals and sauces.

When you do feel you need a sweet hit, try and go for naturally sweet foods such as: 

  • Some homemade, reduced-sugar, oat-based cookies
  • A small pot of natural yoghurt with fresh berries
  • Pear slices dunked in almond butter
  • A small handful of nuts or seeds with a few 70% dark chocolate chunks

Read more about menopause and sugar.

TIP #2 – Switch to natural body care and household products

There are so many harmful chemicals in regular cleaning and body care products. Luckily there are lots more affordable and more natural products now on the market at an affordable price point. Products that are good to explore are aluminum-free deodorants, paraben-free and sulfate-free shampoos and body washes. For household products, go for the more eco brands or even go back to using good old-fashioned white vinegar, lemon juice and bicarbonate of soda.

Always ensure you wear gloves when cleaning or washing up too so that your skin isn’t in contact with any of the chemicals!

TIP #3 – Avoid processed foods

Where possible make foods from scratch so that you know what is in them. This isn’t easy to do with time constraints and potentially low energy levels, so you’ll need to get familiar with food labels. When buying any groceries check the ingredients list. 

The golden rule is “the fewer the ingredients the better” and it is just as important to be able to recognise them all. If it’s full of chemical-sounding names it is best avoided. All those preservatives and flavourings are toxins that will create a stress response or keep cortisol elevated.

Likewise, aim to buy wholemeal varieties of foods such as rice, pasta and bread as they are often less processed too. 

Read more for menopause-friendly recipe inspiration.

TIP #4 – Wash fruits and vegetables well

To make our produce look as good as possible they are often sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and preservatives. You really don’t want to be eating any of that so it’s best to wash all fruits and vegetables very well or buy organic where possible (and still wash those!) Washing with water is enough so you won’t need any of the special solutions marketing for cleaning produce. For firm fruits and vegetables use a scrubbing brush and water and for the softer varieties a nice soak and rinse will be enough.

Fruits and vegetables that are to be peeled won’t need to be washed.

TIP #5 – Go easy on the alcohol

Alcohol is a big stress on the body and is also likely to negatively impact your sleep. For most women, it is fine to drink in moderation, but aim not to overdo it. Ideally have more alcohol-free nights each week than nights where you drink and keep within the government guidelines of no more than 14 units per week. This equates to six small glasses of wine (175ml measures) across the whole week.

Alternatively go for a different drink that feels indulgent, such as a flavoured kombucha. Kombucha contains live bacteria which is likely to support your digestive system.

TIP #6 – Avoid plastics

There is a lot of controversy around plastic food containers. There is, in theory, potential that the hormone-disrupting chemicals in the plastics can leach into our foods and are then consumed. Where possible it’s best to avoid using these plastics. Ideas to be more plastic free include:

  • Using silicone food pouches or glass containers to store foods
  • Covering foods in wax sheets or parchment paper rather than cling film
  • Heating food in glass
  • Using metal water bottles for on-the-go drinks

Final word

Menopause in itself is stressful for the body, and the link between stress and menopause might sometimes feel like the two are causing a feedback loop. Figuring out how to target stress during menopause to help improve your symptoms and mood will look different for every woman, since we all have different sources of stress. Evaluating where your main source of stress comes from is the first step to reducing it. For many, making some healthier food and lifestyle choices is enough to reduce cortisol levels within normal boundaries which will then most likely support your perimenopause symptoms.

There are many factors that trigger the stress response that relate to food, lifestyle, physical and emotional factors. All of these factors can increase cortisol levels which in turn may exacerbate perimenopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, insomnia, digestive upset, weight gain and anxiety. All stress is going to have that impact on your hormones, so it doesn’t matter if you feel that stress is positive…your body doesn’t. If you’re having a hard time with stress and menopause, take our free online menopause assessment to see what treatment options would work best for you.

Read more about menopause on our blog or in our symptoms library.

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