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Menopause, Stress and Movement

by | Oct 8, 2022 | Articles, Mindful Movement

Stressed? Who me? There is no doubt that the shifting biochemistry associated with Menopause results in elevated levels of stress. Unexplained anxiety is a feature of fluctuating Oestrogen levels and I definitely found myself being worried about the slightest thing. But did you know movement can help relieve stress and menopause symptoms?

Fight or Flight?

We have ONE stress response. That’s the ‘fight or flight’ one that evolved to keep us alive. However it’s designed to be temporary — so that once you escaped or killed the lion, you would rest in your cave and recover. Our bodies have evolved and adapted in many ways since caveman times, but our adrenal stress response is exactly the same. When our brains think we might be in danger (did I mention the lion?). Our ‘fight or flight’ response will kick in — the brain sends a message to the adrenals to release adrenaline and cortisol.

The present day equivalent? I know, how about a Global Pandemic, economy tanking and 3 Prime Ministers in 3 Months! But even the insidious effects of our fast paced, technology infused modern lives. Couple this with the hormonal imbalances which occur as a result of the menopause and we have a perfect storm. When there is no rest & recovery time this can have serious consequences for our metal and physical wellbeing.

Why Too Much Stress is Bad for You

If your entire life is high-stress and always in high gear, your body may constantly pump out cortisol. This has several negative effects.

  1. Increased blood sugar levels. Insulin typically helps the cells convert glucose to energy. As your pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in your blood remain high and your cells don’t get the sugar they need to perform at their best.
  2. Weight gain. As your cells are crying out for energy, your body may send signals to the brain that you are hungry and need to eat. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. False hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat and thus gain weight. Unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored as body fat.
  3. Suppressed immune system. Cortisol’s positive action to reduce inflammation in the body can turn against you if your levels are too high for too long. The elevated levels may actually suppress your immune system. You could be more susceptible to colds and contagious illnesses. Your risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increases and you may develop food allergies.
  4. Digestive problems. When your body reacts to a threat, it shuts down other less critical functions, such as digestion. If the high-stress level is constant, your digestive tract can’t digest or absorb food well. It’s no coincidence that ulcers occur during stressful times and people with colitis or irritable bowel syndrome report better symptom control when they get their stress under control.
  5. Heart disease. Constricted arteries and high blood pressure can lead to blood vessel damage and plaque buildup in your arteries. They could be setting the stage for a heart attack or stroke.
  6. bone health is affected as increased levels of inflammation increases bone cell destruction.
  7. Finally our sex hormones are impacted — reproduction is surplus to requirements and the monthly cycle and sex drive can be affected

Stress and Oestrogen

Cortisol and the sex hormones are related, they are all made from the same precursor hormone, pregnenolone. So guess what happens when you are stressed? Pregnenolone gets the message to make more cortisol instead of sex hormones (as we know that our stress response takes priority over our reproductive function when we need to run away).

Stress Effects on the Brain

Studies show that from around the ages of 40–65 high cortisol levels correlate with brain shrinkage and decreased mental performance. Higher cortisol levels or greater cortisol reactivity may be one mechanism that links hot flushes and depressive or anxiety symptoms to perimenopausal decline in cognitive performance. Cortisol actually increases after a hot flush. Experimental administration of corticosteroids produces verbal memory impairment, and higher endogenous cortisol levels are associated with poorer performance on memory tasks. Source

Research indicates that being physically active improves the way the body handles stress because of changes in the hormone responses, and that exercise affects neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin that affect mood and behaviours. Source

In fact, moderate intensity may well be best, particularly from peri-menopause onwards. Low intensity exercise shown to proffer lower gains, moderate intensity exercise gains are greatest and with high intensity exercise the gains actually go down!

Yoga for Stress Management

There is an increasing body of evidence that demonstrates mindful approaches to movement such as Yoga can yield benefits even in relatively brief doses. A study performed with college students participating in Swimming, Hatha Yoga, Body Conditioning and Fencing found that; “Participants in yoga…were significantly less anxious, tense, depressed, angry, fatigued, and confused after a class than before on all three occasions”. Source

I love how Yoga and Pilates make me feel, physically and emotionally. Perhaps you are sceptical or nervous to try new things but the rewards are there for the taking and it’s never too late!

A healthy midlife is the most accurate predictor of your health for the rest of your life. If you are past midlife then it just means you have to be more consistent.

Some simple tips to help you make a start from today for benefits that last for the rest of your life!

  • Don’t follow fads
  • Keep it simple and achievable.
  • Try taking the stairs
  • Grab your coat and head out for a walk.
  • Push yourself if you can but if you can’t don’t feel bad!

Make an appointment with yourself today. But if you need help with embedding exercise in your life then make an appointment with me!

As you may know I am passionate about movement and during my Online Pilates sessions the deep connection we build between the mind and body provides the ideal opportunity to reset and manage stress.

My Online Hatha Yoga sessions will stretch muscles and provides an opportunity to put your joints through their full range of movement. Moreover the combination of breath-work and guided meditation will moderate brain activity which in turn positively impact the autonomic nervous system reducing overall levels of stress and anxiety and thus reducing Cortisol.

Try this Mindful Movement Session for the body and the mind!

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Pilates for Menopause for Massage Therapists and Manual Therapists  - NAT Diploma Course with Precizion 10 CEUs

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Interested to learn Pilates or Yoga?

Join Precizion for regular online Pilates and Yoga classes.  All led by Phillipa Butler, a Chartered Physiotherapist, Clinical Pilates and Women’s Health Expert. One-on-one consultations also available.

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