40-something women of today share a unique experience: we were all teenagers in the 1980s.
Fashion wise that was an interesting time to step into womanhood.
Luckily, even as a teenager in the 1980s, your womanly parts didn’t spring up as fast as you could insert a pair of shoulder pads into a new shirt. Your transformation from a girl to a woman took years, as it has done for women in every decade before and since.
Becoming a woman is an epic production. Hormones begin to rehearse and then perform a synchronized dance, delivering you to your reproductive years.
Now, in your forties, and up to ten years before you step onto the overheated menopause stage, your hormones are performing a different dance, grounded in an ancient choreography (no 80s music required) to gradually close your reproductive years.
Change at midlife, just like when you were a teenager, takes a long time.
This period of time that signifies the change leading up to menopause is called perimenopause. The term perimenopause has only been in use for the last few decades. Over the last few years, it has gained exposure.
In my own well-worn 1989 edition of the popular woman’s health bible, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” the word perimenopause doesn’t appear. Instead, menopause is given a broader definition to include the period of time when women in their 40s experience menstrual irregularities and other changes.
In a 1998 edition of the same book, perimenopause is indexed and referred to over two pages. In a 2011 edition, perimenopause is promoted to a chapter title.
Do you think we 40-something women feel younger now that the term menopause has shrunk to a 50-plus woman’s experience? Perhaps. But for whatever reason, perimenopause is currently understood as a 40-something transition period and menopause is the clearly defined finale, one year after your last period.
But there’s a problem.
Menopause is well known (as of writing 24,200,000 results on Google); perimenopause, less so (772,000 results on Google). True, these are just numbers on Google, but as I’ve discovered in my own research, there’s a perimenopause awareness gap.
For a 40-something woman who’s suffering from a range of physical and/or emotional symptoms, awareness about perimenopause is a game changer; it can lead her to a cure.
Prolonged PMS (over two weeks instead of one day), increased mood swings, regular migraines, fatigue, tender breasts, fluctuations in libido, insomnia, acne, eczema or other skin disorders are all symptoms commonly associated with perimenopause.
And you thought it was just you. Or you and your friends.
Yet, as we all become more aware of perimenopause, we face a slippery slope, which many medical professionals and others have already tumbled down, often, dare I say, gleefully. If so many disruptive symptoms appear during perimenopause, then surely a woman’s midlife problems are all about her hormones?
Well no, BACK UP.
While the American Psychiatric Association claims that as women transition through perimenopause, their risk of depression triples, even if they have no prior history of depression; a Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study found no significant connection between depression and the fluctuating levels of hormones associated with perimenopause. Additional research concurs and this makes sense.
Because remember the ancient midlife dance that has always been part of women’s lives?
Just as the sun shines and the earth turns, our hormones are programmed to smoothly carry us through the seasons of our life cycles.
In fact, blaming perimenopausal symptoms on our hormones is like blaming sunburn on the sun.
People don’t get burnt on a summer holiday because the sun suddenly changes what it’s been doing since the beginning of time. We’ve depleted our ozone layer and then a white woman, who spends most of her life indoors, in front of her computer screen, will sit on a hot beach at midday without enough protection and she’ll get burnt. What should she do? Get angry at the sun and try and fix it with sun replacement therapy?
Likewise, if you think you can enter the ancient patterns of midlife while being stressed out, overworked and overwhelmed and assume you're not going to get burnt, think again. Your body’s not going to cooperate.
Your body is wise: it knew how to transform you from a baby to a girl to a woman, and it also knows how to best help you through menopause and beyond.
In your 20s and 30s, your body let you “play.” You could stay in the stressful job, convince yourself your relationships would work out, surround yourself with friends who sucked your energy, pursue passions that weren’t your own, and perhaps once a month, on the day before your period, your hormones would line up and allow your body to send you a message, which you could no doubt easily ignore with an “oh, I’m getting my period tomorrow.”
If you experienced pregnancies and births during these decades, your body gave you less freedom to play around foolishly while it was busy creating a new life.
And now in your 40s, with your menopausal years on the horizon, your hormones are opening the gates of wisdom. It’s time to learn what you haven’t yet learned through decades of play so that you have the best chance to pass healthily through menopause and beyond. Your body’s tolerance for stressors that can negatively impact your health has already dropped. The messages have begun to arrive.
Perhaps it’s a rash you can’t seem to cure or chronic migraines or extended PMS or sleepless nights – whatever it is, your body wants your attention and it wants you to pay attention to what’s not working in your life and to make wise changes.
It’s your hormones that make the conditions right for these messages to appear. You can try and ignore the messages. You can try and destroy them with drugs. You can try and confuse your hormones by taking hormones of the type your body is naturally depleting.
Or you can seize an opportunity in your 40s to respect the ancient dance, listen to your body and remember that perimenopause is an expression of your body’s wisdom. And that wisdom is yours.
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