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We’ve all heard of “the change” and have probably dreaded the day it would arrive—I know I did. Growing up, I heard my mom and aunts discuss their various symptoms and experiences with things like weight gain, mood swings and the like. And I wondered, “will this happen to me?”

The truth is that hormonal fluctuations are normal. They happen all throughout our lives, including during puberty and pregnancy. However it’s during perimenopause (the time before menopause) that these hormones can play a negative role in our day to day lives.

The changes we experience during perimenopause are usually gradual and start to happen about eight years before the onset of menopause. You may start noticing that your diet has not changed, yet you’re putting on weight or that your jeans don’t fit the way they used to. Your monthly cycle will become irregular as the balance between estrogen and progesterone changes (usually too much estrogen and too little progesterone).

Some of the common physical changes during this time may be:

  • menstrual changes – heavy and irregular periods
  • sleep disruptions – waking up at 3am for no reason
  • weight gain and fat distribution – fat suddenly being stored in the belly and thighs
  • unwanted hair growth such as facial hair
  • dry and wrinkling skin
  • hot flashes
  • night sweats
  • vaginal dryness
  • loss of libido
  • headaches
  • acne
  • water retention and bloating

Beyond the physical, there are some common emotional symptoms as well:

  • mood swings
  • anxiety
  • fatigue
  • anger
  • brain fog and difficulty concentrating
  • short term memory loss
  • sense of urgency

It has been my experience that embracing these changes, and using nutrition and exercise to manage them, can go a long way to making this time in our lives more pleasant. In my opinion, we always have a choice—we can sit back and let life happen to us or go out and happen to life.

Some of the other hormones at play during this time are insulin and cortisol. Estrogen and progesterone affect how our cells respond to insulin and therefore play a role in our overall fat distribution (this explains the new belly fat). Cortisol, our “fight or flight” hormone, also goes a bit wonky during this time, which is why managing our stress is critical.

In terms of diet, eating a range of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes will reduce inflammation and naturally balance hormones. Plant based foods are also rich in fibre, antioxidants and phytonutrients, so consuming these will ensure that we maintain a healthy gut (which plays a huge role in our overall health). Fibre in particular keeps us fuller for longer, aids digestion by keeping us regular, and removes excess hormones from our bodies.

Speaking of hormones, dairy is highly inflammatory and contains a lot of external sex hormones (particularly estrogen and IGF1). These hormones wreak havoc on the human body and have been linked to reproductive cancers such as breast and prostate. Therefore you should also consider reducing your intake or removing dairy from your diet altogether.

Physical activity is also essential to maintaining a healthy weight, muscle mass and strong bones as we age. It not only improves metabolism but also releases endorphins, which helps to reduce stress. Weight-bearing activities are particularly important as these increase muscle mass for more significant fat loss and help to improve bone density. Strong muscles and bones are vital to living a healthy, active life well into our later years.

Finally, yoga, tai-chi, meditation, journaling and spending time with friends are great ways to practice self-love. Remember that this is just another phase in life and our attitude toward it should be one of love and gratitude. Better days are ahead, I promise!