Menopause: It’s Not Just Your Ovaries
Apr 30, 2013 03:12PM
● By Dr. Wendy Warner and Brad Hubbell
Conventional medicine has long taught that hot flashes and night sweats are caused by dropping estrogen levels, and that’s it. However, if we think about it further, the explanation makes no sense. Although estrogen levels drop in all women at menopause, not everyone experiences the symptoms. On the other hand, some women start getting night sweats while they are still having regular menstrual periods. Others continue to experience hot flashes many years after their final menstruation, when their hormones should have stabilized.
In the case of these hormonal disturbances, it’s worth looking beyond the ovaries to the adrenal glands, which produce epinephrine, norepinephrine (adrenaline) and hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, DHEA and estrogens. If a person is stuck in fight-or-flight mode, cortisol and DHEA will be out of balance, which can be the first domino in a series of problems. The part of the brain that regulates body temperature reacts to adrenaline and estrogen levels; if the adrenaline is at a normal level, no matter the estrogen level, a woman will not experience flushing. If a woman’s adrenaline level is high (which is common, but not normal) and her estrogen level is high enough, no reaction will be triggered in the brain and she may feel fine. As soon as her estrogen level drops though, she will start experiencing flashes.
On top of this, cortisol and insulin work together. Insulin’s job is to keep blood sugar normal. If we eat something that makes our blood sugar go up, insulin rises quickly and brings cortisol with it, which may trigger a hot flash. This is why many women figure out quickly that a glass of wine in the evening will lead to a poor night’s sleep.
When women choose to use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for their menopausal symptoms, it works because they are circumventing the message the brain gets from the adrenals. However, if that is all they do, the underlying problem hasn’t really been addressed. Years later, when they decide to stop the HRT, they simply start to flash all over again. This is not to say that taking hormones is a bad thing, it just is not addressing the underlying problem.
An adrenal imbalance can start to impact ovarian hormone balance early on. Most women with premenstrual syndrome or irregular periods will notice that things are much worse during a stressful month. This is because the adrenals, which are only supposed to work in short bursts to get us out of danger (fight or flight), become depleted if our state of being has them working constantly. To keep going, the adrenals steal progesterone and convert it to cortisol. This helps the adrenals, but leaves ovarian hormones even more out of balance. Keeping estrogen and progesterone balanced requires attending to adrenal balance even long before menopause. The basic symptoms of adrenal imbalance include insomnia, foggy thinking, weight gain and ovarian hormone imbalances.
The fight-or-flight reaction is designed to be short-term. The adrenals respond to what our brains signal, according to conventional medical thinking. Safety means the adrenals can stop producing stress hormones; danger means they need to keep working.
Research, such as that conducted by the Institute of HeartMath, among others, supports the notion that the message received by the adrenals is born of a process slightly deeper than brain level. Their research suggests that through emotions, it is what the heart tells the brain that ultimately determines the message that the adrenals receive. In other words, negative emotions—including anger, sadness, pain, worry and even the brain chatter that comes from multitasking—tell the adrenals that they need to keep working. Positive emotions, such as joy, happiness, gratitude and love, are interpreted as safeness, so they signal the adrenals to relax. Calm and peaceful feelings produce a neutral reaction, which is better than anxious or mad, but not strong enough to signal the adrenals to take a break.
Several techniques can be used to create the positive emotions that reduce the adrenal workload. First, we focus on our heart. Then, breathing slowly and steadily, we imagine breathing through our heart. Next, we focus on a time when we felt happy, joyful and grateful. Then, we continue to breathe and feel the positive feelings for several minutes.
Practiced regularly, these techniques can be used to help balance hormones, improve sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, and control blood pressure and diabetes. The effectiveness of the techniques can be improved by using biofeedback devices to monitor the body’s reactions.
Wendy Warner, M.D., is board certified in gynecology and holistic medicine and is the founder of Medicine In Balance, a holistic medical practice in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Contact her by visiting MedicineInBalance.com. Brad Hubbell is a certified medical hypnotherapist, stress management expert and one-to-one provider for HeartMath stress relief program. Reach him by visiting StressReliefForGood.com.