By Jill Davey, founder of Menopause Woman
Stress at 30 and 50 ― What’s the Difference?
We all get stressed out, but how stress affects you may depend in part upon your age.
Say you’re in your thirties. Let’s assume that you’re not only young ― you’re healthy, strong and resourceful. In that case, you’re more likely to have stamina and coping skills needed to overcome stress and regain your equilibrium without too much trauma.
Of course, if you suffer a devastating personal loss, debilitating illness or injury, or severe financial setback, stress may be severe and may take longer and be more difficult to overcome. It’s pretty much fate . . . the luck of the draw. But youth helps.
Now let’s age you up to 50. You’re not only going through menopause, but your time of life makes it more likely that multiple stressors are piling up on you just as your defences are at low ebb.
Maybe you have teenagers at home or children leaving home. Your parents are aging and perhaps in poor health, needing care. Is your spouse having a mid-life crisis? Are you having relationship problems or trying to adjust to being single? And what about work? Any problems there?
The potential for derailing, life-shattering stress lurks everywhere, and there’s no question that menopause and declining hormone levels make coping with it far more challenging.
What Can Stress Do to You?
Menopause can, in itself, be a potent source of stress, but it can also severely weaken your ability to manage stress that comes from external sources.
At times, stress can be your friend, spurring you to perform better, overcome obstacles and become your better self. But it’s also true that it can drain all your resources, making you feel overwhelmed and defenceless.
Problems arise when stress lingers too long. Long-term stress can take a toll on your emotional and physical health, resulting in:
● High blood pressure
● High blood sugar
● Increased risk of heart problems and diabetes
● Gastric reflux and digestive problems
● Weakened immune system
● Depression and anxiety
● Problems with learning and memory
● Mental health problems
● Aches and pains
Can you work your way through stress and move on with your life? Absolutely, if you do what’s needed to take care of yourself. Naturally, it’s easier if you’re younger and not yet menopausal.
Why Does Menopause Make Coping So Much More Difficult?
The primary difference between your younger self and your menopausal self is disruption to your hormonal balance.
Many people think of hormones as the sex hormones: oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. But in fact, we have many more hormones, each performing specific functions. For example, when your brain recognizes that you’re physically or emotionally stressed, it signals your adrenal glands to release two hormones that specialise in stress: cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol, which is responsible for your “fight-or-flight” response to stress, is one of your body’s most important hormones. It enables you to stay alert and focused in times of danger or challenge. For that reason, it can be helpful in short-term situations ― but if levels remain elevated for lengthy periods, it becomes damaging.
Ordinarily, following a release of cortisol, there’s a period of relaxation and stabilization when cortisol returns to normal levels. However, when stress bombards your adrenals non-stop, day after day, they keep right on pumping out cortisol.
Long-term high cortisol has several effects:
1. The adrenals use progesterone to make more cortisol. This diverts progesterone away from its other functions and drains progesterone stores. The unavailability of progesterone may compromise thyroid function, which brings its own set of problems ― weight gain, fatigue, brain fog, depression, and muscle and joint pain, for example.
2. Your amazing adrenal glands, when in top form, do much more than release cortisol. For one, they’re also a prolific hormone factory, and when your ovaries stop producing sex hormones, your adrenals step in and take over that responsibility.
The adrenals’ output of oestrogen (the “stimulating hormone”) and progesterone (the “calming” hormone) is small, however ― and although it may help somewhat to lessen the severity of menopausal symptoms, it isn’t enough to avoid them.
To make matters worse, if stress and the demand for cortisol remain consistently high, your adrenals will be guided by their number one priority: to make cortisol. Your adrenals will neglect the need to make progesterone and oestrogen, which will further sabotage hormonal balance.
With even less oestrogen and progesterone, you’re likely to experience heightened menopausal symptoms.
3. Animal studies also show that a higher, yet balanced, oestrogen level helps the brain cope with stress. If you don’t have enough oestrogen, stress is exacerbated.
4. Lastly, when the adrenals use progesterone to make cortisol, it further depletes the progesterone available to balance oestrogen. The end result may be oestrogen dominance, which means oestrogen levels become too high relative to progesterone.
If you have oestrogen dominance, you likely also have adrenal fatigue, which makes dealing with stress even more challenging. With adrenal fatigue, you’ll typically experience difficulty getting through your day, anxiety attacks, irritability, fatigue and feelings of being overwhelmed, along with a number of health problems.
When properly balanced, progesterone and oestrogen help buffer your body from the onslaughts of excessive cortisol. However, when the adrenals are exhausted, your levels of oestrogen and progesterone not only fall, but they become unbalanced. They can’t perform their proper roles, and defences fade.
When you’re still in your pre-perimenopausal thirties, it’s more likely that your hormones are at healthy levels and still in balance, which vastly improves your odds of taming stress and protecting against the damaging effects of excessive cortisol.
How Do You Fight Stress After 50?
A University College London study showed that people with high cortisol levels were more likely to have high calcium deposits in their arteries ― a sign of coronary artery disease, which leads to heart attacks and stroke.
This is only one of the ways stress can undermine your health. Whatever your age, it’s wise to take action to lower your stress levels. Watching your diet, keeping active and being kind to yourself are excellent ways to start:
● Stay away from sugar. Excessive sugar raises your blood sugar levels and causes release of more cortisol.
● Avoid refined grains, all processed foods and GMO (genetically modified) foods. Eat organic as much as possible.
● Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Herbal tea can be a soothing alternative.
● Exercise moderately (don’t overdo it).
● Talk with supportive friends or family.
● Plan “me” time for relaxation or engaging in pleasurable activities.
● Get enough sleep.
Next, if you’re approaching, in or beyond perimenopause, focus on rebalancing your hormones. This can be achieved in a number of ways including through diet, HRT and with bioidentical hormone restorative therapy (BHRT). You can’t tame stress when cortisol is on a non-stop rampage. And you can’t cope with stress when your hormonal stores are inadequate to perform their proper functions.
Lee, T. How stress affects symptoms of menopause (and what you can do about it). Healthspan.
Estrogen Dominance. Dr. Rind.
Stress and artery health studied. NHS choices. Jan. 18, 2010.
Stress: Getting Serious About Solutions. The North American Menopause Society (NAMS).
Vogel, A. Is the Menopause causing you to feel stressed? A. Vogel
Jill Davey is an advocate of restorative medicine and an expert in bioidentical hormone restorative therapy (BHRT). She has worked and studied under the guidance of Dr Dzugan for a number of years, as well as doing extensive research of her own over the past decade. She is the founder of Menopause Woman. Jill lives and works in Italy with her husband and two sons.