Managing Menopause with Yoga

Symptoms of perimenopause

Oh the joys of perimenopause! Beyond the hot flushes and the night sweats (the two best-known symptoms) women can suffer from a myriad of issues ranging from the psychological – anxiety, overwhelm, mood swings and brain fog – to the physical such as IBS and other digestive problems, aching joints, insomnia, migraines, hair loss, fatigue and weight gain. Throw in the lesser-known complaints such as tinnitus, restless legs, heart palpitations, dizziness or just having a metallic taste in the mouth, and the list of symptoms seems to be endless.

Hormones in perimenopause

It is, of course, all down to hormones. Specifically, this means decreasing levels of oestrogen and progesterone, the female sex hormones responsible for reproduction. Perimenopause, the period leading up to menopause, usually begins in your forties (but sometimes earlier) and can last for years until actual menopause, which is defined as a single day one year after your last period (the average age of which in the UK is 52). And hormones don’t just decline gradually, they spike and plummet in a chaotic, irregular and unpredictable but generally downward trajectory. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a rollercoaster ride – and not a particularly fun one at that.

So how does yoga help?

We all know yoga is clearly not HRT, but for those who don’t want to, can’t, or just aren’t ready to go down the HRT route (or are simply waiting for the NHS to get its interminable act together on this front), yoga, with its three main tools of postures (asanas), breathwork (pranayama) and meditation, can offer a highly effective lifestyle strategy to help manage this myriad of symptoms. Yoga can directly release anger and irritability, soothing heated emotions. It can calm the nervous system, helping the gut-brain axis regulate the digestion and therefore ease digestive issues and IBS. A better regulated nervous system also improves sleep disturbance, and we all know that that a better night’s sleep restores depleted energy and results in less fatigue. Working in such a way with your nervous system also helps regulate your endocrine system and your hormones (as the two work closely together). Get your nervous system under control and you might even find those night sweats decreasing in frequency.

And it doesn’t necessarily matter which yoga tool you choose. When I was stuck in the house during lockdown, prevented from a physical practice not just by Covid restrictions but also by a hip injury, my only recourse was breathwork and meditation. Both helped calm my simmering claustrophobia and utterly irrational fury (aka “menorage”), leaving me hanging onto the cliff edge of sanity rather than plummeting straight off it.

Weight gain in perimenopause

In many ways it makes perfect sense that employing techniques such breathwork, mindful movement and restorative postures help reduce stress levels. But when it comes to one of the more annoying symptoms of menopause – mid-life weight gain, impossible to shift – it feels counterintuitive that this is another symptom that can be helped by gentle yoga. Mindful movement is not usually associated with traditional cardiovascular-style weight management.

Wait, what?

Let me explain. Oestrogen doesn’t just control a woman’s reproductive system, it also plays an important role in protecting against inflammation in the body. The loss of this protection is compounded by the extra stress that most women experience at this stage in their lives (teenage kids, elderly parents, juggling home and career). Constant stress also drives the inflammatory response and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol are linked to increased belly fat. When inflammation becomes chronic, our appetites are stimulated in an unhealthy way: we’re more likely experience cravings and to reach out for comfort food in the form of carbs, compounding the health issues and leading to even more weight gain. It really is a vicious cycle.

Breaking the inflammation cycle

As far as exercise and weight are concerned, we have been conditioned all our lives to believe that if we work or run further, faster or harder, then that is what be effective. But in menopause things are different. This is NOT the time to sign up for a marathon because, guess what? Working out in such a way stresses the body even more, potentially increasing inflammation further and exacerbating the problem.

Instead, finding a place of deep rest where the parasympathetic nervous system engages and our “rest-and-digest” mode takes over from a chronic, anxious “fight-or-flight” state, lowers inflammation levels. If, like me, you have inexplicably started to suffer from digestive issues at this stage of life, yoga can be a useful intervention. Studies have shown that there is no significant difference between practising yoga and adhering to a strict FODMAP diet to alleviate IBS symptoms.

Add in the benefit of how a regulated nervous system helps your hormones work in better harmony and you embark on a positive upwards cycle of hormone and stress regulation that has the ability to get your body back on track. You’re still on the rollercoaster, you still can’t get off, but it might just not be quite as terrifying and out of control as it once was.

Yoga for the soul

So yes, believe it or not, simply having a nice yogic lie down not only soothes the soul in an utterly magical way, but might also calm your gut issues and help you lose weight in the long term. Sounds like a win-win to me!

If you’re interested, I run gentle yoga and relaxation sessions in Westbury-on-Trym. Utterly restorative and soothing, they’re a lovely way to prioritise your needs and self-care in this transitional period of life. In addition the classes at the Wildlife Park have the added benefit of being in nature which is shown to have a physiological affect on our bodies in lowering our cortisol levels and reducing depression and anxiety.

Current weekly yoga classes run on Wednesdays with occasional weekend sessions (see Classes).

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