Listen to Your Body Rhythms

Hormonal cycles have always been a defining factor in women’s lives, inspiring myths, customs, restrictions and in more recent times, self-medication. in the late 1880’s, cocaine-laced soft drinks were advertised as a perfect pick-me-up. In fact, generations of women have learned to self-medicate for mood swings, anxiety, depression and physical discomfort.

Today, physicians are 37 percent more likely to prescribe a tranquilizer and 33 percent likelier to prescribe an anti-depressant for women than men.

Recently, though, the medical establishment has begun to integrate more lifestyle and holistic therapies into clinical protocols, including acupuncture and massage therapy. What we all need to take into account is the role of hormonal shifts.

The hormonal ride is emotional and physical

Hormone shifts affect physical and emotional well-being from puberty through menopause. Mood swings, increased appetite, cravings and anxiety have hormonal roots throughout these cycles. The good news is that we can help reduce emotional and physical symptoms ourselves in ways that can become part of a healthy daily routine.

The fluctuation of estrogen is connected to moods, interacting with and affecting levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melotonin, which influence sleep and a sense of well being. The levels of estrogen shift during a woman’s menstrual, perimenopausal and/or menopausal stages of life. Estrogen interacts with endomorphins in the brain as well, and when estrogen levels are low and progesterone levels are maintained, cravings can result.

Progesterone has been implicated in PMS symptoms, such as mood swings, anger and irritability. This hormone is associated with memory, sex drive, huger and anger. Increasing estrogen, whether through hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) may counteract these symptoms, but we now know these aren’t a “magic pill.”

Perimenopause can start as early as age 40 and last for years, followed by menopause. Hot flashes are common and are related to dropping estrogen levels, which can disrupt sleep and normal functioning.

Hormonal surges during cycling can affect our relationships, self-esteem and a general sense of well-being. Alcohol may seem to be a great mood lifter. But it is actually a depressant, raising estrogen levels and therefore serotonin levels for a lighter mood, but as a depressant, heavy use results in physiologically induced emotional swings.

Many women in treatment for addictions at Hanley Center,, have experienced trauma and abuse. They can be further affected by changing levels of hormones during menstrual cycles, because old memories, accompanied by strong emotions are more apt to surface then. If women know when and how this happens, it is easier to facilitate a plan to relieve the symptoms and perhaps address the issues with a psychologist.

Take a personal inventory

How do you feel today? Wouldn’t it be interesting to chart a month of daily reactions to your mental and physical well-being? You may verify what you suspected: PMS aggravates cravings for sweets, or perhaps salty foods. (Did I really scarf down that whole bag of potato chips?) Irritability is hard to live with; maybe it gives you permission to have that second or third drink. Feeling mellow at first, but really crabby and tired later. Or maybe a blue mood inspired a quick trip to the mall- (did I really spend that much on those red sandals?) Do you reach for a cigarette to calm jitters? Women have also told us that they thought a joint of marijuana helped calm them down or fight depression. Then they “needed” this pacifier more often or went on to something stronger. Substance addiction can result by establishing these patterns of self-medication, and we know the effects of hormonal shifts can trigger addiction relapse.

Take a daily assessment of mood and other emotional symptoms as well as physical discomfort for one month. You’ll probably see a pattern emerging, such as irritability clearly linked to PMS. List the medications you take.

Have these been reviewed lately with your doctor, and does your primary doctor know all the medications you are currently taking? A total physical work-up should be part of your plan. Write down what you ordinarily do to help reduce any discomfort of monthly cycling or perimenopause/menopause. Some of us are on such a fast track of activity or are preoccupied with others’ needs that we don’t take the pulse of our own well being.

It takes a plan

Begin to look at what you can do to bring renewed and sustained physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Your plan to counteract depression, cravings or anxiety, and/or sustain a sense of well being will need flexibility. A regular schedule of golf may not be your personal stress-buster, but yoga and meditation could be, and research has shown that deep breathing may reduce hot flashes by 50%.

The healing arts of yoga, visual imagery and Tai Chi are natural anecdotes to mood swings and can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones in the blood. Massages reduce anxiety levels and sooth muscles. Proper nutrition and balanced meals keep energy and blood sugar at normal levels, and weight stable.

Make time for friends (how about tennis, a walk or having coffee). As the holistic guru, Dr. Andrew Weil reports, we need ongoing close relationships to nurture happiness. Be attentive to yourself every day: you can’t save up all the little stresses to dispel them with one long-anticipated vacation.

Lose yourself in a creative activity, either as part of a class or some craft you love. Maybe it’s gardening. Do you have a private place to call your own at home? Sequester a corner of space just for your own time for reading, painting, yoga or daily meditation. Even if you live alone, christen a place reserved for this activity.

Do you crave sweets just before your period? Enjoy a dessert! Having quantities of these goodies around, however, is when craving leads to bingeing. Want chocolate right now? Try this: just one really superb piece of Belgian chocolate can satiate. Do you sip wine while making dinner, then continue drinking wine during dinner? Try flavored water next time, in a pretty glass and garnished with lime. You may need professional help in kicking some habits, such as nicotine, or if you suspect you may be reliant on pain medications or alcohol, consult a specialist who can make a professional assessment and possible referral for treatment.

By self-assessing monthly rhythms and understanding some root causes of otherwise inexplicable emotional ups and downs, women can design and find a more serene balance in living. Far from being narcissistic, it helps us reduce the effects of hormonal swings, prevent many lifestyle-induced illnesses and enjoy life in the present.