Perimenopause. There I said it. It almost seems like a dirty word. In fact, when I discuss it with clients as a possible cause for some of their symptoms, they often seem surprised and sometimes, dismayed. So what it is, exactly and how is it different to menopause? And most importantly, what can you about it? Keep reading to find tips to manage perimenopause.

Perimenopause is the transition time a woman goes through in the lead up to menopause (full cessation of the menstrual cycle) and usually starts when you’re in your 40s, but for some, it can be earlier. This is the time when our ovaries gradually make less oestrogen and can last months, a few years or up to10 years for some women before they reach full menopause. They symptoms can begin subtly—restless sleep, periods that are a few days early or later than normal, a heavier menstrual flow, worsening PMS symptoms, breast tenderness, maybe a change in your ability to lose that stubborn weight…things that can easily be dismissed or ignored for many.

As perimenopause progresses and oestrogen levels drop, the changes become more noticeable and include things like hot flushes, marked fatigue, lowered sex drive, mood swings, mid-section weight gain, growth of pesky facial hair and vaginal dryness to name a few.

It sounds horrendous, right? Here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be. You have more control than you think. It’s all about recognising it then working with your body and hormones instead of against them. The three main areas I focus on when supporting women through perimenopause (and managing my own!):

What and how you eat. As our hormones change, so does our metabolism. Eating for hormone balance can make a big difference in the symptoms you experience. This is a time where you need the right balance of fibre (to help balance fluctuating oestrogens), protein (to help maintain muscle), nourishing fats and the right carbs to really support hormone production. Eating the way you did in your 20s just won’t work! While it doesn’t mean giving up everything you love eating a diet rich in whole foods will help you find that oh-so-important balance! Timing of meals can also be key in controlling the redistribution of weight we can experience (hello belly!).

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How you exercise. Many of my clients don’t understand why that hour long run or intense gym session isn’t helping them budge the weight, energise them or improve their sleep. Believe it or not, when you’re going through perimenopause, your exercise regime can actually work against you. Exercises such as HiiT that focus on quick bursts for a short period can help stimulate fat burning. Strength training to support bone and muscle is also a good strategy, as dropping oestrogen affects the strength of both. I work with trained professionals to help you find the right formula to balance your hormones, boost your metabolism and get you feeling great. You’ll find that working smarter, not harder, has big hormonal benefits.

Your mindset. This is a biggie. Negative thought patterns create stress. Overworking creates stress. Relationship challenges that can arise in perimenopause create stress. Stress management is one of the cornerstones in balancing hormones at any life stage, but in perimenopause—it’s a must! An increase in stress hormones affects your hormone levels, your sleep, your digestion, your metabolism, your emotional welbeing and quite frankly, can make this transition period hell. Establishing stress management techniques, a mindfulness practice, getting out in nature, spending time with friends, connecting with the special people in your life can all support you in through the ups and downs of perimenopause.

The next phase of womanhood CAN be fulfilling, bring a new sense of freedom and can even spur creativity if you embrace it!

–Heather Smith is Clinical Nutritionist specialising in Women’s Health and Hormones based in Melbourne and the Yarra Valley. She practices from The Nourish Space Mon-Thur and offers Skype consultations around the globe. Online bookings can be made here.