Weir: Stress and lack of sleep makes hormones harder to manage

Before blaming fatigue, anxiety and moodiness on perimenopause, have you checked your stress?

Shirley Weir 3 minute read September 5, 2020
shirley weir menopause advocate

Shirley Weir is the founder of Menopause Chicks

Dear Shirley,

I’m not sure where to turn. I’m 45 and my body aches constantly. I’m experiencing anxiety for the first time in my life, I’m too exhausted to exercise and everything that used to be easy — sleep, sex, digestion — seems like hard work now. My friends call this perimenopause. But I think that stress is also playing a role in how badly I feel. 

You are not alone. (Your story sounds familiar; it actually sounds like me once upon a time) The short answer is: trust your intuition; if you think stress is playing a role, my bet is that you are right.

In my early-to-mid 40’s, I was burning the candle at both ends with a business, two young kids and an aging mother. I wanted to point a finger at perimenopause as the reason behind how exhausted I felt, but what I learned when I started researching this important health topic was the role of stress, and how, if left unmanaged, it can disrupt every system in our body — from hormones to sleep and more.

One of the very first women’s health experts I met was Dr. Bal Pawa, a physician, pharmacist, co-founder of the West Coast Women’s Clinic in Vancouver, and most recently, the author of The Mind-Body Cure: Heal Your Pain, Anxiety and Fatigue by Controlling Chronic Stress.

She taught me that everything we do and feel is connected, especially when it comes to sleep deprivation. Proper sleep gives your body and brain the time it needs to heal from the stress of the day, helping you to wake feeling rested, which in turn helps with energy and mood. A good supply of energy helps make exercise easier and can stave off feelings of anxiety — or at least help us to manage these emotions.

If you aren’t getting enough rest, you don’t have enough energy to manage stress and mood, or to exercise — the very thing that helps manage stress and mood. You can see how a lack of sleep can leave us vulnerable to stress, negatively affect our wellbeing and kick off a vicious cycle of fatigue and anxiety.

“Women often want to blame estrogen and progesterone [for how they are feeling],” says Pawa. “But what we are failing to tell women is that if we can’t manage our stress (our cortisol hormone), we are going to have a harder time with our female hormones. That’s the big connection.”

Pawa likes the analogy of the gas pedal and brake pedal in a car. Having your foot on the gas pedal all the time will cause your body to be in a constant state of “fight-or-flight”— and that leads to disease. In fact, seventy-five per cent of disease is caused by continuous and excessive stress.

She helps women connect the dots between their physical experiences — from heartburn and insomnia, to anxiety and low libido — to stress.

Then, Pawa teaches women to use the brake pedal to allow rest and repair to occur. So instead of “throwing a pill at every ill,” she helps women learn how to turn on their own “internal pharmacy,” a strategy that includes a prescription of meditation, mindful eating, exercise, rest, and prevention, so there is less need for medical intervention.

Dr. Bal Pawa is the keynote speaker for Sleep, Stress & Sex: The Mind-Body Connection, a special online event on Sept 10 recognizing Menopause Awareness Month.

Do you have a question about perimenopause, menopause or beyond? Post it in our private online community or write to me

Shirley Weir is the founder of Menopause Chicks, an online facebook community that advocates for women in perimenopause, menopause & beyond! She is also the author of Mokita: How to Navigate Perimenopause with Confidence & Ease@MenopauseChicks