Too much of this. Too little of that. Here’s what’s going on—and how to get in sync with your symptoms.
Ladies, is there any one of us who hasn’t been told “You’re hormonal!” at least once in our lives?
Of course you’re hormonal—it’s a good thing.
Your body produces more than 100 hormones. Under the guidance of their master control panel, the endocrine system, they’re sent out into your bloodstream to organs all around your body.
Each hormone has a specific task, from metabolizing your food to regulating your mood, from getting your reproductive system up and running when you’re a teen to shutting it down when you’re older.
But every now and then, things get a little wonky and that hormonal harmony can go off key, sending you on a wild ride on an out-of-control hormonal roller coaster.
That’s more likely to happen during times of transition, like puberty, pregnancy, perimenopause, and—you guessed it—the years after menopause.
When there’s too much or too little of a hormone circulating through your body, you’ll begin to notice something’s not quite right.
“Hormone imbalance will affect a lot of different body functions,” says Christine Mullin, M.D., an assistant professor of gynecology at Zucker School of Medicine.
“Your appetite, sleep cycle, and heart rate—even your mood and your body temperature—can all take a hit,” she continues. “You might experience skin changes like rashes, dry skin, or excessive sweating, or you might have unexplained weight gain or loss.”
If you’re having any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your doctor to help figure out what’s going on.
Here’s a look at how your hormones work after the age of 60, what happens when they go into a tailspin, and what you can do to keep them in line.
The Big 3 Hormones: They’re Not What You Think
The reproductive hormones—estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—get all the attention. But in the years after menopause, the hormonal commotion you may experience can often be traced to cortisol, insulin, and oxytocin.
“These are the major players,” says Anna Cabeca, D.O., a gynecologist and author of The Hormone Fix. “When they’re in balance, the rest of the hormones in your body follow along.”
This is the stress hormone, and your body pumps it out when you need to react to an immediate danger, such as dodging a bicyclist when you’re trying to cross an intersection.
Once that danger has passed, cortisol sweeps up the inflammation the event left in its wake. But cortisol doesn’t know the difference between a near miss in traffic and, say, the ongoing stress of caring for a loved one who’s ill.
In those latter instances, cortisol just continues to flow. And when your body can’t control the spiking cortisol, your levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone plummet even further.
“When that happens, it’s really negative for women’s health,” says JoAnn V. Pinkerton, M.D., a professor of gynecology at the University of Virginia and executive director emeritus of the North American Menopause Society.
The result: hot flashes, night sweats, food cravings, weight gain—and even more anxiety.
“As older women continue to stay in the workforce longer, and to play expanded roles in their families and community, it’s important for them to manage stress and anxiety,” says Dr. Pinkerton.
Bring cortisol back in balance: To stay relaxed during times of high stress, Dr. Pinkerton suggests daily meditation, a standing date with your best pals, and plenty of sleep.
If a good night’s sleep doesn’t come easy for you, check out these five expert sleep strategies.
“This is our fat storage hormone,” Dr. Cabeca explains. “As we get older, it takes more and more insulin to convert glucose—our body’s fuel—into energy.
“We become insulin resistant, and that means your body has to convert that glucose into fat.”
Insulin resistance is linked to health conditions like diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and high blood pressure.
“It throws your other hormones like estrogen and progesterone out of kilter too,” says Dr. Cabeca. “And that can be connected to symptoms like weight gain and difficulty concentrating.”
Bring insulin back in balance: Healthy eating is the most effective strategy for tackling insulin resistance, says Dr. Pinkerton.
She recommends following a Mediterranean-style diet, with lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. A 2018 study found that women who followed this eating plan reduced their risk of cardiovascular health problems, including insulin resistance, by 28 percent.
This is the powerful hormone of love, bonding, and connection. Your body pumps out oxytocin when you cuddle a baby, play with a puppy, enjoy a belly laugh, or enjoy a romantic moment.
Oxytocin helps to balance the negative effects of cortisol, and it even helps regulate your weight and control your appetite.
“As your oxytocin goes up, your cortisol goes down,” says Dr. Cabeca. But the flip side of this is that too much cortisol can deplete your supply of oxytocin.
Bring oxytocin back in balance: The experts agree that exercise is a great way to increase and maintain oxytocin levels. That’s where SilverSneakers can help.
“Exercise, whether it’s strength training or cardio, helps your bones, your heart, your brain, and your mood,” says Dr. Pinkerton.
“SilverSneakers is great because it allows women to work out with women of a similar age, and routines are led by people who are careful to help you avoid injury,” she says.
“No matter how old you are or what shape you’re in, you can get better and stronger,” Dr. Pinkerton continues. “After all, hormones aren’t the fountain of youth—the real fountain of youth is exercise.”
By the way, men can also feel the effects of fluctuating levels of cortisol, insulin, and oxytocin. But Dr. Cabeca says the changes are much more subtle. For example, a spike in cortisol might simply send them to the couch for a mid-afternoon nap.
Testosterone dips, on the other hand, are what usually send guys to the doctor for help. Read up on ways to maintain testosterone here.
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