Postpartum women and menopausal women have a lot more common than
you might think. Sound a little out there? I wanted to share with you my thoughts on how these two transformative moments in a woman’s life are actually very linked. For all you new mums or mums to be, it’s interesting to realise that how you feel after having a baby can be very similar to how you may end up feeling when your reproductive journey comes to an end.
We already know that women go through lots of physical changes during their lives. From the moment we start puberty, our bodies are on a hormonal voyage that can take us all over the place. But hormones and women is a topic that’s still massively trivialised and very misunderstood. It bugs me how women are labelled as over emotional, unmanageable or even hysterical/crazy whenever their hormones are out of balance. Hormones are very powerful and play a fundamental role in our biology. They’re not only responsible for enabling us to reproduce, they also play a huge part in how we feel, or how we may respond to a situation. Hormones can even impact aspects of how we look, so disregarding them as irritating brain foggers is seriously misinformed.
As a midwife, I’m acutely aware of all the different influences that hormones have on women, before, during and after pregnancy. I’ve always found it interesting how postpartum women’s levels of oestrogen and progesterone are often at the same level as menopausal women.
In fact, these events are two of the most hormonally charged in a woman’s life. So let’s do the science bit without getting overly technical. I’ll keep it brief. Pregnancy comes with soaring levels of oestrogen and progesterone. As soon as the placenta comes out, levels of oestrogen and progesterone plummet to perimenopausal levels within 24 hours after giving birth. It can then take a number of months to recover. Progesterone levels usually also drop faster than oestrogen levels. So apart from having to deal with lower levels of both, there is also an imbalance between the two.
When oestrogen levels are out of balance women tend to experience breast tenderness, headaches and fluid retention, but it’s really when mood-elevating progesterone is out of balance that things like postpartum depression, anxiety or low mood can take hold. These symptoms are well documented in postpartum women (baby blues anyone?) and certainly hormones are largely responsible for them. But in any case, it takes a while for our bodies and our minds to adjust after having a baby.
Likewise, during the menopause, levels of oestrogen and progesterone drop with the production of progesterone usually slowing down more quickly. This results in both physical and emotional side effects that have a massive crossover.
Perimenopausal women can experience vaginal dryness, fatigue, night sweats, hair loss, irritability, a decreased sex drive and even depression – and the same symptoms are often true for postpartum women too. Our bodies seem to replicate these strong physical and emotional symptoms at these two key points in our reproductive stories.
What I find most fascinating is how we evolve at each stage of development. Life would be mind-numbingly boring if nothing ever changed, but let’s be honest – embracing these hormonal transitions can sometimes be challenging. On multiple levels – psychologically, physically, emotionally, hormonally etc. Both the menopause and postpartum are amplifiers of change, at fundamental crossroads in our lives. The end of reproduction, or the end of a pregnancy. The beginning of a life without periods. The start of a new motherhood experience. They’re significant rites of passage and catching up with our new selves can take a bit of time.
Accepting the new and letting go of what has gone before is a lot easier to say than to do, especially when the essential issue with both of these life events is the fact that women’s hormones are fundamentally imbalanced. That means our emotions can go through crashing highs and lows. It’s easy to see each stage as an inconvenience but I like to think that our bodies know what they are doing – with our hormonal changes acting as a guide to develop our personal evolution.
Nonetheless, no one can deny that stability feels good and it can be helpful to know how to feel more balanced and supported when facing the hormonal challenges of postpartum recovery or impending menopause.
The right nutrition is vital. Eating a balanced diet that’s rich in protein, fibre and healthy fats is an excellent start, and if possible to eliminate sugar, caffeine and alcohol – even better – as these exacerbate negative symptoms even more.
Exercise can also help significantly but only at the right intensity. Early and mid postpartum and perimenopause are not the time to put the body under additional counter-productive stress. Instead opt for restorative, strengthening and balancing forms of exercise that give you strength and energy, rather then depleting you. The wrong type of exercise can make your adrenal glands go wild – hormonal imbalances only get worse with an increase in cortisol – so that means try to stress less too (I know, easier said than done).
Rest and relaxation are words that don’t sound particularly compatible with new motherhood but wherever possible to slow things down – do so. The hormonal imbalances of postpartum recovery and of the menopause can wreak havoc with your sleep. So if you’re a new mum with a baby to look after you could easily find yourself feeling like a zombie.
Instead, prioritise good sleep habits by sleeping when your baby sleeps (yes that old chestnut – but do it and you won’t ever regret it) and start taking a 15-20 minute nap. Also set yourself some limits with your tech. Yep, that means stepping away from social media and WhatsApp.
Like any life stage, postpartum recovery (and the menopause) are transient. As you transition from one phase of being to another, mindfulness exercises can be really useful. Learning how to zoom in on the now and zoom out on the past can help you to gain perspective and feel less anxious.
Do more of what brings you joy and less of what makes you miserable. Surround yourself with people you feel good around and ditch the ones that suck the life out of you. Never underestimate the power of people!
Remember, hormonal changes will end eventually. Once they do we can often look back at them as moments in our lives that were highly charged with extremes. That means as well as the tough parts, there’s bound to be moments and memories within these transitions that are also deeply profound.
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