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Are We Talking About Menopause Yet?

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

It's looking like a yes in answer to the question posed in the title, and I for one am all in favour of it. Anything that will affect 50% of the population mustn't be discussed only behind closed doors and in whispers. This is not where women and their natural physical and mental experiences belong.

I realise I just used the word 'natural' and in doing so, I feel slightly conflicted. For the avoidance of all doubt, I'm completely in favour of grown-up openness about this subject, including in the workplace; whilst some women glide through Menopause with relative ease, others are infinitely more challenged, both at work and in their home lives, and whatever they're experiencing matters. But is this 'natural'? Why are women in Western societies frequently more profoundly affected by this natural transition than their counterparts in certain other cultures? What if we've veered so far from our nature that a mentally and physically demanding Menopause is more or less inevitable for a good proportion of us?

There's every reason to conclude that this is precisely what's happening. The more mysterious part for me is that we've come to consider it normal. But before I get too sure of myself, and make claims about how much easier it was for our grandmothers and great grandmothers, we must always factor in that whatever their 'normal' Menopause experience was, it was also normal to keep very quiet about it. Women's health has mostly been a taboo subject for way too long, contributing to a medical response to women's health that falls somewhere between inadequate and positively dangerous. I've written about this before.

Nevertheless, I have personal reasons to contribute to my suspicion that we have ceased to align ourselves with what best suits the natural beings that we are, and by 'we', I mean all of us, women, men and children. When I averted a further round of surgery for endometriosis about 20 years ago by changing my diet to focus more on natural foods, I had a sneaking suspicion, that despite all the apparent odds not in my favour, sticking to this new regime might be helpful when Menopause became a reality. I look back now and realise there was definitely room for improvement but nevertheless, I transitioned far better than I'd expected to, only ever experiencing about 5 hot flushes throughout! Of course, this isn't proof; I can't go back and repeat the experiment, but as I'd already experienced what seemed like a miracle in respect of the initial hormonal event (the endometriosis), I can't help but consider that the surprisingly encouraging experience of Menopause almost a decade later may well have been a consequence of my more natural food-related interventions.

But it's more than food. My diet is really pretty good these days; I genuinely enjoy lots of fruits and vegetables and I'm delighted and grateful that I do. But why have sleep issues persisted for me? And a background hum of anxiety? Where else in my life have I been keeping nature at arm's length? I'm not sedentary, I walk at least 30 miles most weeks, I know most of the 'sleep hygiene' list like the back of my hand and I generally adhere to it. I don't drink coffee, I don't drink alcohol (and I don't miss either). Consequently, I had, until recently, accepted the poor sleep and anxiety as my lot in life, even as personality flaws! But not long ago, I uncovered another missing factor and it's breathing. Breathing! I've been doing it for decades with no inkling that I was getting it wrong. Why would I? It felt normal to me. It was my normal.

I've come to understand that the way we breathe impacts literally every system of the body, and thanks to a range of factors, many of us have 'unlearned' to breathe as we did when we were babies. Again, modern life with its soft, processed food and persistent low-level stress have intruded on our breathing, even changing our facial structure! It should come as no surprise then, that women's health might affect and be affected by the way we breathe; it is a bidirectional thing.

Throughout a woman's reproductive life hormonal fluctuations are strongly linked with breathing. A rise in progesterone stimulates breathing, typically making it faster. Faster breathing in turn exacerbates the symptoms we've come to collectively call PMS. Later in life, this and other hormones drop and the hitherto protective effects of progesterone (it's a hormone with mixed blessings) are lost, increasing a woman's risk of sleep apnea by as much as 200%! But as sleep apnea can be affected both positively and negatively by breathing, we can make a positive difference by attending to our breathing and retraining the aspects of it that are not optimal. And this can apply to other types of sleep disturbances as I'm finding out. I've had decades of Insomnia, but only recently have I found that my sleep was at least partially disrupted by my breathing!

Would it surprise you to hear that breathing can also play a role in the experience of other Menopause-related matters such as pelvic floor function and hot flushes, and that there's even a link between osteoporosis and breathing? It becomes less surprising if we understand that breathing can affect every system in the body, and this in turn becomes more accessible to our reductionist minds when we see that breathing is linked with stress and anxiety (who breathes calmly and slowly when they're stressed or anxious? No-one, we breathe faster at such times). Stress, as we know, specifically the chronic type, is involved in causing or worsening a whole diversity of health problems. The same is true of poor sleep. For many people, breathing plays a role here too. If sleep is inadequate, health and well-being suffer. And there's no leap of faith involved in comprehending that breathing and oxygenation of the body go hand in hand. The challenge is to recognise the poor breathing habits that can compromise the delivery of oxygenated blood to the tissues of our muscles and organs, including the brain.

Functional breathing then, can play a useful part in managing Menopause, but how many of us know this? I didn't.

If we're serious about having a grown-up discussion around Menopause, then can we please stop heading down the rabbit hole of medicalising this natural event in a woman's life? It's not an illness and it needn't be devoid of hope. That's not to say that a woman shouldn't choose a pharmaceutical intervention as part of her response to Menopause, it's her choice, but she must also be given information that might help her to rebalance her body and mind for the rest of her life! This information is in short supply, or even completely absent from current medical advice.

As there's increasing pressure on employers now to respond with greater understanding to the varied Menopause experiences that might present themselves within the workforce, maybe they, employers, are the ones who might make more of this non-medical information available to their staff? Yes, staff. Living in greater harmony with our natural physiology isn't just for Menopause, or just for women. Understanding the principles of a (w)holistic approach to health and wellness is a gender-less gift to valuable people in other words, everyone. The emphasis will shift according to the individual, but this big picture approach may well be the best investment an employer could ever make in their most valuable and precious resource.

If you are interested in joining the forthcoming workshop Reduce Menopause Symptoms with Better Breathing on Saturday April 22nd, the booking information is here. This is a 90 minute workshop. The cost is €49.99 and it will constitute the first class of a Beathing Re-education program if you wish to extend your practice.

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