Women often wonder, “Am I more susceptible to illness and disease because I’m going through the ‘Big M’?” The answer, unsurprisingly, is a resounding yes. The best thing you can do for your health is be aware and active. Here’s how to stay healthy through the years.
In order to function at optimal levels through the years, your immune system must be treated with respect; it is the gatekeeper for what gets in and stays out of your body (think viruses and toxins). What does that mean? First, your body should be able to resist infections. It should heal quickly. If you get a mosquito bite or a bruise, for example, it should be gone within a few days. If it lingers, it’s a sign that your immunity might be compromised. Also, if you get frequent bugs or cold sores–time to make a concerted effort to get stronger from the inside out.
As you know by now, we lose estrogen as menopause begins, and it just keeps decreasing year after year. One of the many effects of this change? Estrogen has been shown to have an overall protective role in women’s health. One of the effects of losing this vital hormone is that inflammation levels rise, leading to pain, autoimmune issues, weight gain and susceptibility to illness.
Add to this the fact that menopause also ushers in a rush of the stress hormone cortisone called cortisol (or the “fight or flight” hormone). Studies show that when we have too much cortisol in our systems, it increases inflammation and weakens the immune system. So, double whammy: Less of the good stuff, more of the bad stuff. The result is that we’re now more at risk for Covid as well as a multitude of other diseases (including cancer), during our peri- and menopausal years.
As informed and proactive, smart women who take good care of ourselves, we cannot take these expected changes as gospel. One option is to consider hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which gives the body back some of the estrogen and progesterone it has lost. This may protect you from falling ill with everything from the flu to diabetes to heart disease. But this is not a solution for everyone, especially women with a history of any kind of cancer. Speak to your doctor about the pros and cons of HRT and alternative —it’s a very personal decision.
How do you know if your immune system is being compromised? Look out for an increased number of colds, infections, digestive problems, delayed wound healing, skin infections, fatigue, organ problems and autoimmune diseases. The last category is a chilling one: It includes killers including Type 1 diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, MS and Lupus. The Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology reports that signs of possible immune deficiency in adults include:
So, how to battle this unwelcome health hazard? Be ready to make some lifestyle changes. Here are some that will keep you healthier, longer:
Relax – Studies show that stress weakens the immune system; if you notice that you get a cold sore or a sinus infection after a big work project or emotional upheaval, take note. Your immune system is likely struggling, leaving you open for a host of not-fun symptoms.
Reality check: In this day and age, who doesn’t worry every day? The trick is to carve out “me time,” even if you’re not used to taking care of yourself. Yes, we are even suggesting that you put yourself above others, for the greater good. The time invested will be way worth it as you avoid sick days, and just that tired, lethargic feeling that can haunt you from season to season. Don’t be embarrassed to put yourself first for even a few minutes. Try meditation (we like the relaxation app Calm. Other immunity-boosting activities include yoga, walking outside and listening to music. Each of these are proven to lessen your stress level.
Exercise – Even three hours a week of moving your body will have positive effects on your health. Begin a weight-lifting program (very light weights are just fine), amp up your heartbeat with light cardio—and try to do it outside when possible…it’s been proven that working out outdoors produces more powerful antibodies than staying in. Not to mention working out in the fresh air is free, and exposes you to necessary Vitamin D through sun exposure (always wear a physical sunscreen, even in winter!) Regular workouts help stabilize hormone levels and keep your adrenal glands in top form. You’ll feel so much better in a manner of weeks, you may become addicted!
Improve Sleeping Habits – Ask any menopausal woman and she will tell you that she’s battled poor sleep since ‘The Big M’ hit. We face insomnia and disturbed sleep patterns, leaving us feeling exhausted all day. The goal? Seven to eight hours of shut eye a night. Sound impossible? Sure, there are always sleep aids you can request from your doctor, but try making your bedroom a haven for zzzz’s by keeping it dark, NOT sleeping with your phone nearby, and even investing in a white noise maker.
Eat A Balanced Diet – Craving chocolate more than ever? We get it. But this is a transition period, and that requires making some changes in your food choices. Avoid sugar (which reduces the ability of the immune system to destroy bacteria). You’ll be glad you did. It is not a bad idea to see a nutritionist (or do research online) to find out what foods are your friends and will help improve your immune system. In a nutshell, make sure you’re getting enough protein, and choose foods high in Vitamin C. These immunity-boosters include oranges, kiwi, grapefruit, and strawberries. Also, incorporate fish for its Omega-3 fatty acids, which help stave off inflammation and increase immunity.
Incorporate Herbs and Spices Into Your Meals – Phytochemicals such as cloves, oregano, garlic, chili and turmeric act as antiviral, anti-fungus and antibacterial agents.
Take Care Of Your Mental Health – Stay connected. In the last year reports of loneliness and feelings of disconnection have skyrocketed. Reach out to your community IRL as well as online, take a walk with a friend, or join one of the many online mental care communities available today. You can even see a psychiatrist (and be prescribed medications) virtually and affordably.
Don’t Smoke – This super-unhealthy habit presents a myriad of reasons for stopping (or never starting!), but how it harms the immune system is major; it can make the body weak at fighting disease, including everything from colds to cancer. Quitting now (or as soon as possible) will have a positive effect. Studies show that when you stop exposing your body to tar and nicotine you will be less likely to get sick. Not to mention, smokers have been shown to enter menopause earlier than non-smokers, have more and severe hot flashes and difficulty sleeping. Need we say more?
Get Gut Healthy – Seventy percent of the immune function starts in the gut! The beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that live there defend your gut from infection and support the immune system. To keep things moving along at a healthy rate (and avoid the symptoms loss of estrogen encourages, such as bloating, indigestion, acid reflux, constipation and weight gain), introduce probiotic supplements into your daily routine. They help prevent bladder infections during menopause by increasing the presence of lactobacilli, a healthy microbiome that helps resist bladder infections in the absence of estrogen production. Probiotics also help treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome by helping normalize a woman’s bowl functions by creating necessary mucus. And last, probiotics help ward off yeast infections and help control weight gain by reducing the number of calories the body absorbs from food.
It may not be the sexiest of subjects, but maintaining a healthy immune system helps YOU stay healthy and youthful for years longer than if you just give in to nature. Make these changes in your day-to-day life and you’ll have a more pleasant journey through this, one of life’s most important changes.
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