Our Bodies, Our Lives
By Drs. Tristi Muir and Catherine Hansen

Our Bodies, Our Lives focuses on issues surrounding women's sexual, gynecological and emotional health.

As women, we wear several hats and our responsibilities sometimes seem endless. We nurture our significant others, raise our children, tend to our parents and in-laws, work outside the home and care for our work families. Somewhere on the list — usually at the bottom — we place care for ourselves. And we should do all these things with a smile on our face.

Why is it that the expression of anger is more acceptable in men (fortunately less acceptable than it used to be)? Women who let anger and frustration escape may be labeled as suffering from PMS, going through “the change” or just being “bitchy.” Because we are regularly expected to stuff our feelings, is it no wonder that depression and anxiety are much more common in women than men? 

So how do we greet the day’s challenges with smiles on our faces? Nature usually takes care of us, supplying us with hormones that serve to keep us on an even keel. Estrogen has an antidepressant effect in women. Progesterone has a role in lessening anxiety. Testosterone spices up our sex life. When hormones wane as we enter menopause, our nerves can become raw. 

When our balance wavers, what do we do? Is medication the answer? Clearly some women are greatly affected and even incapacitated by these hormonal swings, and medications may provide crucial relief. 

For many women, when the mellowing magic of our hormones is on vacation, we are able to catch a true glimpse of our lives. Are we upset because our significant other didn’t take the garbage out today, or is it that they haven’t helped out for years or decades? Does that mean we have to medicate the anger away with hormones, antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs? 

The perimenopausal and postmenopausal time of life when hormones wane can be a great time to reflect on our lives. Are there relationship or life-style changes that will mellow us and help maintain balance? The shout of irritability may be a shout to look within — to find our emotional balance — and to take care of our physical selves.

We all know the importance of exercise in maintaining weight, muscle mass and function. Endorphins, the “natural high” hormones that are released during exercise, can also lower our irritability. Endorphins can soothe the temperature control center of our brain and reduce hot flashes and insomnia. Research has shown that women who start exercising regularly (even low-impact exercises such as walking and yoga) have fewer menopausal symptoms including irritability than those who are not getting their endorphins flowing.

Our diet can affect our mood too. A recent study found that a vegetarian diet improved mood compared to a diet including fish or a diet including a variety of meats. Each of us also has personal reactions to foods. When we feel like jumping down everyone’s throat, it’s a good time to inventory the fuel (food) feeding the fire within. It is important to eat a well-balanced diet supplemented with calcium and vitamin D as the ovaries begin to sputter. 

There are many over-the-counter supplements that promise relief of menopausal symptoms. There is little evidence to support that they work better than placebo. We say save your money and buy fresh veggies and new walking shoes instead.

Hormones are amazing. They often keep us calm in the face of the many challenges of life. However, the next time you feel irritable, anxious and grumpy, listen to the voice within. The best medicine may come from diet and exercise — and reflection.

Drs. Tristi Muir and Catherine Hansen are gynecologists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. For more information, go to www.utmbhealth.com/pelvichealth.