Dr. Tara’s Best Menopause Advice

“Confessions of a Naturopathic Doctor” might be a better title, for as I come up on my 45th birthday it’s time to accept that my hormones are not at all what they used to be, and to confront the following truths:

  • Throwing the covers off at night is NOT because of the flannel sheets.
  • Wiping sweat off my upper lip on the drive to work is NOT because of the heated seats.
  • My crabby attitude is NOT because of my family and the shoes at the door.
  • The surge of heat followed by a slightly nauseous feeling is NOT a “flu” coming on.

Yep, it seems that peri-menopause is upon me. And yes, the naturopath who “should know how to avoid this stuff”, is suffering with hot flashes, night sweats, no sleep and plenty of crabbiness.

In my younger years, I was always sympathetic to the plight of my peri- and post-menopausal patients. I would recommend herbs and diet changes, and counsel patients to be patient. “It’s a natural change,” I’d say. “It will run its course in good time.”

And if that didn’t do the job?

“Embrace it,” I’d suggest, “as a powerful time in a woman’s life.”

I can’t believe I didn’t get stabbed.

Because in the middle of a third night of no sleep, after changing my shirt yet again and resisting the temptation to choke the life from my happy, deeply-sleeping husband, I know with certainty that if one of the other ND’s in our office suggests I stop drinking wine the next day, I will strangle her with my own sweaty hands.

But, I digress. (Because I’m tired, okay? Do you really want to mess with me?)

The short story is this: The transition from our “reproductive” years to our “post-reproductive” ones is not a straight line with consistent symptoms. It’s tricky to manage, and tricky to treat. But I can give you some solid advice based in my experience as both a doctor and a sweaty, homicidal woman. 🙂

My Best Menopause Advice

  1. Get real about the mood changers. Coffee starts my engines and a glass of wine is magic by the end of the week – but how much is really in my head and is it too much? The hot flashes may be a sign it’s time to take an honest look.
  2. Take care of your adrenal glands. Not surprisingly, after moving StoneTree Clinic to it’s new home, my adrenal glands have taken a bit of a hit. Lots of 7-day weeks, problems to solve, and money for renos, makes for a very stressed Tara. The adrenals are responsible for helping transition gracefully to our post-reproductive years. Lots of support with herbs, natural hormone replacement, and IV therapy are in order.
  3. Make sure you keep moving. Exercise is shown time and again to help manage menopausal symptoms. Every day I commit to finding time to make my 10,000+ steps happen.
  4. Learn to enjoy the heat. My 30’s were years in which I was constantly cold. It is actually lovely to be able to have a window open in my room in the winter. I love the fresh air!

So, to all the women who have come before and all of you coming after – enjoy this powerful time of transition in a woman’s life…

…and hide the knives!

Spring, and New Beginnings

Many people celebrated the vernal equinox this past weekend, marking the day of the year where night and day are exactly equal. It’s spring! The increasing light gives us some pep in our step, and there are only so many more snowstorms to live through!

In many cultures and traditions, this time of year is celebrated as a time of new beginnings, with ‘good’ (light, rebirth, spring) triumphing over ‘evil’ (darkness, death, winter).

From a health perspective, spring is a good time for new beginnings as well. A winter of being cooped up inside, eating comfort foods and hibernating can make for a pretty sluggish system.

It’s at this time of year that we get many questions about “doing a detox”, or “cleansing”. There are many detox products and diets out there. Should you do a colon cleanse? Is a juice cleanse safe? What about a liver flush? It can all be very confusing and the truth is what is best–and safe–is different for each person.

Take juicing, for example:

  • If you’re taking many medications, doing a juice fast or a liver flush, may negatively impact how your body is using those medications.
  • If you’re more then 30 pounds overweight, however, a short-term juice fast may be a miracle for you.
  • If you’re normal-weighted, though, a long-term juice fast may crash your blood sugar and affect your long-term metabolism.

There are similar complications for diets and detox treatments:

  • If you have lots of inflammatory systems a sugar-free, alcohol-free, grain-free detox diet might be the best.
  • If you have a genetic variation in which you do not detoxify fat-soluble toxins effectively then colonics and colon cleansing might be the right thing for you.

“New beginnings” aren’t the same for everyone. Detoxing and cleansing change your biochemistry–it’s part of why they work. But it’s also part of why they need to be taken seriously. So yes, put a spring in your step. But take your new beginnings seriously!

This Is Your Brain on a Diet

Many “diet plans” involve limiting calories, especially in the carb category. And while we tend to focus a lot on the effects of diet change on the body, one area that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the most important body part of all: your brain.
Your brain weighs about three pounds, give or take. For the average person, that’s about 2% of your body mass. Not a lot. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the brain is the most energy intensive organ in the body, using some 20% of your daily metabolic burn.
Your brain’s preferred food source is glucose—essentially carbs converted into sugar in the body. But while your brain may be a high-functioning organ, it has a very low storage capacity. It can’t keep much glucose on hand. So it prefers that the “rest” of your body keep a decent supply of glucose to meet its high demands.
Now, not only does your brain need more energy on average than any other individual organ, it’s also at the top of the command chain—and that mens that what the brain wants, it tends to get.
Let’s distinguish that for a moment from what you want. You, the sparkling, lovely individual, may want to lose weight. Your brain, however, the grey matter built from millions of years of evolution, wants energy to survive and thrive.
So what happens when you embark on, say, a low-carb diet to lose weight? A couple of possibilities come to mind:
1. Your brain has less glucose to run on, so it doesn’t work as well. As Holly Taylor, a psych professor at Tufts University puts it in this Forbes article:
“The brain needs glucose for energy and diets low in carbohydrates can be detrimental to learning, memory, and thinking.”
If you can’t learn and think as well when you begin to change your diet, what are the odds you’re going to be on your mental game to continue that diet? Add to that the possibility that exerting willpower, a necessary ingredient for lifestyle change, uses up blood sugar, and you make the problem worse.
Result: You lose your mental game and the ability to stick with your plan. Plus you get hangry.
2. Your brain steals the glucose from other places. The brain is going to fight to keep its supply of sugar energy, and since it’s in charge, it’s going to get what it wants. If that extra energy comes from the rest of your body, how much does that impact your ability to be more active, another critical part of weight loss? And what does it do to your appetite?
Result: You lose energy, or become ravenously hungry. Or both.
Either of those scenarios might make it hard to change your diet. Both of them together can send your wagon crashing faster than you can say blood glucose level.
Now, your brain can also run on ketones, which it gets from breaking down fatty acids in the liver. But it takes time for the brain to switch over, and in the meantime, you’re hangry, and at risk of just going back to whatever food source is convenient. And convenient has a way of meaning crap. 
So what to do?
Based on our glucose-hungry brain, it makes sense to look at diet changes in the context of blood sugar–in particular, trying to avoid big fluctuations.
  • Make diet changes moderately. Suddenly deciding to starve yourself is a good way to either fall into either or both traps above. Make changes steadily and gradually.
  • Eat complex carbs. Don’t confuse low carb with NO carb, or simple carbs with complex ones. A chocolate bar has a lot of carbs. A salad has a lot of carbs. But they’re different kinds. When you think “low carb” think “low SIMPLE carb”. In short, don’t give up vegetables. They work wonderfully to create fuel for your brain.
  • Eat healthy protein. Protein works wonders to keep the “hangries” at bay!

How To Measure Your Kidney Health

Some organs get all the attention. The heart is so glamorous. The liver is known for its detoxification superpowers. And the lungs! So…breathtaking.

But the kidneys? No respect.

It’s too bad–our kidneys are truly remarkable little organs. Their primary job is to filter the waste products from the blood and get rid of them through urination, but the kidneys do oh-s0-much more, working to balance electrolytes and water, and regulate blood pressure. They even help make our red blood cells!

These two little organs reside on either side of your body–if you rest on your back, they sit at about the level of your belly button. Every day your kidneys quietly do their job without complaint, filtering about 120-150 quarts of blood everyday to produce about 1-2 quarts of urine.

That is, until they do start complaining.

Slow and Sneaky Kidney Disease

Chronic kidney disease is a slow moving, long-term, decrease in kidney function. The kidney filter can be damaged by sugar in the blood (diabetes), increased pressure in the arteries (high blood pressure), immune system complexes (autoimmune disease) or toxic chemicals (lead or cadmium exposure from the environment).

Some 25% of north Americans over 65 years old are dealing with chronic kidney disease, and 3% of those will go on to kidney failure, requiring dialysis or kidney transplant. A sad fate for the hardworking and under-appreciated kidneys…and their owners.

Here’s the trouble: just like the kidney hides from the limelight, its symptoms do, too. Most people don’t even know they are experiencing chronic kidney disease because most of the time there are no symptoms at all. When symptoms do exist, they are generally not specific or severe. Weakness, fatigue, swelling in the ankles–that’s happening just because I’m getting older, right?

Even those people who do have some idea that their kidneys are not working well usually don’t truly understand their long-term risk.

It’s time to change and give the kidney the recognition and care it deserves!

The Kidney Failure Risk Equation

Now there is a great little tool that anyone can use to determine kidney risk. To use it, you need three things:

  1. Your age, gender and region (whether you are north American or not)
  2. A blood test called eGFR, estimated glomerular filtration rate, which measures how much waste is still left in the blood. (More equals bad.)
  3. A urine test called urine albumin to creatinine ratio. This urine test measures how much albumin and creatinine are in your urine. (These are proteins that should be in the blood, so if they’re in the urine this is also bad news for the kidneys.)

The first thing on the list you have. The second two are easily done and not expensive.

We take those numbers, enter them into the Kidney Failure Risk Equation, and presto! You get some great insight into your kidney health, and your kidneys get some long-overdue love.

Your kidneys can heal, and future damage can be prevented, but not if you don’t know there’s something wrong. Love your kidneys!

If you’re interested in assessing your kidney risk, you can contact the clinic at 705-444-5331. 

Why Chronic Stress is Bad, and How To Measure Yours

We all experience stress. In fact, we’re supposed to. Our body is an adaptive wonder, and has evolved to not only deal with stress, but use it as a tool to grow. As we wrote about last month, not all stress is bad for us, and there’s evidence to suggest that the right amount, with the right beliefs, can make us stronger, smarter and happier.

But what about when it is bad? What if we’re under more stress than we need, and more often than we’d like? Let’s find out.

Stresso-Sapiens

After a whole lot of evolution, our hormones and neurotransmitters have become finely tuned to react to stress—to choose “fight or flight” as necessary.

That’s a wonderful evolutionary advantage. Back in our cave-person days, we had to deal with the occasional stressor like a war, or an attack by a lion. At those times, being able to route all our resources in an instant to the “run-away-as-fast-as-you-can” muscles was pretty handy.

But the key message here is occasional. We weren’t chased by lions all the time. A lot of the time we simply went on with our day. We lived together in close-knit groups, and ate food that we gathered or caught. We slept when the sun went to bed and woke up when the light came back out. Stressors were spaced out and we had time to recuperate in between.

But now? Now, many of us are chronically and constantly stressed by our jobs, our mortgages, the news, our food, the environment – you name it. We’re experiencing sustained stress over months and even years. That’s not what our bodies where designed to deal with.

Cortisol and You

One of the hormones we produce when we’re stressed is cortisol. This little hormone does a lot of wonderful things to allow us to deal with a stressful situation. It dumps sugar into the blood for energy, it constricts the arteries and increases our heart rate, and it also stimulates the immune system and decreases inflammation.

When we are chronically stressed, though, we can wear out our body’s ability to produce cortisol. Decreased cortisol means we have decreased energy, decreased blood flow and increased inflammation.

And guess what that leads to? Chronic pain and chronic fatigue.

The chronic pain and fatigue makes us unhappy, and less likely to do the things that reduce stress, like exercise and socialize. Which makes us even more stressed.

That’s a nasty cycle. So what to do?

The first step is to find out how your stress glands are doing. Assessing your cortisol levels can be easily and effectively done using a salivary hormone test. Four easy samples throughout the day gives a very good picture of how well, or not well your stress response is functioning.

And what do you if your adrenals are not working like they should?

  1. Sleep. Rest allows your body to heal and recharge naturally, allowing your adrenal glands to rebalance.
  1. Cut caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the secretion of cortisol. Trying to do so when your adrenals are worn out just makes things worse.
  1. Yoga and mediation. Gentle stretching and conscious breathing help improve cortisol levels and adrenal function.
  1. Exercise.  There’s a mountain of evidence that exercise reduces stress. It really is irrefutable. If your inflammation is high, don’t get crazy–you don’t need to do any triathlons or sprinting. Just a walk in nature will change your physiology. It’s that easy.
  1. Supplement. There are many vitamins and herbal medicines that work wonders for tired adrenals. Intravenous B vitamins and amino acids are particularly beneficial. Your naturopathic doctor can tell you which ones are right for you.

If you’re interested in measuring your stress response, and finding a customized supplement and treatment plan for your body, contact the clinic at 705-444-5331.