Productive women need to take into account the effects of our hormones on productivity during certain important life stages. (And men who care about productive women ought to think about these things too!)
How do hormones affect our productivity?
There have been conversations in The Productive Woman community about struggles with being productive at certain stages of life, specifically, during perimenopause, pregnancy, post-partum. I wanted to talk about these stages of life, what they are, how they affect us psychologically and physiologically, how they affect our productivity, and things we can do to stay more productive during these stages of life.
Please note that I am not a doctor. If you are going through these stages of life, please consult your doctor.
The median age for when menopause occurs is 51.4 years. One interesting article explains it this way: “During menopause a woman’s body slowly produces less of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. This often happens between the ages of 45 and 55 years old. A woman has reached menopause when she has not had a period for 12 months in a row.”
We talk about going through menopause, but it’s more correct to say we reach menopause. Menopause is a moment in time, and the 3-4 years surrounding that moment in time are called perimenopause. Most of the symptoms we hear about actually are perimenopausal symptoms.
Menopausal (perimenopausal) symptoms are triggered by changes in our hormones.
Hormones are the messengers in the body that travel through the bloodstream to start, stop, speed up or slow down your physical and chemical functions and processes across all body systems. Your ovaries are the source of estrogen and progesterone, the two key hormones that control the reproductive system, including the menstrual cycle and fertility in women. You are born with all the eggs you will ever have. The eggs are in the follicles, which are found in the ovaries. During menopause, the number of ovarian follicles declines and the ovaries become less responsive to the two other hormones involved in reproduction—Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH). As your ovaries age and release fewer hormones, FSH and LH can no longer perform their usual functions to regulate your estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. These inevitable changes in your hormones and natural decline of estrogen levels during menopause can significantly affect your health for years to come.”
All those hormonal changes impact us both physically and emotionally in ways that can affect our ability to be productive.
- Typical first sign: Change in patterns of periods
- Hot flashes/night sweats
- Sleep disturbances
“The main sign of the menopause starting is often noticed as a change in menstrual period patterns, which can last up to four years but in some women can be much longer. Around 80% of women suffer from some additional menopausal symptoms, though some women have few symptoms apart from the ending of menstruation. The most common menopausal symptoms are hot flushes (termed hot flashes in the US) and night sweats. These happen most commonly within the first year after the last period, although they can occur earlier. If severe, these can cause weakness and loss of energy, particularly night sweats, which may disturb normal sleeping patterns. Their severity tends to decrease with time.”
The psychological effects of the hormonal changes may include mood swings, depression, anxiety attacks, even an underlying sense of grief due to loss of a capacity (child-bearing) that’s been important to you, or simply the end of a season of your life.
Part of it’s just that change of life stages, but it’s also rooted in physiological processes and causes:
“Depression, anxiety and panic attacks may also occur but it is not clear whether these are related to life changes that are also likely to happen around the same time in a woman’s life, such as ‘empty nest syndrome’ (when children leave home or lifestyle changes significantly). Some women may experience problems with urinary control (incontinence), particularly those who are overweight or who have had multiple births.”
“while everyone thinks of hormones as the chemicals that drive our reproductive system, in truth, there are receptors for both estrogen and progesterone throughout our body. When these hormone levels begin to decline, as they do in the months and years leading up to menopause, every system that has these hormone receptors registers the change, and that includes your brain. . . . What does happen? A disruption in an entire chain of biochemical activity, which in turn affects the production of mood-regulating chemicals, including serotonin and endorphins. The end result: Mood swings, temper tantrums, depression, surprising highs followed by equally unexpected lows — and none of it seems to make any sense.”
Perimenopausal symptoms that impact our productivity
“Sleep disturbances. About 40% of perimenopausal women have sleep problems. . . .
Mood symptoms. Estimates put the number of women who experience mood symptoms during perimenopause at 10%–20%. Some studies have linked estrogen to depression during the menopausal transition, but there’s no proof that depression in women at midlife reflects declining hormone levels. In fact, women actually have a lower rate of depression after age 45 than before. Menopause-related hormone changes are also unlikely to make women anxious or chronically irritable, although the unpredictability of perimenopause can be stressful and provoke some episodes of irritability. Also, some women may be more vulnerable than others to hormone-related mood changes. The best predictors of mood symptoms at midlife are life stress, poor overall health, and a history of depression.
Other problems. Many women complain of short-term memory problems and difficulty concentrating during the menopausal transition. Although estrogen and progesterone are players in maintaining brain function, there’s too little information to separate the effects of aging and psychosocial factors from those related to hormone changes.”
“In addition to hot flashes and insomnia, women also experience headaches, loss of energy, anxiety attacks, brain fog, aches and pains, and dry skin and eyes.”
What to do about it
- Know that it is temporary
- Take measures to address your symptoms
- If you experience hot flashes, dress in layers and keep a fan nearby
- Arrange your schedule to accommodate naps if you’re experiencing sleep disturbances
- Use your best productivity tools to manage the impact of brain fog. Be sure to write things down: Consider using a bullet journal, both as a place to keep lists, notes, etc., but also to journal about your experiences and emotions during the time
- Check out this article for suggestions to make the workplace more functional for women in perimenopause. If you’re in management or running your own business that employs others, consider some of these ideas from the article:
- Educate management – allowing an employee to control the thermostat instead of dismissing complaints about the temperature, provide for better ventilation such as fans and make sure cold water is available
- Provide support and make sure benefits programs address the needs of perimenopausal women – many businesses provide wellness benefits that address other needs but overlook menopausal symptoms and issues
- Flexibility in hours and sick days to accommodate, for example, the need to come to work later when sleep has been interrupted at night
Like perimenopause, pregnancy is a time of significant hormonal and physical changes that can have a big impact on our productivity.
Some of the physiological changes commonly experienced during pregnancy are frequent urination, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, fatigue, sleep disturbances, back pain, and swelling of feet and legs. All this physical discomfort and fatigue obviously will affect our ability to get things done.
Many pregnant women talk about experiencing “pregnancy brain” (also called momnesia), which one writer defines as “the feeling of forgetfulness, inattention, and mental fogginess that sometimes accompanies pregnancy”. Studies of pregnant women tell us how common this is:
“according to a report published in The Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, 82 percent of the women surveyed reported some type of absentmindedness or inability to concentrate during pregnancy. Of those women, 68 percent reported general changes in recall or memory, 54 percent had problems concentrating or paying attention, and 52 percent experienced absentmindedness.” (from Absentmindedness and Pregnancy)
Another article explains:
“During pregnancy, your levels of progesterone and estrogen shoot up, and both are linked to memory. At these high levels, they may negatively affect the ability to recall information, according to Abbe Macbeth, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health. “However, these hormones also cause the growth of new brain circuits that help mothers focus on the baby when she’s born,” says Louann Brizendine, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist and the author of The Female Brain. In other words, your brain is laying the groundwork for helping you tune in to your newborn’s cries, for example. This gear-shifting might make some women forgetful, and the effect may endure after your baby’s arrival, fueled by other hormones produced during breastfeeding.” (from Dealing with Pregnancy Brain)
If you’re experiencing “pregnancy brain,” take comfort in the fact that you’re not just imagining it. One writer assures us that, “In fact, research has actually shown that your brain really does function differently during pregnancy, increasing activity in the side associated with emotional skills (in theory to ensure you’re neurologically attuned to your baby’s facial emotions at birth, so you bond more easily). What’s more, believe it or not, your brain-cell volume actually decreases during the third trimester of pregnancy (which could explain why you can’t remember what you just read about in that last paragraph). Not to worry, though — your brain will plump back up a few months after delivery.”
So what’s causing these pregnancy symptoms?
They come from a variety of sources:
- Hormonal changes
- Thoughts about the pregnancy, the baby, life-changing financial worries
- Lack of sleep
- Physical discomfort
In addition, you simply have more going on in your life: all the stuff you were doing before AND preparing to add a new person to your household such as doctor appointments and preparing the house.
What to do about it
- Take care of yourself
This is important for all of us all the time, but it’s especially important during pregnancy (and other times of big hormonal changes). As writer Laura Garnett says in her article, “5 Things I Learned about Productivity Thanks to My Pregnancy”: “Taking a nap when you’re tired is one of the best productivity hacks I’ve learned while pregnant.” Take what measures you can to ensure adequate amounts of quality sleep (no small challenge when you’re pregnant!). In addition:
- Take Breaks
- Pay attention to excellent nutrition. For example, plenty of protein will help with nausea and help your body build the baby. Some research recommends eating choline-rich foods that “may help boost both your and your baby’s brain function” (from “‘Pregnancy Brain’ or Forgetfulness During Pregnancy”), as well as omega-3s (from pregnancy-safe fish like salmon).
- Get some exercise. Movement is always important, but there are studies supporting the idea that physical activity can boost your brainpower (i.e., help combat momnesia!):
“a study by the Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurobiological Disorders at the University of California, Irvine, found that memory is sharpest after a workout; if you exercise regularly, the cognitive benefits can be ongoing.”
- Process your worries by journaling, chatting with a friend, or even working with a coach or therapist
- Ask for help
- Give yourself grace. Remember, what you’re experiencing is normal and temporary. Take a breath. Stress exacerbates the symptoms. The only thing worse than feeling bad is feeling bad about feeling bad.
- Use your productivity tools to compensate for the brain fog and forgetfulness
- Write things down
- Set alarms and alerts
- Develop routines and consistent habits. For example, if you find yourself misplacing items like keys and sunglasses, designate a home for them where you ALWAYS leave them, so they’ll be there when you need them
Like perimenopause and pregnancy, that period of time after your baby is born has its own hormonal changes and productivity challenges.
- Your body is still recovering from childbirth, whether vaginal or cesarean.
- If you are breastfeeding, you experience bodily adjustments, energy expended to produce food for your child, and disrupted sleep.
You might be encouraged to know that the changes to your brain during pregnancy might actually prepare you to be a more engaged mom.
“Evidence suggests that many of the changes that take place in the brain during and after pregnancy have a beneficial effect on a woman’s ability to care for her children. One 2010 study found that women undergo changes in areas of the brain, including the hypothalamus and amygdala, that are critical for emotional regulation. Neuroscientists found that changes in estrogen, prolactin, and oxytocin hormone levels after birth may help reshape women’s brains in response to their infant’s needs. The findings suggest that new mothers actually experience a build-up in key areas of the mid-brain linked to motivation and behavior, perhaps playing an important part in the drive to care for an infant.”
“A 2010 study found that in the first few months after giving birth, human females show changes in several key brain regions. Specifically, they often exhibit increased volume in the hypothalamus, striatum and amygdala—areas essential for emotional regulation and parental motivation—as well as in regions governing decision making and protective instincts.”
How each of these affects our productivity
- The physical discomforts and emotional disruptions you experience during the postpartum period can distract you and make it harder to focus.
- Adjusting to life with a new baby almost universally leads to fatigue
- The distraction and fatigue create a type of brain fog similar to what we’ve discussed with respect to perimenopause and pregnancy
Just like we discussed in connection with the other life stages we’ve talked about, this is a time to take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. Give yourself the time, space, and grace you need.
What do you think?
Are you experiencing one of these life stages right now? What challenges are you facing? If you’ve made it through these stages, what helped? Please share your thought5s in the comments section below this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
- Menopause and Hormones
- Menopause: You and Your Hormones
- How Hormone Depletion Affects You
- Your Brain on Menopause
- Perimenopause: Rocky road to menopause
- How Menopause Silently Affects 27 Million Women at Work Each Day
- Why Pregnancy Brain is More than Just a Myth
- Absentmindedness and Pregnancy
- Dealing with Pregnancy Brain
- ‘Pregnancy Brain’ or Forgetfulness During Pregnancy
- 5 Things I Learned about Productivity Thanks to My Pregnancy
- Dealing with Pregnancy Brain
- Why Pregnancy Brain is More than Just a Myth
- Does ‘Pregnancy Brain’ Exist?
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