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Aging Gracefully

The Ups and Downs of Hormones

A decade-by-decade guide to how your natural chemicals affect your body and mind. Plus, how to keep them in check.

By Lambeth Hochwald
Illustration of a woman in profileKareem Iliya

In Your 40s


What’s Happening

You still have regular periods, but your ovaries have begun to produce less estrogen (so you ovulate less effectively) and less progesterone; your estrogen-progesterone ratio shifts (normally, the two balance each other), and testosterone decreases. In other words, you’re entering perimenopause (or pre-menopause), a precursor to menopause that can last up to five years. “It isn’t a smooth process,” says Minkin. You may start to experience hot flashes, a lag in your sex drive, and vaginal dryness. Luckily, these symptoms come and go. However, your fertility continues to decline, so it’s a good idea to see your gynecologist for basic testing if you’re trying to conceive.

You Might Notice

  • Weight gain. “Thyroid hormones are the key determinants of your metabolism,” says Kent Holtorf, an endocrinologist in Los Angeles. Many women produce less of this hormone with age, which causes pounds to creep on. A blood test can determine any deficiencies, and taking thyroid hormones may help normalize your weight.
  • Sleep problems. You may have blissfully slept a full eight hours in years past, but the progesterone dip can cause insomnia. “You may start waking in the middle of the night or have difficulty falling asleep,” says Erika Schwartz, an internist and a hormone specialist in New York City. “Before turning to a sleep aid like Ambien, get your hormone levels checked. You may need hormone supplementation.”


How to Feel Better

Since this is the first decade in which you’ll experience a natural drop in hormones, you have a few options for recalibrating. The jury is still out on whether supplementing with soy, which has a weak estrogenic effect in the body, is wise, since some studies have linked it to breast cancer. However, a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that when consumed at moderate levels, soy doesn’t contribute to a higher risk of death or a recurrence of the disease in breast cancer survivors. To play it safe, experts suggest eating soy foods―like soy milk, miso, edamame, and tofu―rather than taking supplements.
If you have occasional hot flashes, taking 400 international units of vitamin E daily can help alleviate them, according to a study from Tarbiat Modarres University, in Iran. To help combat regular or severe hot flashes, consider taking a low-dose birth control pill, which contains small amounts of estrogen plus progestin, a synthetic form of progesterone (brand names include Alesse, Loestrin, and Mircette). Or talk to your doctor about estrogen replacement therapies.
Read More About:Mind & Mood

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