One minute you're cozying up with your partner to watch your favorite TV series, and the next, you're screaming at him to give you the remote. Your moods seem to go from blissful to boiling in a heartbeator, you become irritable, anxious, and capable of bursting into tears without much provocationwelcome to the world of midlife mood swings.
While no one knows exactly how many women experience these ups and downs during middle age, it's clear that they are quite common. One study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that the prevalence of mood swings varied from 11 percent to 21 percent during perimenopause (the stage leading up to menopause) and from 8 percent to 38 percent after menopause (the phase that begins one year after your last period).
Here are four of the reasons you may be feeling emotionally volatile:
1. Your hormones can't decide if they're coming or going
Emotional health is intimately linked to our hormones. "The female hormones estrogen and progesterone interact with brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA," explains Anita Sadaty, M.D., clinical assistant professor at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. "Both of these brain neurochemicals are implicated in depression, PMS and anxiety reactions," she adds.
During perimenopause, estrogen and progesterone production are out of whack. You can have excess estrogen one day and very little the next. "This leads to a whole host of emotional symptoms, such as depression, irritability, anxiety, and panic attacks," says Sadaty. During menopause, the lack of estrogen and progesterone can cause mood swings as well, she adds.
2. You toss and turn most nights
Most women have trouble sleeping in midlife. In fact, as many as 61 percent of postmenopausal women report insomnia symptoms according to the National Sleep Foundation. Blame those pesky hormones again.
Estrogen and progesterone help protect younger women from what we think of as "male" breathing disorders such as sleep apnea and snoring. But as these hormones wane, women become more susceptible to these sleep-disrupting problems.
Other culprits are hot flashes and night sweats, which are related to precipitous drops in estrogen during perimenopause and the lack of estrogen in menopause, adds Dr. Sadaty.
3. You're taking care of elderly parents
Caring for aging parents can be daunting. Making doctors' appointments, doing day-to-day errands and dealing with end-of-life issues while still juggling your own household obligations can lead to feelings of anxiety, sadness, guilt and exhaustion.
"Women are now responsible for their parents while still caring for their own children," says Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., associate professor at Harvard Medical School. "They can feel pulled in a lot of different directions."
4. You're finding it hard to get older
Every day you notice a new wrinkle. You many be gaining weight despite working out harder than ever (and is that a whisker you see on your chin?). Your children may be teenagers who don't want to spend time with you anymore, plus it may feel like you're suddenly invisible to the opposite sex. (Who would have thought you'd miss those catcalls?)
"I wish magazines would stop publishing these 'Fabulous at 50' issues," says Domar. "They don't represent what most women really look like. There's such an emphasis in our society on looks, and it creates enormous pressure for women, especially as they get older," she adds.
How to Get Back on Track
Exercising for 30 minutes, five times a week, is one of the best ways to boost your mood. Moving your body increases endorphins - those feel-good chemicals in your brain. And getting a great workout will help you sleep better at night, decreasing anxiety, anger and irritability during the day.
You don't have to do a half hour all at once, says Sadaty. You can do 10 minutes of jumping jacks when you wake up in the morning, take a 10-minute walk after lunch and putter around the garden for 10 minutes in the afternoon, and you'll get the same mood-boosting benefits as you would during a continuous workout.
Increasing your intake of complex carbs can help the brain produce serotonin, a chemical that helps settle your nerves. Try barley instead of white rice or pasta in soups, substitute a sweet potato for a regular one, use oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs in meatloaf and bake with whole-wheat flour and oat bran instead of white flour, suggests Sadaty.
Add omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, as well - they're good for your mood and heart. Sources include walnuts, flaxseed, edamame and cold water fish such as salmon and tuna.
Reducing stress may seem easier said than done. But Domar's studies have found that menopausal women who practice relaxation techniques experience significant drops in tension, anxiety and even depression. They also report experiencing fewer mood swings and having more stable emotions overall.
Try combining exercise and relaxation techniques by doing mindful walking, suggests Domar. Instead of mulling over an earlier conflict or what to have for dinner, remain in the moment. Focus on your breath, the rhythm of your feet and the sights and smells around you. "This gets your mind off any negative, nasty thoughts," says Domar.
Another good stress buster: yoga. Not only does it help you relax, it also helps you gain a sense of control over a body that seems to have a mind of its own.
Midlife Mood Swings in Men
Women aren't the only ones who experience the emotional effects of shifting hormones. Men report similar symptoms. "Studies estimate that about 20 percent of men over the age of 60 and 30 percent of males over the age of 70 struggle with moodiness," says Thomas Shima, D.O., a family medicine physician at Methodist Charlton Medical Center in Dallas.
While menopause occurs in women when hormone production stops completely, the testes never stop making the male hormone testosterone. (In fact, men continue to produce some testosterone even into their 80s.) "Testosterone levels peak when men are in their mid-30s, but decline from that point on," says Shima.
"This decline is gradual, not rapid like the estrogen drop in females," he says. Still, it might be why your man seems cranky.
From our sister publication REMEDY's Healthy Living Fall 2014