I’m way overdue writing a blog entry. I’ve been sneezing, coughing, hacking, and blowing for the past week thanks to a horrific cold/flu bug. Travel for 24 odd hours with recirculated air and no sleep and ZAP – there goes your immunity. Though uncomfortable, it’s perfectly normal for your natural defenses to be lowered in such a situation.
Here’s what doesn’t seem normal. Between one fourth to one third of the menopausal women I know suffer some kind of major illness or immune dysfunction with the advent of perimenopause and menopause. Most of these women are nonsmoking, active, generally healthy women with no major diseases or conditions. In other words, way too many women were becoming seriously sick when the Big M came to visit.
The Venuses themselves exhibited this phenomenon. I contracted a cardiac virus while traveling. Another Venus came down with Lyme disease. One goddess skipped the cold and flu going around and went straight to pneumonia without passing Go or collecting $200. Shingles, a painful herpes virus condition, sprouted on yet another goddess.
Now I know what you’re thinking. These are all infections and the Venuses caught them. Yes, it’s a bummer, but probably just coincidence. But as a nurse, I know that infections aren’t as simple a story as bug meets girl, girl meets bug, girl gets sick. Generally, you need a cascade of events to create illness: decreased immunity + environmental insult (bug e.g. virus or bacteria, toxin or poison, etc.) + inherent weakness or preparedness of your body to accept the insult = sick goddess.
And if this is hard to swallow, remember that not everyone exposed to the Black Death (plague) in the Middle Ages caught it nor did those who were exposed to the killer viruses in the great flu epidemics.
With this in mind, I got to wondering (read obsessing) if immunity decreases in women when they reach perimenopause/menopause? And thanks to my Menopausal Tourette’s, I blurted out my concerns to any who’d listen. While at the Maui Writer’s Conference, I chanced to blurt to a lovely woman of menopausal age. Sue (not her real name) told me her story. With the onset of perimenopause, she developed crippling arthritis from SLE or lupus. This active, previously healthy goddess literally could not get out of bed. While lying curled up in pain, she was also suffering hot flashes and day/night sweats. Hoping for relief of at least the heat, she got a prescription for bioidentical hormones. Within a couple weeks, the hot flashes had abated, and so had every symptom of lupus. She’s not had a recurrence of either.
After this stunning affirmation of my fledgling hypothesis, I did what any modern goddess would – I Googled menopause and immunity for studies on this phenomenon. The paucity of data was disheartening. The two studies I did find (one conducted in Turkey in 2004, one from UCLA in 2000) indeed found significant changes in immune function in menopausal women. Additionally, these studies found that hormone replacement therapy seemed to improve most markers of immune function. (Boy, if I were the drug companies, I’d be all over this rather than trying to put compounding pharmacies out of business.)
Both these studies were small, and certainly more research needs to be done to confirm and validate these results. Alas, it is so difficult to get anybody to give a rodent’s hiney about research in women’s health, particularly the area of menopause. So we’ll just have to speak up – louder, more clearly, and more often.
I’ve started by contacting the Nurse’s Health Study where I’ve been a participant since age 19. This is the largest prospective study ever done and it’s still going on. As the women in the study reach menopausal age, I’m asking the investigators to look at this problem in future testing and samplings. And writing my congresspeople. And blurting my thoughts, on occasion, as well.