It’s been over a decade since Dr Libby Weaver’s game-changing book Rushing Woman’s Syndrome first came out – and women have been rushing even faster in the years since. Libby talks to Capsule about how the past years have taken a greater toll on us, the messages our body keep trying to tell us and why her new course was designed with rushing women in mind.
It may feel like the term ‘Rushing Woman’s Syndrome’ has been around a long time, because, emotionally, it really has been – I don’t know if I’ve ever met a relaxed woman. But actually, the term was first coined by Dr Libby Weaver, internationally acclaimed nutritional biochemist and best-selling author. Back in 2011, she released the book that was written to sum up the change in behaviour – and symptoms – that she was seeing from her clients, back when she was running her Auckland-based practice.
“None of it was a disease; it was just that nothing was working as well as it once did.”
“There was a really big shift in the people who were walking through my door,” she says. “Before, people would normally turn up on time and the symptoms they were experiencing, for the majority, were less intense. And then I started to notice that the majority of people were running late for appointments – and that’s okay! – because they had tried to cram too much into the time before the appointment. So, then they ran late – because, if everything fell into place and they got a car park, it would be okay, but they had pushed it right to the edge of the time.”
She noticed a pattern in not only their stress but their symptoms. It’s what is now known as HPA Axis dysfunction – which sounds like a car problem, but actually is when our whole hormonal system is in overdrive due to constant stress. It wasn’t just one issue, but several in play all at once – women complaining of their periods changing, and their mood, or they felt like they ticked all the boxes for an underactive thyroid.
It all boiled down to one simple truth that so many of her patients shared: “None of it was a disease; it was just that nothing was working as well as it once did,” Libby says. “What I then realised is that what was basically driving it was the constant and relentless output of stress hormones and that was very, very new to us as a species.”
In more scientific terms, Libby describes it as this. “The hypothalamus [control centre region in the brain] is getting the message from the constant production of stress hormones that we’re not safe, because that’s what stress hormones still mean to the body, and then the hypothalamus is telling that to the pituitary gland [hormone-producing gland in the brain] and then the pituitary is telling all the other glands, ‘We’re not safe: respond accordingly.’”
And then the nervous system gets involved, because when we constantly produce stress hormones, it activates the sympathetic nervous system – which then moves us away from parasympathetic nervous system activity. That’s the part that’s responsible for digestion, sleep, repair work and reproduction, which is one of the reasons all of those parts of our bodies – and then our lives – get wobbly when we’re stressed.
That, in a nutshell, is Rushing Woman’s Syndrome. And if you’ve thought while reading this, “Boy, I bet that’s got worse in the past decade,” you are bang on the money. Libby says one of the things she hears most often – and particularly during the pandemic years – is “Oh yes, I bought that book – it’s sitting beside my bed, I just haven’t had time to read it yet.” (The Rushing Woman’s curse).
This is why she’s now putting out Overcoming Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, a 30-day online course featuring video content and worksheets, to make the information easier to access for busy women. “I needed to find a way to reach those people and I feel like the past two years have only intensified things for a lot of people, with working from home and home-schooling.”
Rushing Woman’s Syndrome Question 1: What Is Your Period Trying To Tell You?
One of the biggest markers for how our hormonal system is handling our lives is our period shifting, and Libby says there are some clear things to look for.
- Period has become heavy, clotty and painful.
- Your breasts become really swollen or congested in the lead up to your period.
- Your mood changes before your period, everything annoys you and/or you feel like crying but for no reason.
- Period becomes irregular or stops altogether.
It comes back to the pituitary gland – that gland tells the ovaries to ovulate but in order to do that, the pituitary has to feel that you’re safe and that you have food available. “When you have high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, they tell the body the opposite: ‘You’re not safe and there’s a famine.’”
“Anxiety is such a multi-facetted experience for people, and there’s so much that’s behind it.”
And so, then the pituitary gland might just tell the ovaries to shut up the ovulation shop completely. “If you don’t ovulate, you don’t produce the lovely big surge of progesterone, and progesterone not only plays a huge role in fertility, but it also is a very powerful anti-anxiety and anti-depressant, and it’s a diuretic, so it allows you to get rid of excess fluid.”
Libby is keen for people not to underestimate the role of ovulation – and in particular, that flood of progesterone – even if you’re not trying for a baby. “Anxiety is such a multi-facetted experience for people, and there’s so much that’s behind it,” Libby says. “I’m not suggesting that good progesterone levels will be the answer for everyone but my goodness, they contribute.
“I feel like women don’t really know the importance of ovulation for preventing us from going into that very uncomfortable place, with that increase in anxious feelings. Progesterone helps us respond more evenly to things. When we lack it, everything feels anxious and urgent.”
Rushing Woman’s Syndrome Question 2: What Is Your Thyroid Trying To Tell You?
As well as our period, another canary in the woman’s health mine can be our thyroid, because the thyroid also plays a huge part in our overall wellness. What to look for?
- Unexplained weight gain – you’re eating and moving the same way, or you feel like you’re eating a lot less than others but your body fat isn’t shifting.
- Feeling colder faster – you’re the first to pop on a jumper.
- Dry skin, dry hair.
- Hair is falling out.
- Voice has become hoarse or unreliable
“A thyroid that’s not working as well as it once did can also be a driver for a lack of ovulation,” Libby says. “Thyroid hormones are needed for the function of every cell in the body and when we don’t produce enough of them, everything slows down. They also contribute to metabolic rate. So sometimes fixing someone’s thyroid also fixes their period.”
“A thyroid that’s not working as well as it once did can also be a driver for a lack of ovulation.”
So, how can we look to support our thyroid? “When it’s not working, I’ll often use the phrase ‘the road in is the road out,’” Libby says. “The first thing is to find out what’s leading your thyroid to not function at its best.”
“For example, the thyroid needs iodine, selenium, zinc and iron as its main nutrients. It also responds well to good progesterone levels and thyroid function is suppressed by excess estrogen levels, which has become too common in too many women. And the constant production of stress hormones can also prevent the thyroid from working properly.”
Rushing Woman’s Syndrome Question 3: What Is Your Liver Trying To Tell You?
An excess of estrogen is what can be responsible for the heaviness and clottiness of periods and it becomes a bit of a vicious circle. A heavy period can mean a lot of blood loss, which means your body is losing a lot of iron – and iron is crucial to keeping the thyroid healthy.
Chances are, you might be at risk of this. “A really common scenario I see is iron deficiency, because that is the most common nutrient deficiency in New Zealand, particularly amongst women of menstruation age, pregnant women and young children. It’s significant. And we don’t just need iron for the transportation of oxygen around the body, which is hugely tied up with energy and metabolism; we also need good iron levels for thyroid hormone production.”
Excess estrogen + lack of iron = “an insanely common scenario in rushing women.” And when it comes to excess estrogen, liver function, diet and lifestyle factors play a huge role (here is where we get into alcohol and caffeine consumption, the part you knew was coming). This means “an excess of what I call ‘liver loaders’, so too much alcohol and caffeine, too many processed foods and refined sugars,” Libby says.
When we make estrogen, it’s got to cling onto an estrogen receptor to exert its effects. Once that unit of estrogen has run out of puff, it is sent to the liver for detoxification. The liver has to change the structure of estrogen before we can excrete it by going to the loo.
“But for some women, the excess consumption of liver loaders is disrupting estrogen metabolism and detoxification isn’t efficient. They can end up recycling it back into their blood supply, and then you end up with this month’s estrogen, last month’s estrogen and the month before that and the month before that all in your system.”
There are basically weekly headlines about how much wine is good for you – ‘But the French have a daily red wine!’ we cry – but Libby puts it very simply: there isn’t a healthcare provider in the world that advocates daily wine. “That doesn’t mean ‘don’t have wine’, but it means, get honest with yourself,” Libby says.
Your liver can’t be processing your normal estrogen efficiently when it’s also processing a daily sav and a daily flat white – which is why getting honest about your daily caffeine and alcohol is such a big deal. It’s what we do every day that impacts on our health, not what we occasionally do.
That’s part one of our deep dive into Rushing Woman’s Syndrome! In our next part, we’ll be talking about how to feel calmer and what happens when a Rushing Woman doesn’t slow down. For more information on Dr Libby’s new course, Overcoming Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, click here.