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Photo: Stocksy/Lumina
Photo: Stocksy/Lumina
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alisa_vitti_headshotWelcome to the latest from the Wellness Council, our handpicked holistic health squad: a tightly curated group that gives the best advice this side of your own personal guru. 

Here, women’s hormone expert Alisa Vitti (AKA “the hormone whisperer”) lays out what you need to do to prevent early aging.

What she writes about next is up to you—tell us what what you’re dying to know! Send questions and ideas to experts@wellandgood.com.

There are plenty of things I’ll bet you wish you could speed up: your work commute, that meeting with your boss, those awkward family dinners during the holidays. But if there’s one thing we all wish we could slow down, it’s our biological clocks.

I’m not talking about the supposed tick-tocking time limit on making babies that most of us think of when we hear “biological clocks”—I’m talking about the mechanism driving how old you look and feel. Do I have your attention yet?

The fact is, aging happens. And it happens from the inside-out —we start making fewer hormones when we’re still relatively young—just 35! This lowered concentration of hormones is a big driver of the aging process, but throw in all the environmental toxins, nutrient depletion, and lifestyle stressors we’re encountering on a daily basis in our modern world, and you’ve got a recipe for prematurely turning into your Nana.

The problem in our day and age is that perimenopause is happening much more quickly for women and at much younger ages.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could slow this down somehow—so we could enjoy our trim bodies, our firm skin, our hot sex drive, our vibrant energy levels, and our optimal fertility for much longer?

Before you run out for Botox and fillers (seriously, don’t), listen up: You can absolutely slow down the hormonal aging process through food therapy.

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So what’s going on at 35?

The big 3-5 is around the time your body will kick off a process known as perimenopause. It’s an important biological shift that’s far less discussed than menopause itself, which means few women realize it’s happening to them, even when they’re suffering with the consequences.

That’s why it’s so critical to connect the dots with your new symptoms and the beginning of this process, so that you take the right steps to eliminate your symptoms and slow down the hormonal aging process.

Rather than trying to spot treat each new problem, I want women to realize that the sudden weight gain, moodiness, sleeplessness, and period problems they have around this milestone age are all connected. By realizing it’s all connected—and then eating the right foods to help your body make more hormones—your symptoms can clear up on their own.

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What exactly is perimenopause?

It’s another word for what should be a slow process: your pituitary gland gradually makes more follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) over time to cause you to stop ovulating.

This shouldn’t scare you! It’s a totally natural, and—ideally—a very slow transition into the next phase of your life. When I say “slow,” I mean it: This process is supposed to take 10–15 years, and you should have minimal symptoms.

But the problem is that it’s happening much more quickly for women, and at much younger ages. In fact, premature ovarian failure is on the rise as a result of the endocrine disruption that is a rampant part of our lives today.

Going through this process too quickly is a form of premature aging, and it means your fertile window closes sooner, your libido evaporates, your metabolism stalls, and you find yourself feeling like you’ve landed in a body you don’t recognize. It can even affect your ability to have children.

But there’s a silver lining here: Just like PMS is a hormonal imbalance you’re not meant to have, very symptomatic perimenopause is also not the norm. And the stereotypical symptoms you hear about only come when your other hormones get off balance due to diet.

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How to spot the signs of premature aging

The first major red flag (forgive the color pun): a change in your period. Whether your flow has gotten heavier, lasted longer, or started to be accompanied by cramps and PMS, you’ll see a shift from the period you had in your 20s.

You may also experience other signs like insomnia, hot flashes, mood swings, acne, night sweats, and weight gain.

The changes may not be dramatic, but how much you feel the impact of this hormonal shift in your day-to-day life will depend very much on your diet and lifestyle. The less healthy and hormonally supportive those are, the more likely it is that perimenopause will hit you hard right at 35. You’ll be producing smaller concentrations of hormones, and you’ll really feel this if you’re not prepared.

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How did you get here?

A quick investigation may reveal some of the causes. Do you use makeup and cleaning products in your home that contain hormone disruptive chemicals? Do you exercise without pre-fueling? Do you drink caffeine? Have you taken the pill? Have you had a history of dieting, eliminating food groups, doing lots of cleanses and detoxes?

All of these things can deplete you of the very micronutrients you need not only to make enough hormones, but also to keep you youthful and vibrant long-term. (Although in terms of eliminating food groups, keep in mind that ditching dairy and gluten are actually good ideas—both are endocrine disruptors.)

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What to do: Partner with your gynecologist now

Even if you’re feeling great, I urge you to go to find a great gynecologist and establish a baseline hormone panel around the age of 30.

This will help you understand what’s normal for you so you have something to compare this to as your hormones begin to shift during this decade. Talk to your gynecologist ahead of time if you can, and let her know you want to go through this process naturally and unmedicated.

If you’re already in the thick of it, it’s not too late: Get that full hormone panel done to see if you can uncover the biggest hormonal issue you’re having, whether it’s low estrogen, low thyroid, or something else.

This is the point where women always ask me, “Can’t I just medicate with hormones?” In my opinion, no.

Just like I don’t recommend you go on the pill to fix your period problems, I don’t recommend you medicate your perimenopause.

Why? Two key reasons: First, this is a process your body is designed to do. There is nothing wrong, nothing to fix, and you can go through this naturally and drug-free. And secondly, synthetic hormones mask the symptoms that motivate you to make the changes you need to clear up symptoms. They give you a false positive that everything is okay with your health. Perimenopause is an opportunity to make sure you are set for a healthy future.

But even if you’re firmly against synthetic hormones, be prepared to hear the standard suggestion from your gynecologist, which is to just continue on birth control pills until you’re about 45 and then transition to hormone replacement therapy. All of this synthetic hormone replacement has risks and you don’t actually need it. That said, it’s up to you to decide how you want to go through your life in your body—naturally or medicated.

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What to do: Slow down the aging process with food

Okay, so I’ve hit you with the hard news. But chin up, gorgeous: Premature aging does not have to be your destiny. I’m a sexy, vibrant mom in my late 30s and I feel better than I have in my life because I got a handle on my food choices—and I want the same for you!

Here are three easy ways to slow down the premature aging process right now.

Eat according to your cycle. You can actually balance out your estrogen and progesterone and eliminate the reasons for major perimenopausal symptoms. To get started with my process, called Cycle Syncing, in a very simple, quick, and easy-to-understand way, check out these two four-week introductory protocols: which veggies to eat and which grains to eat during each phase of your menstrual cycle.

Eat enough protein and fat. Getting the right amounts of these key nutrients will help you make enough hormones. This is not the time for yo-yo dieting! You need to eat to make the hormones that keep you young—learn more about my favorites proteins here and fats here.

Take vitamin D3 and evening primrose oil to keep hormones balanced. Both are well researched to have positive hormone balancing effects during this perimenopausal transition. You don’t have to have hot flashes if you’re prepared!

And if you’re feeling frazzled, bloating, and unsexy—with more distance between cycles, very light or super heavy periods, a flat sex drive, and more moodiness in general—there’s some more micronutrient sleuthing you can do to start reversing the process. Check out this free report on The Magic Missing Micronutrient to Get Your Sexy Back to learn more.

Making the decision to take control of my hormonal health 20 years ago was the best thing I’ve ever done. I credit that choice with the reason why I feel strong, sexy, and vibrant today, and why I’m sure I’ll feel just as great in the decades to come! I want you to be sexy, strong, happy, and healthy when you’re 50-plus years old—perimenopause is an amazing opportunity to make sure you are all those things as you age.

And always remember: Once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making healthy choices that finally start to work for you. You can do this—the science of your body is on your side!

Alisa Vitti, HHC, is an integrative nutritionist, best-selling author of WomanCode, and the founder of FLOLiving.com, a virtual health center that supports women’s hormonal and reproductive health. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Alisa has a web series on Lifetime, serves on the Yahoo Health advisory board, and is an advisor to several health and health tech startups. She has presented at TEDx, Talks@Google, Summit Series Outside, Hay House, WIE Symposium, and SHE Summit. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram

What should Alisa write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to experts@wellandgood.com