My last Bikram class ended just an hour ago and I'm already back at Lifesigns. Before I started the challenge, the clinic tested everything from my lung capacity to my body fat to my cholesterol, with some alarming results. My LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, was 149 when it should have been less than 100. My triglycerides suggested an abysmal diet. My body-fat test showed I was nearly half made up of fat, and my body mass index (BMI) was 34.6 when it should've been 25 or less. My blood glucose level was 99, one point away from prediabetes. On the treadmill stress test, I barely got to a workout intensity level of eight METS, when I should've been able to do ten.
For depression, I was taking (and had been taking for years) the highest possible combination dosage of Wellbutrin and Lexapro. I slept miserably if at all. I had headaches every day. I had plenty of reasons to be happy, but I couldn't see any of them.
The 60-day challenge got me out of bed and out of my own head and showed me the futility of self-flagellation and regret. I've stopped taking the Wellbutrin and Lexapro, and, while the depression is still with me, it feels manageable. I've still been turning like a rotisserie chicken at night when I sleep, but I must not be grinding my teeth anymore, because I no longer wake up with a headache. Now I'm ready to see what Bikram has done for my body. The results:
Weight: I've lost 14 pounds.
Waist: five inches, gone.
LDL cholesterol: 108.
BMI: 32.3—down 7 percent.
Treadmill stress test: I get to 11.5 METS this time.
Fasting blood glucose: It's dropped to 73.
"Everything changed," says Felix Caldwell, MD, "and in the right direction."
All except for one thing.
For the second round of blood tests, I ask Caldwell to check my hormones. A few years ago, another doctor checked them. I'd recently had surgery to remove fibroid tumors, and I wanted to make sure I could still have children. I hadn't been feeling well for a while, though, and my symptoms—hot flashes, mood swings—sounded like the dreaded menopause. And sure enough, the blood work even back then suggested I was headed in that direction more quickly than usual; the fertility specialist told me she could probably still help me, but I'd have to hurry.
Instead of hurrying to have children, I hurried off to work. And now my Lifesigns numbers show not perimenopause, but full-blown menopause. At age 42.
Menopause means that my body is making much less estrogen and progesterone, hormones that are critical to bone density and reproductive health, among other things. Onset depends on life circumstances and genes; women generally can expect menopause to occur at the age their mothers went through it, which in my case would have been around age 52. Until now, I'd thought I had at least a decade before onset; and because friends of mine had given birth in their early 40s, I thought I had a few seconds left on the kid clock.
"So definitely no children," I say to Dr. Mehmet Oz when I get him on the phone. Oz is director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia University and a regular O magazine contributor. He's looking at my diagnostics as we talk, just as he did with the pre-Bikram set.
"You're not having kids," he says. "But maybe that's a good thing."
"Maybe for them," I say.
We laugh. It isn't funny.
"Well, at least this explains a lot," I say. The miserably sleepless nights. The exhaustion. The face flushes so severe I'm powder-dry one minute and glistening the next. The suddenly thick waist after a lifetime with a flat stomach. The irritability. The fatigue. The overbearing stress. "Progesterone is like Valium," Oz explains, "so when you lower your progesterone levels—this hormone that keeps you calm and collected, that helps you deal with the slights that occur to women in our society—you're a lot more stressed out."
"Did I do something wrong?" I ask. "Did I do something to cause this?"
"We're not sure how weight affects menopause," he says. "It certainly throws off your hormones. Stress could affect menopause. Physical activity slows down menopause; if you're inactive, you'll get menopause earlier. I think stress and inactivity are the big things driving this."