Oprah's Own Story
My body sent me its first wake-up call more than a year ago, on an evening I'll never forget. One night last June, I—someone who has had every heart test known to womankind and has been repeatedly reassured that I have no blockages—awoke with my heart palpitating so intensely that it felt like it was going to beat right out of my chest. Pound! Pound! Pound! For the first time in my life, I thought I was about to die.
A doctor's visit confirmed what I'd already been told: I don't have heart disease. Over the next six months, my attempts to figure out what I did have led me to four more doctors—and not one could explain the palpitations. Then one morning when I was out running, I mentioned the palpitations to my trainer, Bob Greene.
"I think it's the big M," he said.
"The big M what?" I shot back.
"I think it's menopause," he said.
I stopped and stared at him. "Of course it's not menopause!" I said. "I'm still having my periods. Regular as rain!"
Like nearly every other woman in America, I believed that menopause would hit when my periods ended—that I'd suddenly wake up one day during my fifties in a fit of hot flashing. Yet over the next few days, Bob's words stayed with me: Could he be right? Of the five doctors I'd visited, two were female. Neither had asked whether I, then age 47, might be nearing one of the major markers of a woman's life. I finally put the question directly to my fifth doctor, a heart specialist: Could I be entering menopause? "Well, if it's menopause, ma'am," he said, chuckling, "you're definitely in the wrong place! I don't know a thing about that."
What happened next can only be called a miracle. A few days later, I was walking around the Harpo offices when I noticed a book called The Wisdom of Menopause. I opened it right to page 456, where I saw a subtitle that seemed to shout directly at me: "Palpitations: Your Heart's Wake-Up Call." I spotted a woman's story that sounded exactly like my own: "I am a 48-year-old female with no major health problems." Check. "My periods are still fairly regular." Check. "About a month ago...I started experiencing heart irregularities. I felt like my heart was skipping a beat and was going to beat out of my chest!" Double check. Then I saw the line that clarified everything: "There's no question that heart palpitations at menopause are related to changing hormones."
(Before you declare yourself perimenopausal—peri means near or around—hear this: A racing heart could be a symptom of a life-threatening condition, like heart disease. If you experience irregular heart rhythm, please get to a doctor right away.)
Shortly after my revelation, I made a call to the woman who wrote The Wisdom of Menopause—Christiane Northrup, M.D., an expert on holistic healing and women's health. Dr. Northrup says that perimenopause begins years before a woman's last period. It can start as early as 35 (yes, 35) and last anywhere from 5 to 13 years. In this country, the average age at which a woman has her final menstrual cycle is 51. And here's a kicker that'll keep you using birth control into your fifties: An entire year must pass after your final period before you can be certain that you've absolutely stopped producing eggs.
Here's what I realized after reading all 498 pages of The Wisdom of Menopause: Everything you've always known about taking care of yourself—getting adequate sleep, balancing your diet, drinking water, exercising regularly—comes into sharp focus during this phase. Perimenopause is your body's way of shifting your full attention back onto your well-being. "When you don't take care of your body in your twenties," Northrup says, "you can get away with it. But as you move toward your forties, your body says, 'If you keep this up, I'm gonna make you old—but if you stop now, you'll get a second chance.'"
At Dr. Northrup's suggestion, I cut out what I call the white stuff—high-glycemic-index foods such as potatoes, white rice, refined sugar and bread that throw my insulin level out of whack, cause weight gain, and trigger palpitations. I'd already cut out salt months before, believing that my racing heart might have been a symptom of high blood pressure. After just four days of swearing off the white stuff, my palpitations completely ended.
So many women I've talked to see menopause as an ending—a loss of youth, autonomy and vitality. But I've discovered that the approach of menopause is a knock at the door that can prompt you to finally create the life you've always wanted. This is your moment to reinvent yourself after years of focusing on the needs of everyone else—your mate, your children, your boss. It's your opportunity to get clear about what matters to you, and then to pursue that with all of your energy, time and talent.