Menopause and nutrition
As if anxiety, tender breasts, sleep problems, hot flushes, low energy, no sex drive and a dry vagina wasn't enough - weight gain too?!? We've got some great diet and lifestyle do's & don'ts when it comes to managing the menopause.
We can mistakenly assume that menopause hits in our 50s but in reality, peri-menopause can start in your 30s and 40s. Oh yes, ladies – menopause is actually the finish line – no more periods. Peri-menopause is where the change really happens – ovaries start to shut up shop and we get to repeat puberty (albeit in reverse) without the luxury of socially accepted teenage angst and the choice to lock ourselves in our bedrooms for hours on end.
I’m not an expert and in layman’s terms, peri-menopause is when our hormones go into overdrive. The big hormones – Progesterone and Oestrogen start to decrease and it’s these two lovelies that balance our mood, help to aid sleep, build bone and muscle and protect us against cancer. As a knock on effect our Serotonin levels (the happy hormone) reduce and we find ourselves bursting into tears for no reason. Sex and chocolate can mimic serotonin but when battling a reduced libido and increased waistline, the tears are inevitable.
Early symptoms might include; feelings of being overwhelmed, anxiety, headaches, irregular or abnormal periods and breast tenderness. Like me you might reach for a pregnancy test – eeek! I’m not sure the reality is better – at least pregnancy is over in nine months not nine years!
You can ask for a hormone test at the doctors but be warned this can be difficult if you don’t tick the NHS menopause boxes. The test will measure the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and Oestrogen and determine if you’ve started ‘the change’. Up flashes an image of the Incredible Hulk and I’m sure Mr O won’t disagree.
HRT is a viable option and some women swear by it. I tried it and for a short period was back to feeling myself. However, an overload of Oestrogen resulted in constant bleeding – yup too much is bad for you too. The thing about peri-menopause is that your hormones are constantly shifting and because it can go on for several years, you have to keep adapting your symptom management.
But where to start? It can be completely overwhelming and I welcomed the opportunity to attend this informative workshop to see if diet and lifestyle might be the way forward. PS – the food was fabulous!
So whilst not exhaustive, here are a few nutritional nuggets of information and advice which might just help.
Over exercise – your body needs fat cells more than ever to produce the Oestrogen that is no longer being produced by your ovaries. If you have no fat (not a problem here) you are likely to suffer more severe peri-menopausal issues. Also – low fat can result in a low sex drive, mmm it’s a tricky one.
Consume too much – alcohol, sugar, caffeine, chocolate, spicy food, processed foods and dairy. All can exaggerate symptoms of bloating, insomnia and hot flushes!
Be afraid of HRT – the benefits of HRT are generally believed to outweigh the risks. It can help relieve many of the symptoms and also prevent weakening of the bones (osteoporosis).
Use – skin creams with BPA’s or drink from plastic water bottles as both can contain hormone disruptors which can exacerbate symptoms.
Ignore vaginal issues – UTI’s and dryness are common and can be helped with Sea Buckthorn Oil, Coconut Oil and Vagifem. Some women suffer from urine leakage as the depletion in Oestrogen can effect the pelvic floor. There is such a thing as vagina physio – see Amanda Savage an expert in pelvic floor dysfunction or The Norfolk Retreat for holistic pelvic care.
Switch up or start a new exercise regime – peri-menopause can cause achy joints akin to teenage growing pains. Look for exercise which will support and strengthen your body rather than high impact forms. Weight bearing, yoga and pilates are all good options.
Bouncing every day on a mini trampoline (a bit like the toddler ones) is great for strengthening your joints and pelvic floor!
Have a balanced diet – I know it’s boring but it’s true and all of the below can help alleviate symptoms.
- Cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, leafy and dark green vegetables protect against breast cancer and heart diseases. Nutrients – calcium, magnesium and folic acid support good bone health.
- Purple foods can help your memory – think baby brain on steroids, another effect of reduced Oestrogen. Rich in antioxidants, red grapes, blackberries, blackcurrants, blueberries, aubergines, red cabbage, beetroot and purple kale can fight against oxidative damage – something that is known to contribute to brain ageing and memory impairment.
- Protein helps maintain muscle mass and bone strength – a daily amount of 1 gram to every 1kg of body weight is recommended.
- Foods containing phytoestrogens (which mimic Oestrogen) can help reduce flushes, heart diesease and risk of cancer. Try organic soya milk, tofu, miso soup, garlic, onions, chickpeas and lentils, linseed (flax), sesame seeds, tahini dressing, fennel, celery and chicory.
- Fermented foods such as saurkraut, kefir and tempeh are good for gut health.
Get a Dutch Test – this simple urine test will look at all your hormones including the stress hormone Cortisal and Testosterone, both of which can have a massive effect on your ability to cope and manage peri-menopausal symptoms.
Discuss alternative hormone replacements – if you don’t fancy synthetic hormones and pregnant horse urine (yup that’s the base for HRT) ask the doctor about Bioidentical Hormones – they’re chemically identical to those our bodies produce naturally and are made from plant Oestrogens.
Research Supplements – Magnesium (sleep), Vitamin B6 & B12 (mood and hot flushes), Black Cohosh (hot flushes, sleeplessness and loss of libido), Vitamin D (bone health, serotonin and bleeding), Boron (herbal Testosterone), K2 (bones and bleeding), Maca powder (hot flushes & sleep), Ashwagandha (stress), zinc picolinate (healthy hair) and fish oils (hot flushes and joint pain).
If, like me, you don’t like taking lots of tablets, I can recommend Botanical Menopause Complex from Wild Nutrition as it’s only two tablets a day. You can also set up a direct debit for a repeat monthly order.
Get outdoors – the best way to get vitamin D and lift your mood is to spend time in the great outdoors. Try shinrin-yoku – Japanese forest bathing. The Phytoncides from trees can help the immune system and research shows it can be as effective as anti -depressants.
Breathe – when we’re experiencing menopausal symptoms, our bodies are in a ‘fight or flight’ mode which shuts down the non-essential functions such as digestion (= weight gain) and rationale (= mood swings and anxiety). The simplest way to combat this is to breathe and whilst we all know how to do it, apps such as CALM can be helpful.
The social stigma surrounding menopause is slowly beginning to lift and there are some great women championing the cause. For further reading I recommend Liz Earle’s ‘The Good Menopause Guide’ and Meg Matthews (yes Noel’s Ex) website MegsMenopause.
Muddy Norfolk editor Helen Burgess was at a Weybourne Wellness Workshop on Menopause & Nutrition with Cambridge-based Nutritionalist Amanda Ryder.
Words: Helen Burgess