Tips to support your body through the menopauseWritten by Millie Barrett
The menopause is an inevitable time of life for all women. The average age of menopause in Britain is 51, but many women will start experiencing menopausal symptoms much earlier than this. Some women will not experience any symptoms at all and the menopause will be a smooth process. However, it is estimated that around 70% of British women suffer from menopausal symptoms and for many these symptoms can kick in long before the menopause actually takes place.
The good news is that there is plenty we women can do to support our bodies through this time of life – and it’s not all about HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy). It’s important to remember that the menopause is not a disease or an illness that needs “treating”. In many Eastern countries women do not experience menopause in the same way as we do in the West – perhaps because their diet and lifestyle allow their bodies to adapt more easily to changing hormone levels.
At the time of the menopause oestrogen and progesterone levels decline and this is the main reason for both the unpleasant side-effects often experienced, and for the increased risk of certain diseases post-menopause.
Common menopausal symptoms include:
- heavy sweating, often at night
- hot flushes during the day
- vaginal dryness
- mood swings
- loss of libido
- lack of energy
- joint pains
- weight gain
Post-menopausal women are at increased risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. Therefore it is even more important for women to be aware of preventative measures against these conditions at this time of their lives. These issues will be addressed in a separate blog.
Nutritional approaches to menopausal symptoms
A well-balanced diet is essential during the menopause as it allows the body to adjust more easily to hormonal changes. As the ovaries produce less oestrogen the adrenal glands and fat stores are relied upon to produce more, therefore it is important to support the adrenal glands and to have some fat stores.
Support those adrenal glands
The best way to do this is to ensure your blood sugars are well-balanced throughout the day, and to provide a nutrient-rich diet in order to replenish the adrenals with key nutrients needed for good function: Vitamin C, Magnesium, Vitamin B5.
Eating low glycaemic foods is the best way to maintain good blood sugar control. This means avoiding refined carbohydrates like white pasta, white bread and white rice, biscuits, cakes, crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks. Instead focus your diet on complex carbohydrates (wholegrains) such as brown bread, brown pasta and brown rice, oats, vegetables; and proteins found in meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Foods particularly rich in the nutrients that support the adrenal glands are: Vitamin C: berries, citrus fruits, sweet potato; Magnesium: dark green leafy vegetables, lentils, brown rice, quinoa, seeds, nuts; Vitamin B5: liver, kidneys, poultry, red meat.
Pass the phytoestrogens please
Phytoestrogens are a group of plant chemicals that naturally occur in certain foods and have a hormone-balancing effect that can be beneficial during the menopause. Good sources of phytoestrogens are soya beans, chickpeas, lentils, linseeds, oats, garlic, fennel, celery, rhubarb and parsley. Including these foods in the diet regularly is a good idea, as they have other health benefits in addition to their phytoestrogen content.
More fruit and veg
We need fibre in the diet in order to make sure our digestive system works well and to avoid constipation. Many people in the UK do not eat enough fibre: average intake is around 11g while the recommended daily intake for an adult is 18g. Fibre is particularly important at the time of the menopause because we need to excrete toxins including old hormones, rather than allowing them to be re-absorbed back into the body. Fibre helps this detoxification process by increasing transit time. Fibre is found in fruit and vegetables, and wholegrains. Drinking adequate levels of water is also essential to avoid constipation. Exercise also helps considerably.
Enjoy Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
Signs of EFA deficiency are dry skin, lifeless hair, cracked nails, fatigue, depression, dry eyes, lack of motivation, aching joints, difficulty in losing weight, forgetfulness, breast pain – and all these symptoms could be blamed on the menopause. However, they may indicate insufficient levels of EFAs, and anyone who has followed a low-fat or no-fat diet is very likely to be deficient in these essential fats.
EFAs are called essential because they cannot be made in the body and must come in from the diet. We need to be eating oily fish at least twice a week, but also nuts and seeds especially walnuts and flaxseeds to get our quota of EFAs. Oily fish includes salmon, tuna (not tinned), mackerel, sardines and herring. Choose organic where possible and remember the bigger fish like tuna contain more by way of heavy metals like mercury and other toxins.
EFAs are the Omega fats 3 and 6, but the little known Omega 7 found in Sea Buckthorn is particularly useful in helping maintain healthy mucosal membranes and so can help with dryness.
Healthy gut flora helps too
You may not think your gut has anything to do with your menopausal symptoms, but surprisingly it does. Digestive health plays an important role in hormone balancing. If the gut flora (beneficial bacteria) has been disrupted due to use of antibiotics, stress, poor diet, steroids, the contraceptive pill or alcohol, then this can lead to elevated levels of an enzyme that acts upon old oestrogen that has been detoxified by the liver and prepared for excretion. The enzyme takes the old oestrogen and processes it in such a way that allows it to be reabsorbed back into the bloodstream, only then to be detoxified again by the liver, creating additional work for the liver.
To support healthy gut function and good levels of beneficial bacteria we can eat natural live yoghurt every day, and other fermented foods such as sauerkraut. Probiotic supplements are another option to consider. Always seek advice from a health practitioner before starting any supplement regime.
Herbal support and recent research on acupuncture
There have been many studies into the efficacy of certain herbs such as Black Cohosh, and other alternative treatments such as acupuncture in relation to the menopause. A recent trial involving 53 post-menopausal women at the Turkish Ministry of Health’s Ankara Training and Research Hospital, found that acupuncture (twice a week for ten weeks) did reduce the severity of hot flushes. Furthermore, the effects seemed to be cumulative, with stronger results seen between the first and last sessions. However, the mechanism by which acupuncture reduced hot flushes is not well-understood. It is hypothesised that acupuncture boosts endorphin production, which may in turn stabilise the body’s temperature controls.
References and additional resources:
Sunay D et al. The effect of acupuncture on postmenopausal symptoms and reproductive hormones: a sham controlled clinical trial. Acupunct Med 2011, 29:27-31