Tucking into tasty food to relieve menopause symptoms? It can’t be that simple… can it? Rosie Letts is a qualified nutritional therapist, and explains the vital role good nutrition can play in a more positive menopause experience. From how plants can stand in for dropping oestrogen through to why a little belly fat is no bad thing, discover how a little self care and a mindful menopause diet can help you feel strong and even banish symptoms…
Are you feeling unsure about what to expect from your transition into menopause? The menopause actually pinpoints the stage when you haven’t had a period in 12 months, which is distinctly different to the time when you may experience symptoms like your body thermometer going off the scale, disturbed sleep, increased belly fat and migraines.
What happens to hormones at menopause?
In the years leading up to the menopause there is a distinct reduction in both the quality and quantity of viable eggs in your ovaries, and a chaotic fluctuation in the hormones responsible for reproduction.
An increase in oestrogen can cause a change in the length of your menstrual cycle, heavy periods with surprise flooding, breast tenderness, and irritability. The rapid decline in oestrogen is associated with night sweats, hot flushes, low mood and problems with memory.
Is HRT my only option?
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), as its name suggests, is used to replace or ‘top up’ the body’s natural supply of hormones in order to relieve your menopause symptoms. Not every women chooses to take, or is able to take HRT. This could be due to your family’s medical history, e.g. breast cancer or deep vein thrombosis. You may have concerns about the safety and side effects of HRT, or you may simply prefer to avoid medication and opt for a natural approach to alleviate your menopause symptoms where possible. Only you and your GP can decide if hormone therapy is right for you.
The good news is that there are alternatives to HRT and that nutrition can play a leading role in not only reducing your symptoms but future proofing your health.
This article explores the connection between your diet and your menopause experience. You will be relieved to hear that where menopause nutrition is concerned, small changes make a big difference, so now is the perfect time to learn how to nourish your body effectively.
What can affect the type and severity of symptoms?
Not all women experience menopause symptoms equally, and the severity of your symptoms could be partly genetic.
We also know that your weight can affect your symptoms. Women with a higher BMI end to have fewer symptoms, particularly night sweats and hot flashes, than those whose weight is within the ideal range(1). The reason for this is fascinating…
A little belly fat is a good thing?
Your body is always trying to find the ideal balance. In response to lower ovarian oestrogen, your body will lay down fat cells (particularly around your belly) capable of oestrogen production. It’s your body’s way of topping up hormones levels and whilst high oestrogen can cause an array of unpleasant symptoms, oestrogen docking stations are found all over your body helping to support bone and heart health, memory and concentration as well as your genitourinary system. So a little belly fat is, in fact, helpful. An excess is associated with heart disease though, so balance is key.
Additionally, the more weight you carry the less physically active you may be, and we know that the duration of some symptoms is shorter in women who have higher physical activity(2).
How do I reduce my symptoms?
Smoking(6), caffeine and alcohol are adversely associated with menopausal symptoms so avoid these where you can. They place stress on the body and whilst they may give you a short term fix, they deplete your body of vital nutrients that it needs. You can relieve associated anxiety and stress with magnesium-rich green vegetables, wholegrains and nuts, as well as B vitamins found in meat, offal, fish, eggs, oats, brown rice and nutritional yeast. Supplements can also be really helpful if you want to be sure you’re supporting your body as well as possible.
There’s evidence that you’ll experience fewer menopausal symptoms the more vegetables and fruit you eat(7), so aim for 7 portions per day and focus on eating regular meals packed full of nutrition. Include whole foods (beans and legumes, fish particularly oily ones such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, poultry, nuts, seeds, olive oil, some wholegrains including brown rice, oats and quinoa, and a little red meat) to nourish your body, keep your blood sugars stable and balance your hormones.
Following a low glycaemic load or Mediterranean(8) diet could help keep your weight down. You’ll also find that as your fibre intake increases, you’ll feel fuller for longer, excrete troublesome excess hormones and feed your gut bacteria. The bacteria in your gut are fundamental to feeling healthier. They help you to obtain key nutrients from your food; support your immune system to keep you healthy; provide an environment where your feel good brain chemical, serotonin, is made; influence weight and even make vitamins.
You’ll find links to detailed articles about specific symptoms by myself and other specialists at the end of this article, plus links to useful resources.
Oestrogen from plants – is it possible?
Phytoestrogens are compounds that naturally occur in some plants, which mimic your body’s own oestrogen. To a limited extent, phytoestrogens could serve as a type of natural HRT. This is particularly the case for phytoestrogen supplements.
You may find that increasing the amount of phytoestrogens in your daily diet relieves symptoms. These plant compounds have mild oestrogenic effects, displacing your own oestrogen if there’s too much or increasing activity if your levels are low(9). Soya is a good source of phytoestrogens with tofu, tempeh and edamame beans all being versatile ingredients, plus ground flaxseed and wholegrains.
Remember to rest
Remember that sleep gives your body a chance to repair and rebuild itself. Additionally, poor sleep can create a heightened perception of your menopausal symptoms(10) so wind down with soothing lemon balm or chamomile teas and top up levels of nature’s tranquiliser, magnesium, by adding a cupful of magnesium salts to warm bath water and soaking for 20 minutes twice a week. If you can’t switch off, a supplement that contains L-theanine with lemon balm, which can help with anxiety and insomnia(11).
Another good way to relax is to try restorative Yoga Nidra – there’s a free video to try here.
Treat menopause as a marathon, not sprint
Above all, remember that this journey towards menopause can start in your forties and on average will last 4-5 years, but in some cases can last more than 10 years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and whilst addressing your nutrition may not produce overnight results, the evidence points towards real improvements.
Treating yourself with care
To summarise, many women transitioning through menopause experience unpleasant symptoms, such as hot flushes, poor sleep, migraines and weight gain. A whole-foods diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, high-quality protein and dairy products is likely to reduce menopause symptoms.
Phytoestrogens and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids from fish, may also help. Certain foods and drinks are known to make symptoms worse, so you may want to limit added sugars, processed carbs, alcohol, caffeine and high-sodium or spicy foods as well. These simple changes to your diet may make this important transition in your life easier. They will also stand you in good stead for better overall health in later years.
About Rosie Letts
Rosie is a qualified and registered nutritional therapist. She has worked with hundreds of women experiencing menopausal symptoms, helping to combine nutrition and lifestyle changes that have helped to prevent or reduce the severity of symptoms including sleeping problems, mood changes, weight gain, and headaches.
Her qualifications, memberships and awards include: BSc in Nutritional Therapy – University of Westminster; ICHAN outstanding practice 2018 award; Member of the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CHNC); Member of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT).
Products mentioned in this post
Vitamin B Complex
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1 Tan, M., et al. (2014). The effect of physical activity and body mass index on menopausal symptoms in Turkish women: a cross-sectional study in primary care. BMC Women’s Health, 14(1).
2 Guthrie, N., et al. (2009). Duration of vasomotor symptoms in middle aged women, a longitudinal study. Menopause, 2009; 16(3), pp. 453-7.
3 Wardle, J., (2016).’ Menopause’ in Clinical Naturopathy – an evidence-based guide to practice (2nd ed.), Chatswood:Elsevier Australia, p. 474.
4 Norton, S., et al. (2014). Cognitive-behavior therapy for menopausal symptoms (hot flushes and night sweats). Menopause, 21(6), pp.574-578.
5 Elavsky, S. (2009). Physical activity, menopause, and quality of life. Menopause, 16(2), pp.265-271.
6 Whiteman, M., et al. (2003). Smoking, body mass, and hot flashes in midlife women. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2003;101(2), pp.264–272.
7 Soleymani, M., et al. (2018). Dietary patterns and their association with menopausal symptoms. Menopause, e-pub ahead of print [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30363011 (Accessed 4 February 2019).
8 Sayón-Orea, C., et al. (2015). Adherence to Mediterranean dietary pattern and menopausal symptoms in relation to overweight/obesity in Spanish perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. Menopause, 22(7), pp.750-757.
9 Rietjens, I., et al. (2016). The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens. British Journal of Pharmacology, 174(11), pp.1263-1280.
10 Larson, R. & Carter, J. (2016). Total sleep deprivation and pain perception during cold noxious stimuli in humans. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 13(1), pp.12-16.
11 Türközü, D. & Şanlier, N. (2015). L-theanine, unique amino acid of tea, and its metabolism, health effects, and safety. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57(8), pp.1681-1687.