Adapting diets to support hormonal change in perimenopause
The hormonal changes that lead to the menopause start much earlier than you’d think. And, from the early 40s onwards, these can be going on in the background triggering a range of different symptoms.
This pre-menopausal phase is called perimenopause and can last for some years as levels of the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone start to fluctuate. Some women feel confused and concerned by apparently unconnected symptoms which they often won’t associate with the menopause, because they’re still having regular periods or assume that they’re too young.
The decline of progesterone
Hot flushes and night sweats are probably amongst the best-known symptoms, but these aren’t usually the first ones to crop up. Progesterone is typically the first hormone to decline during the perimenopause and this can often lead to emotional and psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, low mood and loss of confidence, which can be very distressing.
Women who are prone to PMS or have a history of anxiety or depression tend to be affected more severely by a progesterone imbalance and this can cause you to feel tearful and experience erratic moods. These symptoms are often an early warning sign that the menopause is on its way, even if your periods are still regular, and this is why they can so often be misunderstood.
Stress is a key factor in menopause symptoms, as it can severely disrupt the balance of sex hormones so that symptoms become more severe and prolonged. This is because it disrupts the body’s back-up plan – the adrenal glands are programmed to take over from the ovaries and to produce small amounts of oestrogen post-menopause to keep us fit and healthy. Unfortunately, the adrenals also produce the stress response and this will take precedence when the pressure is on.
And, of course, midlife is commonly a hugely stressful time with challenges, including:
- juggling work and a growing family
- the potential clash of hormones in the household as puberty meets menopause
- supporting elderly relatives – not for nothing are we known as the sandwich generation
- financial pressures
- relationship challenges
- and the new stress factor of 2020
The coronavirus and the pressure of lockdown have added to the anxiety load for a lot of women, inevitably exacerbating menopause symptoms.
As these pressures build-up, a diet and lifestyle designed to regulate the body’s response to stress is absolutely key and could make a big difference to menopause symptoms during this transitional phase.
Strategies to reduce stress hormones and build resilience
Here are four strategies that can better equip you to cope with the challenges of daily life and keep those symptoms at bay.
1. Balance your blood sugar
Every time your blood sugar drops, the body releases stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, so one simple approach to reducing stress levels is to balance your blood sugar.
The best way to do this is to avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice and white pasta, and opt for complex carbs like brown rice, wholemeal bread and other whole grains, vegetables and pulses. These break down more slowly in the body, helping to keep you going for longer and avoiding those blood sugar spikes and crashes.
Protein is the secret weapon in all of this, because it slows down the release of carbohydrate, supporting blood sugar levels, banishing those sugar cravings and keeping you going for longer.
2. Eat magnesium-rich food
Magnesium is nature’s calmer, helping to support the nervous system and acting as a buffer against the stresses and strains of life. It has multiple other jobs too, including easing muscle tension, relieving aches and pains, and acting as our ignition key, because of the essential role it plays in kick-starting energy production.
If you’re feeling tired, jittery and anxious (which many perimenopausal women do), magnesium could be a big help. Eating two handfuls of leafy green veg every day, such as spinach, kale or rocket is a great way to support magnesium levels.
3. Boost your B and C
B vitamins and vitamin C play a key role in supporting adrenal function, which means they can be hugely depleted in times of stress. A deficiency in B vitamins can contribute to fatigue, low mood, anxiety, poor memory and loss of concentration. Eating a balanced diet is the best way to keep them topped up because they’re mostly found in a broad range of foods. However, vitamin B12 is only found in animal sources, so anyone eating a vegan diet may need to consider a supplement to avoid a potential deficiency.
The best sources of vitamin C are vegetables such as red peppers and leafy greens, which contain two or three times more than an orange. Try doubling your vegetable intake: it’ll give you a great vitamin C boost and increase fibre levels too to support blood sugar balance and healthy digestion.
4. Movement is medicine
Exercise is non-negotiable as women transition through the menopause – and not just for the obvious reasons that this will keep you in good shape and help to support strong and healthy bones.
There is an increasing body of research linking regular exercise and reduced levels of stress and anxiety. Making time for some fresh air every day is extremely important and studies have shown that walking in nature amongst trees has a very positive impact on the nervous system.
Jackie Lynch is a registered nutritional therapist and host of the popular diet and lifestyle podcast, The Happy Menopause. Her new book The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish is out now. Follow her on social media at @WellWellWellUK.