How to naturally manage your menopause
The word menopause comes from the Greek men (month) and pausis (cessation). Menopause was a term coined by French physician Charles Pierre Louis de Gardenne in 1821 to define the permanent cessation of menstruation. The official definition of menopause is when a woman has not had a period for a year, although women may experience the hormonal rollercoaster of perimenopause for 12-13 years prior.
Menopause is caused by a decline in the body’s sex hormones - oestrogen and progesterone - and is a natural part of ageing, usually occurring around the age of 50. It is one of the most significant transitions in a woman's life, and brings with it a number of physiological changes.
What is menopause?
The medical management of menopause usually involves prescribing hormonal replacement therapy (HRT), plus anti-depressants, but these therapies can come with unwanted side effects. Increasingly, women are looking for ways to balance their hormones naturally. The Mirena coil may be used as a form of HRT, and health practitioners can also prescribe bio-identical hormones, which are man-made hormones that are very similar to the hormones produced by the human body.
Although the transition from childbearing to menopause is a perfectly natural one, many women’s experience of menopause is far from positive. It is often dominated by symptoms including weight gain, insomnia, osteoporosis, anxiety, forgetfulness, fatigue, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, low libido, vaginal dryness, and the infamous night sweats and hot flashes. Menopausal women often report their partners having to vacate the bed due to the hormonal hot water bottle sleeping beside them!
Stress leading up to and during the menopause can have a significant influence on the menopausal experience. The production of oestrogen by the ovaries declines in menopause and is taken over by the adrenal glands, which transforms hormones called androgens into oestrogen. Our adrenal glands produce our stress hormones, so minimising stress and taking steps to nourish your adrenals is very important. To help manage stress, try yoga, a relaxing walk in nature, having an Epsom salt bath before bed, or four-seven breathing (breathe in through the nose for four and out through the mouth for seven).
Research shows that practising mindfulness may be associated with fewer menopausal symptoms. Findings suggest that being mindful may be helpful for menopausal women struggling with depression, anxiety, and mood swings.
There is some research suggesting that exercise can help reduce hot flashes and night sweats, but not enough to draw a definitive conclusion. It is still important to exercise regularly, however, as there are proven benefits such as healthier bones and joints, better sleep, and improved mood, energy, and metabolism. Weight-bearing exercise is particularly important at this time to support bone health.
Common trigger foods for hot flashes and night sweats include alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, and foods high in sugar. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight may help alleviate menopause symptoms and help to prevent disease.
Dietary management of menopause
Proper hydration is important to reduce toxins, help maintain a healthy weight, and reduce bloating caused by hormonal changes. Try to drink two litres of filtered water and/or herbal tea daily (regular tea and coffee don’t count. Sorry!).
Balancing blood glucose levels is the cornerstone of healthy hormones. A diet high in processed foods and sugar can cause a severe disruption in blood sugar. This imbalance results in feelings of tiredness and irritability, brain fog, low energy levels, and difficulty in sleeping. Rather than eating carbohydrates in isolation, combining them with a protein source slows down the rush of glucose into the bloodstream, as well as helping to prevent the loss of lean muscle mass that occurs with age. Foods rich in protein include fish, meat, eggs, dairy, nuts, legumes, beans, and tofu.
Eating three nutritious meals a day within an eight-12 hour window and not snacking in between can also help to balance blood sugar and this form of time-restricted eating (TRE) has been shown to have many positive health benefits, such as improved mood and sleep, and weight loss.
Eat the rainbow! A diet rich in vegetables and fruit may help to manage menopausal symptoms. The loss of oestrogen in menopause may correlate with an increase in osteoporosis and heart disease, and research demonstrates that the antioxidants in fruit and veg may have a protective effect. Oestrogen and progesterone also fuel bacteria in your gut, so a decline in these hormones can disrupt healthy gut flora. Feeding your beneficial flora by consuming a diversity of produce helps to ensure a better gut balance.
Scientific research on the benefits of including phytoestrogens in your diet during menopause is mixed, but many studies report their consumption alleviating menopausal symptoms. Phytoestrogens are plant-derived compounds that can mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body. They may be consumed in natural food sources such as tempeh, tofu, soy milk, lentils, and edamame beans, or taken as a supplement, such as red clover.
Other supplements reported to have a positive effect on menopausal symptoms include black cohosh, agnus castus, flaxseed, ginseng, wild yam, holy basil, sage, dong quai, calcium, and vitamin D. Supplements should preferably be recommended by a qualified professional and should always be checked against any current medication.
Xenoestrogens belong to a category of chemicals that alter the function of hormones and demonstrate oestrogen-like effects. These harmful synthetic compounds are found in skincare products, cleaning products, plastics, processed food, insecticides, and building supplies. It is impossible to entirely avoid these chemicals, so it is important to limit your exposure; drink enough filtered water to flush them out, consume healthy oestrogens, avoid plastics, switch to non-toxic skincare and cleaning products and eat organic where possible. Cook with pans made of steel and use non-toxic cookware.
A healthy menopause
It may take up to three months to notice some positive benefits of these lifestyle and nutrition changes, so it is important to stick with it. Menopause is one of life’s natural transitions and managing stress, getting your nutrition right and exercising regularly may help you to embrace it in a happier and healthier way.