Nutrition and lifestyle for a natural menopause
The menopause is a natural stage of life that all women will go through. It is not a disease or a disorder and, in many cultures, it is a time in a woman’s life to be celebrated as a beautiful transition to a new stage of life. That being said, the effects can be very real and do need to be considered.
Perimenopause can be a time of complete hormonal 'chaos'. Estrogen levels can spike before they fall, all hormone levels will bounce wildly, and everything can become extremely out of balance. These fluctuations can be a shock to the body and can affect a woman’s energy, mood, motivation, libido, emotional health, relationships, and overall sense of well-being.
Symptoms can become debilitating and, without the correct support, they can greatly affect quality of life.
The fluctuating hormone levels are thought to be what causes the majority of these symptoms, but various other factors will also be playing a part in our response to these changes in hormones and must be considered, such as:
- nutrient deficiencies
- the oral contraceptive pill or any medications we are taking
- unhealthy food habits
- processed foods
- lifestyle factors
- stress levels
- our liver
- digestive function
All of these can aggravate or exacerbate many of the symptoms we automatically associate with menopause. We often only associate estrogen with reproductive health, but it is actually used throughout the female body, and we have estrogen receptors on many of our major organs. Beyond maintaining your menstrual cycle, estrogen helps support healthy bones, heart, brain, and bowel function.
Low levels of estrogen post-menopause are most commonly associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. However, to say these risks are purely caused by declining estrogen is far too simplistic, and we must remember to look at the whole picture. Many other factors will be playing a part, such as:
- nutrient deficiencies
- environmental toxins
- sedentary lifestyles
- liver and digestive function
All of these can contribute to our response to the decline in estrogen and the development of chronic disease.
How can food and nutrition help?
Good food choices and the right nutrition are vital at each stage of menopause. This can help to reduce symptoms and create hormonal balance during perimenopause, and to support the whole person post-menopause so they can continue to live and age well.
Food is powerful, and your diet forms the very foundation of your health. It is the fuel that feeds the biochemical processes in your body; the nutrients you consume are used to make hormones, create energy and carry out an abundance of cellular tasks that keep us alive and in good health.
As humans, we need a fairly precise array of nutrients in order to do this and this must come from our food. In addition to the food we eat, it is equally important that we consider our digestive and liver health as we are only ever as healthy as the food we eat, what we can absorb, and then what we can safely eliminate or excrete.
So, taking a step back, reconnecting with the food you eat and being mindful of negative life habits is essential during menopause. Positive changes you make now to how you eat and live will have a profound impact on your menopause journey and on your long-term health.
To support yourselves through this time of change, it is particularly vital to:
- Ensure your diet is providing all of the key vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. This will help keep hormones balanced, ease symptoms and support bones, hearts, and brains.
- Optimise liver and digestive function, so you can effectively absorb all of the nutrients from the food you eat, and eliminate toxins and old hormones.
- Support your bones, heart and brain with the right foods, nutrients, and lifestyle.
- Improve resilience to stress. Nourish your adrenal gland with foods rich in magnesium and vitamin C so they are better able to respond to their new role producing estrogen post-menopause.
- Keep blood sugars balanced to create stable energy. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can cause stress hormones to rise which can trigger hot flushes, anxiety, and fatigue.
- Promote a healthy microbiome, which is vital for keeping hormones balanced and all aspects of long-term health.
- Maintain an ideal weight. This will protect bones, joints, and hearts as you age.
As well as these healthy eating guidelines, there are some key food groups that have been well-studied for their role in helping reduce symptoms and the risks associated with post-menopause and declining estrogen.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids
Omega-3-rich foods are naturally anti-inflammatory and can help lubricate the body from the inside, so they are great for symptoms such as dry skin, vaginal dryness, painful joints, and hot flushes.
A 2018 study looked at how diet influenced the age of menopause and found a high intake of oily fish and fresh legumes was associated with a significantly later onset of natural menopause. Several human and animal studies have shown omega-3 to have a protective effect on bones by decreasing bone resorption.
Good sources are oily fish (aim for three portions a week), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
An adequate intake of fibre can help keep blood sugars balanced, which is critical for stable energy and restorative sleep. Numerous studies show fibre has a beneficial effect on all aspects of heart health and digestive function, and can help in maintaining a healthy weight.
Importantly for menopause, fibre is essential for detoxification processes and helps your body safely eliminate old estrogen and other waste products via your stool. This ensures that during the perimenopause, when hormones are fluctuating, all unwanted and used hormones are removed from circulation and not contributing to the chaos.
Some of the best sources of fibre include nuts, seeds, legumes/beans, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.
Phytoestrogens are possibly the most studied food in relation to menopause. They are plant-based chemicals that mimic estrogen, and they are found in many foods such as soya, lentils, flaxseed, sesame, fennel, beans, chickpeas, and some herbs and spices (sage, cinnamon, etc).
Phytoestrogens are extremely clever and have been well-researched for their ability to help balance hormones and reduce symptoms and risk factors associated with menopause. Phytoestrogens have a natural affinity to estrogen receptors in the brain, bones, and heart, so will have beneficial effects on bone health, cognitive ability, and heart health.
Studies show that women who eat a diet rich in phytoestrogens report fewer hot flushes. Four tablespoons of freshly-ground flaxseed every day has been shown in one study to reduce hot flushes by half and to help to establish a healthy estrogen balance.
Try to include some cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale daily. These contain plant compounds which naturally help to balance estrogen levels and are also high in fibre.
Their sulphur-containing nutrients will support liver function, and enhance liver detoxification processes and the safe removal of estrogen. This will help reduce the circulating hormone load and can protect against cancer cell formation, too.
Many herbs are touted as being beneficial during menopause, and there are some robust studies for their effectiveness in alleviating symptoms. Research suggests that black cohosh is one of the most effective herbs for the relief of hot flushes, while St. John’s wort can improve anxiety and lift mood.
I would suggest that anyone wanting to try herbal remedies does so with support from a professional and as part of a whole programme of change.
Something simple we can all do, though, is to cook more with garden herbs like parsley, rosemary, coriander, sage, and basil. Herbs are highly nutritious and contain plant compounds that will support detoxification processes, reduce inflammation, improve immune function, and will generally support all body systems.
Incorporating anti-inflammatory spices in your cooking that boost circulation to the muscles, such as turmeric and ginger, can also help support bone health. Studies have found ginger to be effective at reducing hot flushes, too.
Herbal teas are also a great way to use herbs safely. For hot flushes and to reduce anxiety, try camomile, lemon balm, or sage.
The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and to listen to what your body needs. Prioritise self-care, nourish your body with good food, surround yourself with happy people, and remove anything 'toxic' from your life. Small changes can have a big impact, and you are worth it.