What to eat to ease menopause symptoms
Top nutritionist Amanda Ursell shares her tips on tackling the menopause with the right foods
When do women experience the menopause?
AAlthough the word menopause means ‘final period’ and occurs when, as women, we reach the end of our natural reproductive lives, in reality the menopause does not happen overnight. Rather, it is a gradual process, which, in the UK, usually begins in our late 40s and concludes around the age of 51. During this time, we experience individual and changing symptoms as our levels of oestrogen gradually decline and others increase.
What symptoms arise with the menopause?
AEvery woman experiences the menopause differently. Some may describe themselves as feeling on the edge of a breakdown, others as having a loss of confidence, feeling irritable and forgetful, finding it hard to concentrate and focus, or falling prey to panic attacks. While symptoms can vary widely, once menopause is complete, we know that with lower levels of oestrogen circulating in our bodies, we become more at risk of developing heart disease, fragile bones that can lead to fracture and Type 2 diabetes.
What are the initial effects of falling oestrogen levels?
ASeventy-five per cent of women in the UK experience what are known as ‘vasomotor’ symptoms, which are usually worst in the two or three years before periods stop completely. Symptoms can include hot flushes and night sweats, palpitations and headaches, and, while from a clinical perspective they are in themselves usually harmless, they can affect our overall health and psychological wellbeing by triggering issues such as stress and anxiety, poor sleep patterns, low mood and depression.
How can diet help with… hot flushes and night sweats?
AHot flushes are thought to be caused by our temperature control system being affected by changes in hormone levels. When they happen at night, we tend to call them night sweats. Smoking, eating spicy foods, drinking alcohol and large intakes of caffeine may trigger flushing. Sipping cold drinks may bring relief and there is some evidence that using a standardised 40mg supplement of red clover isoflavone helps to reduce hot flushing, especially in women who flush many times a day. It is not recommended for women who have had hormone-dependent tumours, such as breast cancer, as its beneficial effect comes from its oestrogen-like activity in our bodies. Chasteberry is another herbal extract worthy of consideration, while extracts of dong quai have been shown in studies to significantly improve the frequency and intensity of hot flushes over a three-month study period.
AThe sensation that your heart is beating abnormally is described as a palpitation and is a symptom that occurs frequently in the four years leading up to the menopause, probably due to fluctuating hormone levels impacting on our nervous systems. Some palpitations have an underlying medical cause and so are worth discussing with your GP. If your doctor rules out more serious reasons for their cause, then we can think about our magnesium intake. A low magnesium diet of 100mg a day (the recommended intake in the UK for women is 270mg daily) has been found to have an increased risk of irregular heartbeat. Including magnesium-rich foods like pumpkin and chia seeds is a good idea and you could also consider a magnesium supplement of around 200mg a day.
AAltering hormonal levels can also trigger both cluster and tension headaches as the menopause approaches. While our doctors may recommend certain medications, it is also possible that a combination of alternative approaches may be helpful. Neurology experts suggest that acupuncture and yoga, along with vitamin E and black cohosh, may be helpful.
…stress and anxiety?
ACoping with the physical and psychological symptoms that accompany the process of the menopause can be challenging and a source of stress. Limiting our caffeine intake in coffees and teas may be a helpful starting point, as well as trying herbal tinctures or teas of chamomile and trying to establish good sleep patterns. Regular time out of doors and physical exercise can both help to dial down stress and anxiety, as can seeking help from talking therapies, eating balanced meals and snacks, and finding time to relax and switch off from everyday life.
AOnce again, changing hormone levels are often the culprit when it comes to disrupted sleep patterns. Having our last cup of caffeinated drink eight hours before bedtime may help, as can having a light meal in the evening. Valerian is a traditional herb used to help sleep disorders, as is chasteberry, while a combination of calcium and magnesium supplements may also be helpful.
AWith the menopause often coinciding with other pressures and life changing events, it is not surprising if we find our confidence floundering, our self-worth waning and our mood dipping. Research shows that turning our backs on modern, processed diets and replacing them with traditional Mediterranean or Japanese styles of eating, with plenty of vegetables and fruits, wholegrain carbohydrates and lean plant-based protein, plus oily fish, can lower the risk of low mood and improve it. Trying a supplement of St John’s Wort may also be helpful.
AThe menopause can also trigger depression, and while it is essential to follow your doctor’s advice when it comes to treatment, clinical research shows that following a traditional Mediterranean style of eating has been proven to help relieve symptoms of depression.
AAs we grow closer to our last period, the continuing effects of diminishing oestrogen levels begin to affect other parts of our bodies, leading to changes for example to the vagina, urinary system and skin, hair and nails. A fall in oestrogen leads to a reduction in blood flow to the vagina and vulva, and the lining of both become thinner and drier as a result. Losing its elasticity means the vagina becomes narrower and shorter, with secretions lessening and pH levels changing, which can in turn make us more susceptible to infections. Studies looking at intakes of both soy and red clover supplements have revealed significant improvements in the quality of epithelial cells in the vagina in women. Researchers believe these findings are down to the presence of plant oestrogens in these supplements. It is also worth looking to include more foods naturally containing plant oestrogens, such as wholegrain bread and pluses.
AJust as the linings of the vagina and vulva are affected by diminishing oestrogen levels, so too are those in our urinary tracts, making us more prone to urinary tract infections. It can also lead to experiencing the need to pass urine more frequently, sometimes with great urgency and during the day and the night. To help prevent infections taking hold in the first place, medical herbalists advise good intakes of vitamin C, found in berries, citrus fruits and peppers, to help acidify the urine, making it less hospitable for harmful bacteria. Herbalists advise cranberry juice as well, which contains plant compounds that help to make the lining of the urinary tract ‘non-stick’, making it more difficult for bacteria to cling on and set up infections. When it comes to reducing how often we get up at night to pass urine, try to avoid drinking close to the time you go to sleep. Scientists have linked a higher BMI to more problems with night-time urination, so bringing our body mass down to within the normal range may also be helpful.
… skin health?
AOestrogen plays a well-understood role in the wellbeing of our skin and, as levels decline, it is common for elastin and collagen, which give skin its stretch and bounce, to diminish, leaving it as a result, drier, less elastic and thinner. Hair and nails meanwhile may become more brittle. A Mediterranean style of eating that is rich in antioxidants and good fats from vegetables and fruits, olive oil and oily fish, along with a range of minerals from wholegrains, is a great bedrock for healthy skin. Specifically including foods that give us plant oestrogens, such as soya milk, tempeh and tofu, lentils and wholegrains, may also help our skin’s ability to maintain more collagen and elastin as we move through the menopause.
…the long-term effects of falling oestrogen on our bones?
AAs our oestrogen levels begin to decline as we approach the menopause, our bones become weaker, leaving one in three women over the age of 50 at risk of fragility fractures, most commonly in the hips, forearm and spine. Taking 10mg of vitamin D daily is vital, as this nutrient is crucial for enabling calcium to be absorbed from foods and drinks we consume like milk, yoghurt, fortified dairy alternatives, tofu, almonds and sesame seeds, for example. Calcium is essential for bone health along with vitamin K, found in dark green leafy vegetables. It is also important to keep our salt intake down and to control our blood pressure, as too much salt and raised blood pressure also negatively affect bone growth.
AAlso known as ‘CV’, cardiovascular disease is the term given to a collection of problems, which includes stroke and angina, heart attacks and issues with the circulation, the risk of which increases as we pass through the menopause. Eating traditional Mediterranean-style meals and snacks, and weeding out processed foods, is a brilliant place to start. We can do this by basing our food around vegetables and fruits, pulses and wholegrain carbohydrates. Then we can add in some oily fish, olive oil and dairy and, if we choose, small amounts of meat. This can help to keep you feeling satisfied while having a positive influence on blood fats and sugar levels.