What is the menopause and how can you eat to ease some of the unwelcome symptoms associated with it? Nutritionist Jo Lewin has some practical advice...
About the menopause
Most women dread the word menopause. In reality it affects women in completely different ways, but the most common symptoms include hot flushes, sweating, insomnia, anxiety, impairment of memory and fatigue. Long term consequences can include a decline in libido, osteoporosis, heart disease, even dementia – all linked to reduced oestrogen levels.
Typically, a woman’s ovaries stop releasing eggs in her early 50s, and the menstrual cycle stops. Some women can sail through with only the odd hot flush, but others can struggle with symptoms such as weight gain and fluctuating emotions. The physiological reason why the body starts changing is largely down to the drop in oestrogen production and the effect this has on other hormones.
As the ovaries stop manufacturing the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, symptoms may begin. For example, oestrogen helps lift our mood so, when levels drop, we may feel depressed. Some women opt for hormone replacement therapy (HRT); others try natural remedies. Whether or not you decide to take HRT, following the guidelines below won't hurt and will assist in the pursuit of an all-round healthy lifestyle.
It has been noted that eating, and avoiding, certain types of foods can make the menopause a lot more bearable. Here are common problems those going through the menopause may face and some foods to watch out for...
Stop eating foods that are likely to trigger or worsen hot flushes and night sweats. For instance, avoid stimulants such as coffee, alcohol and chocolate and spicy foods, especially at night - they're notorious for setting off hot flushes.
Avoid snacking on sugary foods – all too often a sharp rise in your blood glucose level may be followed by a sharp dip which leaves you feeling tired and drained. Choose fresh fruit with a few nuts instead.
Many people associate the menopause with weight gain but, as we get older, we need fewer calories. Eating a bit less sounds a simplistic solution but it will help. Watch the amount of fat in your diet and cut back on sugar. Eat complex carbohydrates, such as brown grains, wholemeal pasta, bread and rice, as they will help balance blood sugar levels and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Legumes, nuts and seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, almonds contain vitamin E, zinc and calcium. These nutrients and the oils in nuts and seeds may help prevent dry skin and normalise hormone levels.
Depression and irritability
Ensure you eat enough protein foods which contain the amino acid tryptophan. You can find it in turkey, cottage cheese, oats and legumes. Tryptophan helps manufacture the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin helps moods and may help control sleep and appetite which can make you feel better in yourself. Other useful strategies to help you feel less irritable are to eat breakfast and not miss meals to balance your blood sugar.
Women going through the menopause should increase their intake of food sources of calcium, magnesium and vitamins D and K to maintain integrity of the skeleton. In addition, high amounts of phosphorous – found in red meat, processed foods and fizzy drinks – should also be avoided. Too much phosphorous in the diet accelerates the loss of minerals such as calcium and magnesium from bone. Reducing sodium, caffeine and protein from animal products can also help the body maintain calcium stores.
Opt for more alkaline foods - vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and yogurt - to help prevent calcium reserves being leached from bones. Eat foods high in magnesium and boron. These are minerals which are important for the replacement of bone and thus help to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Apples, pears, grapes, dates, raisins, legumes and nuts are good sources of boron. As well as considering a calcium supplement, other vitamins and minerals that are vital for bone health are: magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin D and zinc. Choose a supplement with a combination of these and they will be in the right proportion for maximum effect. Weight-bearing exercise is vital too.
Phyto or plant oestrogens found in certain foods are oestrogenic compounds that bind with oestrogen receptor sites in the body cells, increasing the total oestrogenic effect. By acting in a similar way to oestrogen, they may help in keeping hormones a little more in balance. A high intake of phytoestrogens is thought to explain why hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms rarely occur in populations consuming a predominantly plant-based diet. Increase your intake of phyto-oestrogens by eating more: soya milk and soya flour, linseeds, tofu, tempeh and miso, pumpkins seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, celery, rhubarb and green beans.
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