Help for the Menopause
Menopause, sometimes referred to as the evil older sister of puberty, may be a natural part of the aging process for women, but that does not make it an easy one. Unlike some other common aging signs, such as getting grey hair, increasing wrinkles or joint stiffness, for some women menopausal symptoms can be all consuming and in some cases can significantly affect quality of life.
According to the Menopause Charity, about 90% of women get menopausal symptoms, most of which are attributed to the decline of oestrogen in the body. Symptoms can include hot flushes and night sweats as well as anxiety, low mood and depression, not to mention insomnia, memory difficulties, low energy and increased risk of osteoporosis. If this barrage of symptoms attack with force, it is no wonder that many women can be left struggling both physically and/or mentally during the menopausal years, which most usually occur between 45 and 55 years of age, but can occur earlier in some.
So how can diet and certain foods affect common menopause symptoms for the good and the bad?
Hot Flushes & Night Sweats
Hot flushes (or as some women like to refer to them, a power surge), are one of the most common symptoms experienced during the menopause, with around 75% of women experiencing this symptom. Hot flushes can be brief and fleeting, but night sweats can often hang around longer and cause a lingering chill immediately after. There are common foods and drinks that have been shown to trigger hot flushes / sweats or cause them to worsen, and these are best avoided or cut down on if heat changes are a predominant part of your menopause.
Alcohol: Whether its wine, beer or spirits, alcohol is one common trigger that can exacerbate hot flushes and night sweats, although the reason as to why it has this effect is not fully understood. Not only can alcohol trigger these hormonal flushes and sweats in some women, but it has also been shown to increase the severity of these episodes, causing increased levels of flushing and perspiration as well as palpitations. Most people tend to drink alcohol in the evening too, which is not recommended during menopause as consuming alcohol before bed has been shown to trigger night sweats in many women. In addition to that alcohol is also a stimulant, known to negatively impact sleep quality and this is not something you want if you are already experiencing low energy levels or difficulty sleeping due to the temperature fluctuations.
Spicy Foods – This one is a bit of an obvious one, given the effects it can have when anyone eats them, but spicy foods and hot spices can again trigger or worsen flushes and sweats in some women during menopause. So always best to go easy on the addition of hot sauces or the vindaloo curry if flushes and sweats are plaguing you.
Sage Leaf – This is one herb that can help when it comes to menopausal hot flushes and sweats, and although there is limited research, many women have vouched for its effectiveness when used during the menopause. Sage has been used for centuries for its therapeutic and medicinal properties, and menopausal women have reported positive effects on their symptoms whilst taking sage, including reduced hot flushes and night sweats, improved energy and reduced anxiety. There are many ways in which you can consume sage, but one way is by making a fresh sage leaf tea by chopping 3-4 grams of fresh sage leaf, covering with 150lm of boiling water and leaving to stand for 10 minutes, before then stirring, removing the leaves and drinking.
Cooling Foods & Herbs – There are some foods and herbs known as ‘cooling foods’, so called because they can have cooling and temperature lowering effect on the body and this is exactly what you want if you are struggling with hot flushes and sweats. Cooling foods include water-rich fruit and vegetables such as cucumbers, melons, celery, tomatoes, courgettes, mangoes, pineapple and radishes. The high water content in these foods can help hydrate us and this can have an internal effect on body temperature.
Mint, including peppermint and spearmint, contains menthol, which has a cooling and chilling effect on the body. You can easily make an iced mint tea, which will not only hydrate, but provide an excellent cooling effect to the body.
Insomnia and Disturbed Sleep
Another common symptom during the menopausal years is sleep difficulties which in some women can present as chronic insomnia. We know that continued lack of sleep affects daytime moods, as well as negatively impacting immune function, so it is an important symptom to address and try to improve. As a woman approaches menopause, oestrogen levels sharply drop and melatonin levels (the sleep hormone) also decrease gradually. This is not great for either sleep quality or sleep duration, because in basic terms the more melatonin you have the calmer and sleepier you feel, as melatonin helps to control the sleep-wake cycle.
Some foods actually contain melatonin, or help its production, so these foods should certainly be on the menopause menu. Tart cherries contain melatonin and some research has shown that drinking tart cherry juice twice a day improved both sleep quality and sleep duration. Other foods containing melatonin include eggs, milk (including goats’ milk J), fish and nuts.
Foods high in calcium, such as dairy product including milk, cheese and yogurt are not only important for reducing bone loss during and after the menopause, but is also vital for the production of that sleep hormone, melatonin, too. So make sure Delamere Dairy goats’ milk products are a part of your daily diet, and have a warm (or cold) mug of cocoa or milk made with goats’ milk before bed to help.
In the evening (post 6pm), it is best to avoid foods that act as stimulants or contain things known to prevent a restful sleep, as these will only further impact sleep quality. These foods include, spicy foods, sweets, Monosodium glutamate (a flavour enhancer found in many processed foods and is also known as MSG or E621), foods high in salt or salt added at the table, red and processed meats and coffee.
The fluctuation of hormone levels and the imbalance in particular of oestrogen and progesterone during the menopause, can have a big impact on mood in a variety of ways. Anxiety is a common symptom experienced by many women during the menopause, and can be very debilitating.
Protein rich foods can be good here as they can work in different ways to help reduce anxiety and stressed feelings. Milk is one such protein food, as it contains the amino acid called tryptophan that can help with relaxation and calm feelings. Goats’ milk actually contains more tryptophan than cows’ milk and is a fantastic source of calcium, which also helps promote feelings of calmness as well as being an excellent muscle relaxant.
Meat, fish and dairy products also contain the amino acid called glycine, which although our body produces it naturally, can definitely be boosted by either eating certain foods or through supplementation. Glycine is one amino acid shown to help regulate menopausal symptoms in some women, and has shown to help reduce stress and anxiety and promote feelings of calm. The science suggests that glycine decreases the effect of the stress hormone and neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, which is released in the body during times of stress, anxiety and agitation, all of which are common during the menopause.
Some research has also shown that glycine seems to have an oestrogen-like, bone protective effect during the menopause, so may help reduce bone loss during this time too.
When it comes to anxiety, there are few better herbs than chamomile, so even if you have never drunk chamomile tea before, menopause is the time to start! This herb is well-known for its calming effects and is often recommended to be drunk before bedtime to help aid sleep, or at times of stress and anxiety. One recent study showed that long-term use of chamomile extract significantly reduced symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder.
Brain fog is a familiar term, and is certainly another common symptom that can be experienced in perimenopause and menopause. Forgetfulness, losing items such as keys and difficulty in retaining information are all signs of menopausal brain fog, but there are foods that can help give your brain a helpful boost here.
Sage, as mentioned above, is not only helpful for hot flushes, but has also been shown to help enhance brain function and memory. Research has shown that sage can improve brain performance and boost memory recall, in fact, it is currently being investigated as a potentially helpful treatment for Alzheimer’s disease due to its positive effects on the brain.
Zinc is a mineral that is essential for memory and thinking skills, so boosting foods high in zinc during this time, can be helpful to relieve brain fog. Beef, lamb, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, spinach, dark chocolate and pulses are all great sources of zinc and can easily be added to your brain boosting menu.
Green and leafy vegetables should definitely take up a large space on your plate too when it comes to improving your memory and cognitive function. Kale, spinach, broccoli, peas, romaine lettuce are all recommended here as they all contain the yellow pigment called Lutein. This has been shown to improve many brain functions including memory recall and general cognitive boosting capabilities.
For many women, the menopause is a challenging time on many levels, but making small changes and additions to your diet can help alleviate or reduce certain symptoms that can be so bothersome at this time. If all else fails, you can always use the old fall back of ‘menopause made me do it…….or indeed forget to do it’.
- History of Zinc as Associated with Brain Function, 2000. The Journal of Nutrition.
- Cherries and Health: A Review, 2010. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition
- New therapeutic strategy for amino acid medicine: glycine improves the quality of sleep, 2012. Journal of Pharmacological Science
- Comparative Nutrient Profiling of Retail Goat and Cow Milk, 2019. Nutrients
- Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future, 2010. Molecular Medicine Report
- Estrogen-like osteoprotective effects of glycine in in vitro and in vivo models of menopause, 2016. Amino Acids