There is no getting away from the fact that if you are a woman, at some point in your life you will hit the menopause. Some women are lucky enough to sail through this time of change with little problem, but for many women, menopause can be a very difficult time in life as the body adjusts to the changes that the menopause brings. About 70% of women are said to suffer with 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 and low mood, not to mention insomnia, memory difficulties, low energy and increased risk of osteoporosis. It is therefore not surprising that this time of a woman’s life can certainly be a challenge to navigate through.
The menopause is of course a completely natural and normal stage of a woman’s life, but that does not mean it’s an easy one. So what can you do if you are one of the millions of women worldwide who are currently suffering with menopausal symptoms, or are approaching the age where you may start to experience symptoms? One answer is diet. There are many things which you can add, change or cut out of your diet that can help with many of the symptoms associated with the menopause, so let’s take a look at what they are.
A phytoestrogen is a naturally-occurring plant nutrient that exerts an oestrogen-like action on the body. It is therefore clear to see why these plant nutrients have had a lot of interest in their usage during the menopause, when natural oestrogen levels are depleting.
The two most common phytoestrogens in the western diet are called Lignans and Isoflavones. Lignans are found in foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables and flaxseeds and isoflavones are found in their richest form in soy products, but also in peanuts and chickpeas. Although much research shows that phytoestrogens can have many health benefits, including benefits for menopausal symptoms, because of their oestrogen-like action, they can also disrupt the body’s endocrine (hormonal) system and thus can also have the potential to cause adverse health effects too. However for the treatment of hot flushes, a large meta-analysis study has concluded that phytoestrogens can help significantly reduce the frequency of them during the menopause, without serious side effects so are certainly worth incorporating into the diet during this phase of life.
The hormonal changes which occur during the menopause, have a significant effect on the bone building processes that occur in the body. This process is mainly affected by the decline in
oestrogen. It is therefore especially important during the menopause to consume good levels of calcium and Vitamin D, which helps the body absorb the calcium. Doing this, helps guard against the development of osteoporosis and helps maintain bone strength and bone density. It is recommended that adults should consume no less than 700mg of calcium a day and adhering to this during the menopause will help reduce bone loss. If you have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis then even more calcium is needed per day.
This is where dairy foods are a great healthy friend, as dairy products are an excellent course of calcium. For example one serving (250ml) of Delamere Dairy whole goats’ milk provides 287mg of calcium, which is 41% of an adults recommended daily calcium intake. If you are not a fan of milk then yogurt and cheese is another great source of calcium, although soft cheeses tend to contain less calcium, so opt for harder cheeses where possible. Why not try Delamere dairy medium goats’ cheese, which is delicious on its own, melted over a favourite pasta dish, or chopped into salads with a side of pickle!
Calcium is also found in kale, broccoli and beans, especially white beans as well as sardines and tinned salmon, all of which can easily be added into your diet on a regular basis.
Antioxidants may be a word we are all familiar with, but these certainly have a particular importance during menopausal years. To understand why antioxidants are so important during the menopause, here comes the small science bit. Antioxidants are powerful substances that can help protect the body from damage, as they help fight the oxidation process, which is a chemical reaction that leads to cell damage. The hormone oestrogen is actually a strong antioxidant, so during the menopause when oestrogen levels are diminishing, we suddenly have less of this natural antioxidant in our body. This means that we have less natural protection against the oxidation process and are more prone to oxidative stress, which amongst other things is responsible for premature aging.
Foods rich in antioxidants have been shown to be of great benefit in women experiencing menopausal symptoms because they help to reduce oxidative stress within the body. It is therefore very important that prior to and during the menopause, our diet contains an abundance of natural antioxidants to maintain our antioxidant needs and reduce oxidative stress.
foods that are a high source of antioxidants include berries of all varieties
Vitamin C and Vitamin E are two fantastic vitamins, rich in antioxidants and which have been shown to have beneficial effects on menopausal symptoms. In particular both vitamins have shown to reduce the amount and intensity of hot flushes and intake of vitamin C also has a protective effect on bone, which can help prevent bone loss during the menopause. Other foods that are a high source of antioxidants include berries of all varieties (especially blueberries), spinach, broccoli, artichoke, red grapes and nuts, especially pecans. The really good news is that dark chocolate is also a great source of antioxidants, but opt for good quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content to reap the antioxidant benefits.
Foods that Boost Serotonin
Serotonin is a ‘feel good’ chemical found naturally in the body that affects many bodily functions including mood, appetite and sleep. During the menopause, and particularly during the perimenopause stage when changes are just starting, serotonin levels decline. This is directly linked to the decline in oestrogen, which occurs naturally during menopause, because oestrogen stimulates serotonin production, so if we have less oestrogen we can have less serotonin, which can result in some of the characteristic menopausal symptoms of anxiety, low mood and depression. You can help boost your serotonin levels naturally by eating foods that have a positive effect on your serotonin levels. Foods which indirectly raise serotonin levels include carbohydrate rich foods such as brown rice, porridge, whole wheat pasta and bread and starchy vegetables. These foods trigger the body to release insulin, which allows an amino acid called Tryptophan to enter the brain, where it is then used to make serotonin.
Magnesium is also essential for helping keeping mood more stable during the menopause, as this mineral plays a big part in the release and uptake of serotonin. Foods high in magnesium include bananas, brown rice, spinach, figs, avocado, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds and mackerel, so try and have a little of one each day to help stabilise mood and help reduce anxiety.
This red fruit is a real powerhouse of nutrients that can really help tackle a number of menopausal symptoms. For starters they are a good source of antioxidants, so help reduce oxidative
stress as mentioned above. Cherries are also another source of phytoestrogens, but they contain melatonin, which is the hormone that helps regulate sleep. Sleep can often be one thing that is disturbed during the menopause and insomnia can be a problem, so consuming foods containing melatonin can be helpful during the change.
Milk also has a positive effect on melatonin and serotonin levels as it contains an amino acid called Tryptophan, which helps produce melatonin in the brain. Why not make yourself a healthy cherry milkshake and combine these two super ingredients for a great night sleep during the menopause. With goats’ milk containing more tryptophan than cow’s milk, I suggest using Delamere Dairy goats’ milk and combining 3.5 cups of frozen cherries (or fresh if you prefer), one cup each of Delamere Dairy plain goats’ yogurt and Delamere Dairy goats’ milk and a splash of maple syrup or honey for sweetness. Blend together for a creamy and delicious sleep promoting drink and consume early evening before bedtime.
During the menopause, many women report that certain foods and drinks can act as triggers to their hot flushes and night sweats. Unfortunately one of the common triggers that is frequently reported is alcohol. The exact reason as to why alcohol can cause or exacerbate hot flushes during the menopause is not known, although many reasons have been hypothesized. Not only can alcohol trigger hot flushes or night 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.
This is not to say that all alcohol should be avoided during the menopause, but that it should be drunk less frequently and in smaller amounts.
Herbs have many ancient medicinal and therapeutic properties and the menopause presents an excellent time to use them. Sage is an especially great herb to use at this time and although its effects are largely unproven, many 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 150ml of boiling water and leaving to stand for 10 minutes, before then stirring, removing the leaves and then drinking.
Many women also find acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine to be of positive assistance during the menopause and studies show gentle and regular exercise can also be effective in relieving symptoms of the menopause, so try and keep moving.
The menopause is experienced differently by each woman and although there are common symptoms shared by many, they are not always experienced in exactly the same way or at the same severity. The foods discussed above may certainly help ease symptoms and make life a little more manageable.