If you’ve been suffering from menopausal-related symptoms, ‘positive’ is probably not the word you’re thinking of right now. However, there are some simple changes that you can make to your diet and lifestyle that will have a beneficial impact on this important phase of your life.
I’m starting with a few definitions as I think the terminology can be confusing.
Menopause is simply the last period you have. Obviously, you won’t know this at the time as it can only be confirmed retrospectively. For women over 50, this means 12 months after your periods have stopped.
The peri-menopause (or menopausal transition) is the time leading up to the menopause (months or even several years), during which hormonal changes start and you may experience symptoms. This phase continues for 1 year after your final period, when you are said to be ‘post-menopausal’.
The menopause usually occurs naturally at the ages of 45-55 years and is most common at 51 in the UK. As a woman approaches this time, the amount of oestrogen produced by the ovaries starts to drop and eventually reaches very low levels. It’s this dramatic fall in oestrogen that causes a number of symptoms, including hot flushes, as well as night sweats, sleep disturbances, vaginal dryness, itchy skin, urinary problems, low mood and joint pain.
Over the longer term, reduced oestrogen can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke, and osteoporosis (bone thinning, which may lead to fractures).
Given that around 80% of women in the UK experience at least one menopausal symptom (1), it’s worth considering what might help in terms of diet and lifestyle.
Reducing menopausal symptoms
Plant oestrogens, known as phytoestrogens, are substances that may reduce menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes. The main sources of phytoestrogens are in plant foods including soy beans, linseeds, lentils and chickpeas. (2) Japanese women are typically much less prone to menopausal symptoms than Western women and this has been put down to their high consumption of soy. In fact the evidence points to fermented soy being of most benefit (3). So this means foods such as miso, tempeh and natto. So far I’ve only used miso – this is readily available in supermarkets – and you can add this to soups or salad dressings. I’ll be sharing recipes using miso and tempeh in the future. I’m not so sure about natto, which are fermented soy beans described as having a powerful smell and slimy texture!
Incredibly, up to 20% of bone density is lost during the 5-7 years after the menopause (4).
To help keep your bones healthy and to guard against the risk of osteoporosis try to ensure your diet has plenty of the following:
Calcium - good sources are dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese or non-dairy alternatives, such as almond milk, that are fortified with calcium; some green leafy vegetables like kale; fish eaten with bones, including tinned salmon, sardines; as well as sesame seeds.
Vitamin D – in the UK from April to September short periods in the sun without sun cream is enough to produce enough daily vitamin D (5). You can top up with dietary sources, including oily fish, butter, eggs, meat and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals (but try to avoid those with a high sugar content).
Vitamin K – good sources are more green leafy vegetables, including broccoli and spinach, and cereals.
You may need to reduce the following in your diet:
Phosphorus – this nutrient is essential for strong, healthy bones, but too much may lead to loss of calcium from the bone. Try to avoid a lot of fizzy drinks, chocolate and processed foods, which can contribute to an excess of phosphorus.
Sodium – in the same way, salty foods high in sodium can cause loss of bone calcium.
Did you know that coronary heart disease is the most common cause of death in women over 50? It may be worth considering some of the following tips to reduce your risk of heart disease (2):
• Aim to eat least 5 portions of different coloured vegetables and fruit per day.
• Try to eat 2 portions of fish a week, including 1 oily fish such as salmon or mackerel.
• Check salt content of food and aim for less than 6g (approximately a teaspoon) per day.
• Include healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado and nuts.
• Include high fibre foods such as porridge oats, lentils and beans.
• Limit processed foods such as pies, cakes and sweets.
Keeping active during and after the menopausal transition is good for general health and may reduce symptoms such as hot flushes, disturbed sleep and low mood. It’s also important for heart and bone health, both affected by the hormonal changes of the menopause. Aim to do regular aerobic exercise such as brisk walking or cycling, which will help with heart health. Weight bearing exercises such as climbing stairs and resistance exercises such as press ups will help to strengthen bones. (2)
Avoiding or giving up smoking is important for everyone, but has particular relevance to the menopause. Smoking tends to result in women having an earlier menopause. And both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can increase the occurrence of some menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes and night sweats, as well as increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. (1)
Every woman’s experience of the menopause is different. Just a few tweaks to diet and lifestyle can help to make yours a more positive one.
1. NHS (2015) Menopause. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/symptoms/.
2. British Nutrition Foundation (2016) Menopause. https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/lifestages/menopause.html
3. Nagata, C. et al. (1999) Hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms in relation to soy product intake in Japanese women, Climacteric, 2(1), pp. 6-12.
4. NHS (2017) Menopause and bone health. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/menopause-and-your-bone-health/
5. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. Vitamin D and health. (2016) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-vitamin-d-and-health-report