Healthy eating is an important part of caring for yourself during this transition, and for menopausal and post-menopausal women there are aspects of the diet that are vital and may even help your symptoms
Menopause is different for everyone. Some sail through it. Others have their life turned upside down. Let me be clear though, most (8 in 10) women experience some symptoms. It’s just the duration and severity can differ. The average age of menopause is about 51 years and it usually happens between 45 and 55 years.
Although the relief of not having a period each month can be a welcome thing, it can be hard earned. Annoyingly, symptoms usually start before the monthly period stops. And, changes to the period can make it light or heavier, and it can occur less and more frequently.
What’s more, symptoms can persist for some time after the last period. On average, these symptoms continue for a further four years after periods stop. However, around one in every 10 women experience symptoms for up to 12 years.
There isn’t an area of the body that isn’t impacted by the change in hormones. However, common symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping, issues with memory, low mood, anxiety, headaches, palpitations, joint stiffness, aches and pain, reduced muscle and bone mass, recurrent urinary tract infections, reduced sex drive and challenges during intercourse.
Frustratingly, it’s fair to say that research in the area of menopause is lacking. Despite half the population being female, and menopause impacting all women, the level of understanding and care doesn’t match expectations.
There are treatment options that your GP can prescribe to help you get through this period. However, nutrition needs to be considered alongside this.
What to eat
Often people want to talk about symptom management first, which of course is understandable. However, it’s also important to change the diet to reflect the person and the conditions and diseases they’re now more at risk of.
Plant oestrogens to reduce menopausal symptoms
Plant oestrogens are also called phytoestrogens. They are comparable to human oestrogens. The thought around them is that if you eat them, they could have mild oestrogen-like effects in the body which could help during this period of lowering and low oestrogen levels.
They help manage menopausal symptoms in some women. It takes time to see the benefits so prepare to trial them for two to three months. We don’t know why they seem to work better in some women compared to others but it could be due to differences in gut bacteria. Instead of having one large amount at one meal, it appears to be more beneficial to spread them out across the day.
So, where are they found? Soya foods and linseeds (aka flaxseeds) are rich in plant oestrogens so aim to enjoy them a few times a day.
Protect your bones
Women can lose as much as 20pc of their bone density five to seven years after menopause. Osteoporosis is considered a silent disease that can develop throughout life, accelerating after menopause before showing its ugly face when older. Osteoporosis is very common among women with one in two women over 50 developing a fracture due to osteoporosis in their lifetime. This can lead to meaningful deteriorations in quality of life.
Diet and lifestyle changes pack a punch. Eating enough calcium, adequate protein, and taking a vitamin D supplement combined with not smoking and exercise can help decrease the amount of bone loss. There are many important nutrients in bone health but to simplify it consider that magnesium helps vitamin D do its thing and vitamin D helps calcium! Interestingly, researchers found that prunes can help prevent or delay bone loss in postmenopausal women, possibly due to their ability to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which contribute to bone loss.
Prevent muscle loss
Muscle mass declines by about 1pc per year after the age of 30 years. Severe muscle loss occurs in five to 13pc of 60 to 70-year-olds and 11 to 50pc of those aged 80 years and older. The two things that prevent this from happening are participating in physical activity to maintain and build muscle, as well as eating adequate protein at each meal. The sooner you start the better!
Protein feeds both muscles and bones. It’s harder to stimulate an older person’s bones to rebuild to their maximum when compared to a younger person. There’s no set year that we stop being young and start being old, so consider it a gradual process.
For this reason, younger people need at least 10g but preferably 20g of protein at each meal while post-menopausal women need at least 20g but preferably 40g of protein at each meal. Fortunately, exercise can help too. The type of exercise is important. Weight bearing exercises and muscle strengthening exercises are the two most important forms of exercise for your bone strength. For example box jumps, skipping, steps and stairs as well as resistance bands, weights and body weight exercises like lunges.
Protect your heart
Heart disease and stroke are the number 1 killer of women in Ireland killing an average of one woman every 2 hours. The best weapons against heart disease are diet and other lifestyle choices. Here are foods to consider including.
⬤ Tree Nuts – 30g per day
Research has shown that consuming 30g of nuts (about one handful or 23 almonds) per day can reduce cholesterol levels by at least 3pc.
The stronger effects on cholesterol were observed when more than 60g of nuts were consumed daily.
⬤ Soluble Fibre – 10-25g per day
Fibre is found in all plant foods in varying degrees. Fibre can be categorised into two types: soluble and insoluble fibre. Most plants have a mixture of these two types. Soluble fibre is particularly good for our heart, as it soaks up and removes cholesterol from our body. Soluble fibre is high levels within beans, peas, lentils barley, chia seeds, linseeds/ flaxseeds and oats. Having 10-25g of soluble fibre per day has been shown to reduce cholesterol by approximately 5pc to 10pc.
⬤ Plant Sterols and Stanols – 2g per day
The amount that is needed to effectively reduce cholesterol levels can only be achieved by eating foods that have been specially fortified with extra plant stanols and sterols. The suggested optimal dose is 2g/day. Research has shown that consuming 2g of plant sterols and stanols per day can reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by up to 10-15pc.
⬤ Soya Protein – 25g per day
Research has shown that consuming 25g of soya protein per day can reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by up to 10pc. This is thought to occur in two ways: firstly, by interfering with the production of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the body and secondly, by replacing saturated fat provided by certain animal sources of protein in our diet.
Sleep is a regular issue for women who are going through menopause. Thankfully, there are many changes that can be made to help a person go to sleep easier, and stay asleep for longer. Practically speaking it’s important to drink lots of water in the first half of the day so that you naturally drink less fluids in the second half of the day. This will help avoid needed to wake to pee.
Daily exercise helps people sleep better, especially if done outside in the morning time. Even better, exercising in nature can offer added benefits. A regular eating pattern, and focusing on more nourishing foods has been shown to help with sleep as well as making sure that you don’t go to bed hungry or fit to burst!
Aim for your bedroom to be nice and cool as well as dark. Try to stay away from stimulating activities before bed, especially the laptop, tablet or phone, and consider trying some wind down activities such as yoga or meditation. Some find a shower or bath before bed can really help.
As for nutrition, reducing your caffeine as much as possible can make huge differences. Research also suggests two kiwis one hour before bed may help menopausal women fall asleep easier, stay asleep for longer.
Often this is a piece of advice that annoys people and the messenger is often shot. Having a glass of wine with a delicious meal is something that is pleasurable for many people.
There are many reasons why you might consider putting the cork back into the bottle after pouring yourself a glass. Often women struggle to maintain their weight after menopause. Due to the high amount of calories alcohol contains, it can make controlling weight more difficult. For example a glass of wine can have the same amount of calories as two to three slices of bread.
The other reasons why it’s important to be mindful of alcohol intake is the sheer amount of conditions and diseases you’re putting yourself at risk of. Alcohol intake is associated with cancer risk, heart disease as well as addiction.