By: Alison Mitchell, Naturopath
Menopause is a normal process of aging, but for some women (and their family) it can be a nightmare. Around the age of 45-55 the ovaries stop functioning causing oestrogen levels to drop. As a result, you may experience symptoms associated with menopause such as hot flushes, sweating, mood changes, increased weight redistribution on the stomach (commonly referred to as the middle aged spread), bloating, fluid retention, tiredness, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, osteopenia/osteoporosis, vaginal dryness, increase in cholesterol, skin thinning and dryness.Having plenty of phyto-oestrogens in the diet (eg soy beans, flaxseed meal, parsley, fennel, red clover and alfalfa) helps with reducing the menopausal symptoms by gently activating oestrogen receptors. Women from cultures who eat a predominantly plant based diet have lower incidence of menopausal symptoms, and this has been attributed to the high levels of phyto-oestrogens in their diet. These plant chemicals also have protective effects against breast, colon and prostate cancers. If you are reluctant to include these foods in your diet, a phyto-oestrogen supplement can be prescribed for you. It is however much cheaper and healthier to have them as a whole food. If you have an oestrogen dependant cancer or a thyroid condition, it is best to avoid soy products.
Everyone goes through menopause differently, and not all women experience symptoms (darn them, I hear you say). Many different factors such as nutritional status, stress levels, adrenal health, family life, exercise levels, drug use, diet and other health conditions can affect the severity of symptoms experienced.
Natural therapists believe that fatigue is often related to adrenal exhaustion or under functioning adrenal glands. Some women seem to only flush, or flush more, when they are stressed, tired or over-worked. Therefore, eating properly to support the adrenal glands function, and/or taking herbs to support them can be beneficial in reducing symptoms of menopause.
Exercise improves mood around menopause as do other lifestyle changes for stress management such as yoga, tai chi, pilates and meditation.
There are herbs available to help balance hormones and keep symptoms in check. However, the way that you look after yourself with diet and lifestyle before and during menopause is very important.
The stages of menopause
You may be still getting a period (however erratically) but you have started feeling symptoms appearing, such as hot flushes, mood swings, night sweats, etc. This is peri-menopause, where hormone levels are beginning to decline. This stage can last anywhere been 2-8 years.
12 months after your period has finished, this is it, menopause; the end of your reproductive years. But do not think of this as an end, it is a metamorphosis. This is an opportunity for conscious change and increased personal power.
This is the stage of your life after your last period.
Along with all the other changes that are occurring, so should your diet change. Basically, your diet should be based around whole foods that encourage healthy cardiovascular health, provide you with phyto-oestrogens (plant chemicals which gently activate oestrogen receptors) and protect against the nutritional deficiencies which can occur as we age. If you are exercising and eating properly, symptoms experienced during menopause can be reduced or even avoided. Below are some pointers to getting the best out of your menopausal years:
Avoid hydrogenated fats as these increase the risk of breast cancer. Eating good fats helps to reduce breast cancer risk and menopausal symptoms. It is also important as it provides us with cholesterol, the building blocks of hormones. Fish, avocado, flaxseed, nuts and seeds are sources of good fats.
Avoid foods which are high in phosphorus such as soft drinks, processed meats, instant soups, processed cheeses and baking powder. These will cause calcium to be leeched from your bones, increasing risk of osteoporosis.
Decrease coffee, tea, alcohol and cola and do not smoke. These increase calcium excretion. You can replace tea and coffee with fruit or herbal teas and grain coffees (eg. Dandelion). Not only will these alternatives not harm your bones, but avoiding caffeine will also reduce hot flushes and help to stabilise your nervous system.
Minimise intake of animal fat and protein which can also leach calcium from bones when eaten in excess.
Drink plenty of filtered water between meals to help reduce dryness.
Vitamin E is helpful for reducing vaginal dryness. Wheat germ is a good natural source of this, and is nice added to porridge.
Reduced oestrogen can lead to increased alkalinity of the vagina which can contribute to infections, irritation or itch. You can try herbal vaginal creams such as a Vitamin E based cream with Calendula oil. Vaginal lubricants made from kiwifruit i.e. Sylk are also worth trying.
Eat plenty of fresh fruits, especially those that are high in potassium such as citrus and bananas as these can reduce sodium levels and water retention.
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, especially leafy green vegetables, spinach, pak choi, cabbage, collard greens, broccoli, rhubarb, carrots, beetroot, pumpkin.
Find alternatives for seasoning your food with salt. For instance, try lemon juice, chilli sauce, herbs, ginger, garlic or onion powder. (In some people chilli and spicy foods can exacerbate hot flushes, so see how you go).
Aim to consume at least 1500mg of calcium daily and 800mg of magnesium daily. This can be very difficult to do, so it may be worthwhile complementing your diet with a calcium supplement; be careful choosing these as it is important that they contain a broad range of bone nutrients (e.g. magnesium, boron, Vitamin D, Vitamin K) and are a form of calcium easily absorbed into the bone. If you are unsure, ask your naturopath or nutritionist.
Alison Mitchell is a naturopath who practices at Health Dimensions, a multi-disciplinary clinic located in Windsor and Bella Vista. Alison enjoys working with womens health, chronic pain and digestive health.
Bella Vista: 02 8824 6792 Windsor: 02 45776215