Eating well for Menopause

Menopause is a natural stage of ageing for all women, usually occurring between 45 and 55 years of age as a woman’s oestrogen levels decline. Perimenopause, or menopause transition, can see the onset of symptoms and last for up to 10 years prior to menopause itself. Women often report that getting symptoms recognised and finding the correct advice is not always easy. In 1990 there were 467 million women aged 50 years or more; worldwide, estimated to number 1200 million in 2030. With the extended lifespan and later retirement age, many of these women will be navigating employment whilst battling symptoms.

With a rise in Women’s Health Specialists and many studies being made into menopause,  there is certainly more information available than ever before, if you know where to look.

We spoke to some specialists about how and why diet is so key during menopause and share our takeaways with you below.

Why is diet so important in menopause?

Our diet plays a role in the severity of our symptoms. It may not completely solve them but can certainly help them. Some research shows that your diet can even delay the onset of menopause symptoms.

Symptoms can include:

  • Change in energy levels
  • Hot flashes
  • Dry skin
  • Disturbed sleep & night sweats
  • Weight gain
  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Headaches
  • Mood changes
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Joint stiffness, aches and pain

Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian and author of The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide to Hormones, Health, and Happiness explains why diet is so important in managing these symptoms.

“A woman’s body changes with a drop in estrogen, and, in all likelihood, she probably has to change what she eats to be as healthy as possible.  Diet plays a role in the health of a woman’s bones, brain, and heart, as well as in weight control, which influences the risk for chronic conditions that increase during midlife and after menopause, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”

Many women worry about gaining weight and their body shape and size changing as they enter menopause. Hormonal changes and less daily activity can affect weight but Elizabeth also explains that “what you eat helps preserve muscle tone, which helps you to enjoy a longer, fuller life. It also affects your energy and mood.”

Those famous hot flushes? “Diet may play a role in reducing the severity and frequency of hot flushes, too.”

Hormonal balance

Jill Whalen, Holistic Health Coach and Menopause Fitness Specialist, describes hormones as working “like a symphony”, so when one is affected, the others are also impacted.

She believes that “The entire experience of perimenopause/menopause is a metabolically stressful time for women since their sex hormones are fluctuating. These fluctuations affect the production of other hormones, particularly cortisol (stress hormone) and insulin.”

“Menopause, as a metabolic stressor, causes increased cortisol levels. Cortisol works with insulin to balance each other, so when cortisol is high, insulin is also impacted. Insulin regulates blood sugar levels, and is directly impacted by the foods we eat (or don’t eat). Eating too much food, or too much of the wrong foods, causes insulin to increase and can lead to insulin resistance, cravings, inflammation, sleep issues, weight gain and other problems. All of these cause more stress on the body, increasing cortisol and thereby increasing insulin. “

In addition to these physical stresses on the body, it can be a difficult time for women emotionally, between their bodies changing, cognitive impairment and aches and pains they never felt before, all in the midst of a traditionally ageist culture. With stress being a common issue for menopausal women, stress relief is really important to not only manage the feeling of stress but also elicit the body’s parasympathetic nervous system and bring cortisol levels under control.

Eating to support your body through menopause

If certain foods can help either delay or ease menopausal symptoms then what should we be eating to keep our energy levels up and pesky symptoms at bay?

Jill Whalen, Holistic Health Coach and Menopause Fitness Specialist explains that

“foods that are especially beneficial during menopause are those that are as close to their natural state as possible. These foods contain vitamins, minerals and fibre to help the liver detoxify excess estrogens. Healthy fats like those found in avocados, nuts and seeds can alleviate symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats. High-quality proteins help to maintain muscle mass and bone strength.”

Some foods to include:

  • Dark leafy greens: Keep iron levels topped up with plenty of leafy greens. Other sources of iron include red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and enriched cereals. It’s easy to check on your iron levels with a ferritin home test kit.
  • Fruit and vegetables: Eat a variety of fruit and vegetables, in a rainbow of colours,  daily to get a range of nutrients and enough fibre.
  • Legumes, nuts, flax, chia and other seeds: These contain vitamin E, zinc and calcium which may help with dry skin and balancing hormone levels.
  • High quality (organic if possible) meat, poultry and fish: Protein is important for retaining and building muscle mass.
  • Wholegrains: Eating complex carbohydrates, such as brown grains, wholemeal pasta, bread and rice can help balance blood sugar levels and stop you from feeling hungry too quickly and snacking between meals.
  • Soy and Tofu: Plant-based foods that have isoflavones (plant estrogens) work in the body like a weak form of estrogen.

Jill explains that “Foods to be avoided during menopause can increase hormonal imbalances and worsen menopausal symptoms”.

Insulin levels are clearly affected by hormonal changes during menopause with reduced levels of estrogen and progesterone already making it hard for your cells to utilize insulin. Managing insulin levels means not giving in to sugar cravings to avoid more blood sugar fluctuations.

Some things to avoid may include:

  • Alcohol: Puts stress on the liver. Could a “trigger” for hot flushes and night sweats or disrupt sleep further.
  • Caffeine: Stimulants such as coffee, alcohol and chocolate are notorious for setting off hot flushes and may cause insomnia. Avoid in the evenings especially.
  • Processed, fried and/or refined foods: These can increase insulin on an already delicate system increasing the risk of weight gain, insulin resistance and even diabetes.
  • Sugary foods: These can cause a sharp rise in your blood glucose level, leaving you tired when that energy “crashes”. Overconsumption will also increase your chances of weight gain.

Lifestyle tips for menopause

Diet isn’t everything when it comes to menopause, it’s a big life change and you may want to implement some lifestyle changes of your own to help you to thrive through it.

  • Stop smoking if you are a smoker. Smoking reduces estrogen levels in the blood, accelerates menopause, and of course we know is linked to many other health problems including heart disease and cancer.
  • Sleep. Getting enough quality sleep is important for everyone’s wellbeing, particularly when looking to balance hormones. This may be more tricky with night sweats and hormonal imbalances but try to stick to a regular sleeping pattern and nighttime routine, avoiding anything that may disrupt your sleep like caffeine and alcohol.
  • Stress Management. This transition can be a difficult time emotionally and physically so make sure you are taking time to relax and de-stress. You could try walking, yoga, meditation or anything that you find soothes you.
  • Keep Moving. Staying active with regular exercise is important. Elizabeth Ward recommends that women should try to exercise for at least 30 minutes five days a week and include two bouts of resistance training weekly.