Experiences of the menopause will vary widely, with some women experiencing very few symptoms whilst others struggle immensely. It can be a challenging and distressing time; however, nutrition can be one tool for your toolbox as part of supporting changing health needs.
What is the menopause?
The menopause is a natural stage of a woman’s life, when the level of sex hormones (mainly oestrogen) in the body fall.
Menopause is defined as the point 12 months after you stop having periods. However, the term usually includes the perimenopause – a time of changeable hormone levels leading up to this point; as well as post-menopause – the first few years afterwards. It usually occurs between the ages of 45 to 55, but early menopause (before the age of 40 years) also occurs in around 1% of women.
Around 80% of women experience symptoms, 25% have severe symptoms affecting their quality of life. Common symptoms include:
- hot flushes
- night sweats
- difficulty sleeping (which can be made worse by body temperature changes and night sweats, as well as by anxiety and stress)
- a reduced sex drive (libido)
- problems with memory and concentration
- vaginal dryness and pain, itching or discomfort during sex
- mood changes, such as low mood or anxiety
- palpitations – heartbeats that suddenly become more noticeable
- joint stiffness, aches, and pains
- reduced muscle mass
- recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
The Main Concern
The protection oestrogen provides to the heart is lost during the menopause – making heart health one of the biggest health issues for menopausal women. Cholesterol levels increase, which, overtime, causes damage to blood vessels carrying blood to the heart and brain. The rate of body fat gain increases and where you store fat shifts. You may begin to store fat more around your middle and around your organs, including the heart – this can happen even if you are not overweight. The pancreas may also be affected, impairing how well you control blood sugars; high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels carrying blood to the heart and brain. On top of this blood pressure increases - high blood pressure will also impact on heart health.
But it is not all bad news - a healthy and balanced diet that can support your heart and bone health, as well as providing the right balance of key nutrients that may help with other menopausal symptoms.
Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor to heart disease.
- Include at least one (preferably two) weekly servings of oil-rich fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines – an excellent sources of heart healthy unsaturated fats containing omega-3s.
- Use vegetable oils and spreads (fortified with plant sterols) in place of animal fats such as butter, e.g., rapeseed oil for cooking at high temperatures or extra-virgin olive oil as its rich in protective compounds called polyphenols
- Prioritise plant food sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, soya, and Quorn, in place of animal proteins
- Have processed meats, cakes, biscuits, fast food etc. less often
- Opt for low fat dairy or soya fortified plant-based alternatives to milk and yogurt
- Have a small handful a day of any type of unsalted/unsweetened nuts. Use as a snack, on cereal, in a smoothie or as part of a main meal. They are especially great for heart health because they provide heart healthy unsaturated fats, as well as providing fibre and vitamins and minerals
Taking these steps will reduce saturated fat intakes, which helps to manage blood cholesterol levels. However, it’s important to remember, as all fats provide an energy dense form of calories, it’s important to consume all fats in moderation.
Soya foods such as soya mince, tofu, edamame beans and fortified soya alternatives to milk and yogurt, are low in saturated fats and in general naturally rich in protein. They also provide fibre, vitamins, and minerals, and are the main dietary source of naturally occurring isoflavones, a type of plant oestrogen. Aim for one to two servings of soya foods and/or drinks daily. Use them in place of some or all your meat or dairy.
Menopausal women require more calcium, due to changes in hormone levels as women go through the menopause, which can affect bone density. Increasing calcium-rich foods in your diet will help protect you from osteoporosis and CVD by laying down new bone mass before the menopause and reduce losses after the menopause. If you are vegan or don’t like dairy, do not worry, as you don’t need to rely on dairy – green leafy veg including spinach and curly kale, as well as okra, spring greens, edamame beans, and peas, canned fish with edible bones, dried fruit like dates and nuts are packed with calcium.
Increase Fibre, Fruit and Vegetables
Include lots of sources of fibre in your diet, such as wholegrains, legumes (beans and pulses) fruit and vegetables to help reduce heart disease risk.
- All types of fruit and vegetables count – fresh, frozen, tinned (not in syrup), or dried
- Aim for at least 5 servings every day. A serving is about a handful, or three to four tablespoons. For dried fruit, a serving is around a tablespoon. Include some with every meal and as snacks
- Choose a variety of colours – they’ll each provide different vitamins and minerals
- Include wholegrain starchy foods: breakfast cereals (shredded wheat or bran flakes), oats, brown rice and wholewheat pasta. They are good sources of magnesium to help with mental health as magnesium helps contributes to normal psychological function. They also contain B vitamins, which contribute to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.
- Oats and barley contain a type of fibre, beta-glucan, which has been proven to lower blood cholesterol when consumed in the right quantities.
In Addition to Diet
Keeping active is very important for bone health, in particular, weight-bearing exercise (such as brisk walking) and resistance (weight) training help stimulate bone formation and slow down bone loss.
The menopause will vary widely for all women, some experiencing very few symptoms whilst others struggle immensely. It can be a challenging and distressing time; however, nutrition can be one tool for your toolbox as part of supporting changing health needs, and it’s also a great opportunity to reflect of your diet and lifestyle.
Which nutrient-rich foods could you introduce? Which foods could you try to cut back on? Try just one or two changes at a time to create a plan that works for you!
*Remember: if you’re finding your symptoms particularly troublesome, seek advice from your GP or a menopause specialist to help you manage them as treatments are available! *
Written by Abigail Attenborough (ANutr)