Diet for Menopause and Peri-Menopause
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
It intrigues me why the term ‘menopause’ is used. This condition is indeed far removed from men. Male menopause is known as andropause, which occurs as testosterone levels drop.
So why wasn’t it called womenopause? Or does it mean to have a pause from men during this period? Google tells me that menopause is a French term, derived from the Latin ‘menopausis’, which in turn was derived from the ancient Greek ‘mene’ (the moon, which was how the months were measured) and ‘pausis’ meaning a ‘pause’ or ‘to cease’. So now you know for the next trivia night.
Menopause refers to the permanent end of menstruation and is the result of a decline of oestrogen, progesterone and other hormones. Peri-menopause on the other hand marks the transitional time that leads up to menopause.
As hormone levels fluctuate widely and begin to decrease, some symptoms of peri-menopause may start to emerge, which varies greatly from woman to woman. The most common signs of peri-menopause are hot flashes/flushes, sweats, vaginal dryness, headaches, difficulty sleeping, irritability and mood swings. As ovulation becomes erratic, menstrual irregularity can change the intervals between periods and give rise to other symptoms such as breast tenderness and mood swings.
An anti-inflammatory diet, adequate aerobic and weight bearing exercise, and stress reduction can help to decrease peri-menopause and menopause symptoms.
I found in clinic that the biggest contributor to hormonal imbalances is stress which affects the adrenal glands. The stress of daily life, workload and relationship issues all put a load on our adrenals – to the point where the adrenal’s energy predominately supports stress, while the support for hormones is put on the back burner.
Let’s face it, if you were an adrenal gland and your job was to look after stress and also the reproductive hormones, but you know your body is too old to make babies, you would put more effort to support the stress issue.
So what can be done to support the adrenal glands? The answer: reduce stress in your life. Learn how to deal effectively with stressful situations so they don’t affect you.
But you may find a lot of damage has already been done. It can take years to rebuild exhausted adrenal glands, but by getting onto it now you will be able to regenerate adrenal reserves. Find out more at the Adrenal Fatigue Diet article.
Certain herbs from your health practitioner can help to support peri-menopause and menopause symptoms and support the adrenal glands.
Blood or saliva tests can be used to check progesterone and testosterone levels, the different estrogen levels, and adrenal hormone levels such as DHEA’s and Cortisol. Salivary hormone tests provide a broader range of different estrogens compared to blood tests, but both methods are helpful.
There are certain foods and substances that are not considered to be healthy at any time of our life, but during peri-menopause and menopause it is more critical. It’s not just for the sake of our hormone’s, but also for our cardiovascular and general health.
Things that we used to ‘get away with’ when we were younger no longer support us. Many of my clients say that they were ‘healthy’ all their life despite how they treated their bodies, but now they are getting older and going thru menopause, it feels like ‘the wheels are falling off’.
It doesn’t have to be that way and many people in their 80’s and beyond are living a healthy productive life. It’s up to us to create a healthy lifestyle; our genes can only carry us so far.
The world health organisation (WHO) states that 80% of all illness and disease is due to diet, which means that we can control of our health destiny by what we choose to eat.
Let’s look at some of these factors….
Not much needs to be said here as we (should) know that processed foods are not good for our health. Sometimes we reach for ‘convenient’ processed foods for a quick snack or meal. Not a good idea. There are plenty of healthy alternatives to keep you healthy.
While hot spices are great additions to food, if you are suffer from hot flashes/flushes, spicy food can make those flashes worse for some women. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the heat until you feel better. Consider other herbs and spices that give flavour without the heat, such as cumin, turmeric, parsley and basil.
There are good fats and bad fats, and like processed foods, we are discovering more about the ill-effects of bad fats and how good fats can help our bodies and our hormones.
Hormones are converted from cholesterol, so if we don’t have enough of the good fats then is harder to convert the hormones. But what is much worse is how the bad fats like trans fats, hydrogenated fats and the like from processed and deep-fried foods can really make a mess of our bodies.
Our cardiovascular system usually gets affected the most and at this time of life, cardio risk factors start to increase, so it’s not just hormones that we need to be thinking about but also our cardiovascular system. Bad fats promote increased weight which can make menopausal symptoms worse.
Alcohol & other toxins
There’s nothing good I can say about alcohol (except the main ingredient, ethanol, is useful as a fuel and a cleaner).
Alcohol is toxic to our liver, which is where hormones are converted. The poor liver needs to detoxify this substance and if it’s busy doing that job, then just like the adrenal story, hormone conversion is put on the back burner, because removing toxins is a far more urgent job to focus on.
This applies to all toxins in our food, drinks, personal care items etc. If our liver is overworked by detoxifying rubbish, then there is little time left for hormone support and balance.
A study published in the Journal of Menopause in July 2014 found that menopausal women who consumed caffeine were more likely to have hot flashes than women who didn’t consume caffeine. There are always other alternatives to coffee and tea such as caffeine free Rooibos tea, herbal teas or hot water and lemon. If you feel tired or drained, a quick outdoor walk can be quite invigorating.
For some women, progesterone declines the most during peri menopause and menopause. Progesterone is made from cholesterol, so if cholesterol levels are low (common in peri menopause), then it is difficult for the body to produce progesterone.
As we get older, production of both estrogen and progesterone slows down from the ovaries and switches over to the adrenal glands to do this job. In this era, adrenal fatigue from stress and workload is common. Often the last thing an aging body is interested in is supporting good hormone production and instead diverts its energy to stress control.
How do we boost progesterone?
Progesterone is not present in any food, but research has shown that some foods, such as fermented soy products and foods containing vitamins C and E, might promote the body’s production of progesterone.
L-arginine (an amino acid) and vitamin E have been shown in Japanese studies to improve progesterone levels. Good amounts of Vitamin E can be found in sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts. High concentrations of L-arginine can be found in sesame seeds as paste (tahini), unsweetened gelatine and pumpkin seeds/pepitas.
Soy bean foods
The isoflavones found in soy may help balance hormone levels as they have some estrogenic activity, but there is mixed opinion on the safety and efficacy of soy products and while the results are looking promising, we currently recommend using natural foods made from whole soybeans rather than supplements containing soy. Choose from tofu, soymilk, edamame (roasted soy beans) or tempeh.
Only use organic soy beans as these legumes are very good at pulling chemicals out of the soil they are grown in.
Substances called lignins in flaxseed are important modulators of hormone metabolism. Ensure they are freshly ground and smell sweet and nutty and not rancid or they will do more harm than good.
Vitamin E rich foods
These can help alleviate symptoms of hot flashes in some peri/menopausal women. Vitamin E can be found in olives, papaya, parsley, broccoli, pine nuts, avocado, hazelnuts, kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, spinach, seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds, plus almonds.
B vitamins rich foods
Vitamin B helps some women deal with the stress of peri/menopausal symptoms. All B vitamins are important but B6 and B12 are the most important for hormones. Both of these B vitamins are in animal proteins and seafood and B6 is also found in bananas, leafy greens, nuts, seeds and prunes. Additional B12 can be found in Spirulina, mushrooms and egg yolks.
Zinc is another crucial nutrient for good hormonal balance. Zinc is commonly deficient in most of my clients with hormonal issues. When zinc is deficient, copper levels can be too high because copper competes with zinc, so it’s important to get enough zinc to help keep things in balance. Good sources of zinc come from seafood and pumpkin seeds as well as red meats. Initially, some people need supplementation plus diet to raise their zinc levels, then later the right diet can maintain good levels.
This is a very under-rated vitamin. It has been reported that approximately 90% of the population has sub-optimal levels of this precious vitamin and about 1% are severely low. Without optimal levels of vitamin D our hormones and our immune system suffer. Please get your vitamin D level checked and make sure that it is ¾ the way up the reference level to be optimal.
If you level is quite low, near the bottom of the reference level, then initially consider supplements along with the right foods and sunlight, and when your vitamin D increases, diet and sunshine can maintain levels. Foods rich in vitamin D are cod liver oil, cod, other seafood, liver from any animal (only use organic liver), egg yolks and mushrooms.
There are other foods helpful to balance hormones called ‘phyto-estrogens’ which help to lift the declining levels of estrogens naturally.
Here are a few phytoestrogenic foods….
- Dried Fruits
- Sesame Seeds
- Rice bran
- Alfalfa Sprouts
- Soy Milk
To protect the body from estrogens converting to the not so beneficial types of estrogens that can increase cancer risk, it is wise to consume cruciferous type vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts etc as these help to convert estrogen through the favourable pathway.
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
Peri-menopause and menopause is not an easy time for many ladies and being a ‘baby boomer’ myself, I know too well the changes that happen during this time in a girl’s life.
Vanessa had been a client of mine for a while before her peri-menopause arrived, so she had already worked on some issues to do with her gut, but there was a constant adrenal issue that hadn’t been resolved in time before the onset of peri-menopause.
Stress was a huge part of Vanessa’s life and therefore her adrenal reserves were very low, so it really was no surprise when hot flushes came knocking at Vanessa’s bedroom door.
Most of her hot sweats were at night while she was trying to sleep, so this made it difficult for her to get the necessary rest for her adrenal fatigue. It was a ‘catch 22’ situation in that poor adrenals contributed to the hormonal imbalance, and then the hot sweats that woke her several times per night meant that she was further depleting her adrenals.
We did some saliva hormone tests that showed Vanessa’s hormones were all quite low and her conversion of hormones was on a pathway that could increase her risk of reproductive cancers. Added to this was family history of breast cancer and vascular clotting, so HRT was simply not an option for her to choose. Her mum had a history of menopausal hot flashes for 15 years, so Vanessa did not want that to happen to her.
Previously, Vanessa had tried progesterone cream which actually converted to estrogen, so she had estrogen dominance issues of tender swollen breasts. Herbs for hot flushes/flashes didn’t seem to have any effect on her whatsoever. What seemed to help a little was some B5 and B6 for her adrenal glands plus magnesium, but that was about all she could tolerate from supplements.
I often saw clients who had a hard time taking certain supplements because of issues with certain genetic pathways that convert hormones, so diet was the best approach for most of them. Vanessa fell into this group of people.
Remember, we had previously worked considerably on her gut, which may be important to reflect on if you feel this situation relates to you. You may need your practitioner’s help to ensure your gut function is good otherwise even the best diet, if not digested properly, won’t fix some things.
A good diet is certainly better than a bad diet, but you may not get the results you are looking for without a foundation of good gut health.
Because Vanessa’s adrenal fatigue was the main source of her peri-menopausal unrest, it was important to keep working on adrenal support with her diet as well as looking at her lifestyle choices and stress levels. Vanessa was advised to drop foods that did not support her stress.
She was eating too many ‘quick meals’ that were not very nourishing. She was also not taking time to self-nurture, to focus on her needs. Instead, between her family and her job, she was constantly draining her adrenal and kidney energy.
I recommended a good counsellor to help Vanessa find ways and a plan to address the stress in her life. This made a huge difference.
I encouraged Vanessa to create a weekly meal plan from the list of adrenal and hormonal supporting foods I gave her and incorporate it into a complete shopping list so she knew she would always have nourishing foods.
By having a plan, Vanessa had less stress, which meant that meal times were more relaxed and nutritious.
Certain foods that drained her energy were eliminated such as gluten, dairy and sugar. These all placed unnecessary extra drain on her immune, hormonal, and digestive systems. As a result, her body was more able to cope with day-to-day stress.
Thousands of my clients have found that eating this way helps them to cope with stress so much better, especially when the diet is rich in magnesium, B vitamin and C vitamin foods. Stress sucks these nutrients out of the body, so ensure you have plenty of these nutrients which can have a huge beneficial impact.
Vanessa was also encouraged to eat plenty of the brassica family (broccoli) foods to help support her hormone pathways to balance the types of estrogens she had.
I feel the biggest impact on Vanessa’s wellbeing was planning her meals and her days to minimise stress, which allowed her adrenals to restore.
Hot flushes still woke Vanessa for about another six months, but by reducing some of the stress and saying it’s ok to have an afternoon nap as part of her lunch break, this helped her to stay in control of her life, rather than let life control her.
The naps and other self-nurturing activities, such as quiet walks in nature or the beach, massages, meditation, being gentle with herself and ensuring that she put herself as ‘number one’ (not in a selfish way) all made a huge difference.
Even though it took a little while for all symptoms to go away, Vanessa felt so much better within just a few weeks with more structured days and self-loving ways.