Feel like you've been hijacked by hormonal changes? Nutritional therapist and menopause specialist Jackie Lynch explains which foods to add to your diet to ease symptoms as well as to increase protein during menopause and perimenopause
The menopause is a time of major transition and there may be times when you don’t recognise yourself or you feel as if you’ve lost control of your body. This is entirely natural because just like puberty, this is a period of significant hormonal change which can affect your mind and body in a range of different ways. So there is no more important time to be good to yourself and practise self-care, because the right diet and lifestyle can make an enormous difference to your health and wellbeing during the menopause.
When I was about 43, I developed painful, heavy periods and flooding which really took me by surprise. I initially didn’t link it to menopause, because I’d always assumed that my periods would get lighter and further apart and I also thought I was too young. In fact, I was in perimenopause and this went on for a few years. It’s the pre-menopausal stage and this is when all the fun and games start with the different symptoms. Although it’s commonly used as a blanket term for the whole transitional phase, menopause itself is technically only one day – the day when it’s been 12 months since your last period. After that you’re post-menopausal.
A little extra bonus for me was projectile vomiting on the first day of my period which was really horrible and, to this day, the only other person I know that this happened to was my mum! It doesn’t always follow that menopause symptoms run in the family, but it’s definitely worth knowing about your mum’s menopause experience because it can be relevant. I certainly wish I’d mentioned it to her earlier, as it put my mind at rest when my GP wasn’t quite sure what was going on.
During perimenopause, the declining levels of oestrogen and progesterone in the ovaries can cause a range of symptoms. Low levels of progesterone tend to cause emotional and psychological menopause symptoms , such as anxiety, low mood and brain fog. Lack of oestrogen can affect us in a variety of ways, because we have oestrogen receptors all over the body, so you might experience anything from headaches and hot flushes to joint pain and vaginal dryness.
My experience inspired me to specialise in women’s health and menopause at my nutrition clinic. I tried numerous things to manage my symptoms but the one thing that made a huge difference was increasing levels of omega 3 fatty acids in my diet by eating oily fish, flaxseed and walnuts to balance my hormones and support the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins in the body. These are hormone-like substances which help to reduce pain and the build-up of clots. I also limited pro-inflammatory foods such as meat, cheese and refined sugar, and increased plant proteins such as pulses, quinoa and soya. These can generate inflammatory prostaglandins which play a big part in period pain and cramping, by reducing blood flow to the womb which can cause severe muscle contractions.
How to get the basics of eating for perimenopause and menopause right
It may seem dull, but menopause is absolutely the time to focus on getting the basics right and making sure you’re eating a balanced diet because we need a broad range of nutrients to support the optimal function of every body system more than ever during this time of hormone disruption.
There are many ways that the right nutrition can support a healthy and happy menopause, starting with the macros – protein, fat and carbs – which all play a key role in promoting hormone balance and supporting our health during the menopause, so this is no time to be following a radical regime or fad diet that eliminates a major food group.
Of course, you still need to choose your macros wisely. After all, not all carbs are equal and sugary foods and white starchy carbs won’t help your cause, but the complex carbohydrate found in vegetables, pulses, fruit and whole grains is a different story. Rich in fibre, they’ll help to balance blood sugar levels and keep you going for longer; support healthy digestion and promote hormone balance, because fibre binds to old hormones in the gut, ensuring they’re excreted from the body instead of being reabsorbed back into the bloodstream where they can disrupt the delicate equilibrium of our sex hormones.
The best foods to eat in menopause and perimenopause
1. More protein for muscle mass and tone
Protein is very important for women in midlife because we lose about 40 per cent of our muscle mass during menopause and protein helps to support muscle tone. It also promotes blood sugar balance and reduces sugar cravings, which is key for those women struggling with menopausal weight gain. And the body uses the amino acids found in protein to manufacture neurotransmitters that govern mood, motivation and concentration which can often be a challenge for women in midlife.
Opt for protein-rich foods such as fish, eggs, and lean meats, such as venison, turkey or chicken, so that you’re limiting the pro-inflammatory red meat or cheese, and start to introduce more plant proteins such as pulses, flaxseed or fermented soya in the form of tempeh, miso or natto. These have the added benefit of being rich in phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that help to modulate the action of oestrogen in the body.
Foods that naturally contain fat will consist of all three types - saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – but the ratio will vary depending on the food. Skew the ratio towards polyunsaturates, so that you’re getting plenty of omega 3 fatty acids, because they play a key role in supporting the brain and nervous system, regulating the fluctuating moods that often come with the menopause; promoting cardiovascular health; balancing hormones and ensuring healthy skin and hair. Oily fish, nuts and seeds are all good sources of polyunsaturates.
Once you’ve got those basics right, and I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that these nutrients feature in your diet throughout the day, here are five ways you can fine-tune your diet with some menopause-friendly foods.
2. Flaxseed to help with night sweats
Add a dessertspoon of ground flaxseed to your cereal or stir it in as you make your porridge every day. Packed with protein and fibre, this will balance your blood sugar and get you off to a great start to the day, helping you to avoid the mid-morning munchies which can lead to weight gain. Blood sugar balance is crucial during the perimenopause, because every time your blood sugar crashes, your body releases stress hormones which will disrupt the balance of your sex hormones even further. Flaxseed is a brilliant source of omega 3 fatty acids too, so it’s an all-round winner in nutrition terms, especially when you factor in the phytoestrogens it contains. Although the evidence base is mixed, some studies have shown that these can help to reduce symptoms of hot flushes and night sweats in menopausal women.
3. Maca root powder for stress, hot flushes and libido
If you like a smoothie in the morning, then blending in a spoon of maca root powder is definitely a smart move, because it can be a very effective support for women going through the menopause. It’s highly nutritious, containing a combination of amino acids, essential fatty acids and a range of minerals. Of particular interest are the glucosinolates, which help to balance hormones and may relieve symptoms of hot flushes. Maca has naturally adaptogenic properties which helps the body adapt to the physical and emotional challenges that occur during the menopause, calming the nervous system and regulating the body’s response to stress. Red maca powder may help to improve libido, which is an extra bonus in menopause, because with the decline in testosterone, which is a female hormone too, some women experience a loss of libido. Try Green Origins Organic Maca Powder, £3.79.
4. Leafy green vegetables for mood and skin
Eat your greens! You’ll have heard this advice from a very early age, I’m sure, but never was it more true than during the menopause. Leafy green veg is practically a one-stop-shop of menopause-friendly nutrients: they’re packed with calcium which we need for healthy bones; magnesium which aids the absorption of calcium and is a natural stressbuster, helping to reduce anxiety and improve energy levels; they contain about twice as much vitamin C per 100g as an orange, and we need this to produce collagen, the compound that helps our skin remain plump and elastic and which starts to decline with the drop in oestrogen. Leafy greens are also a source of iron, so treat yourself to a couple of handfuls of rocket, kale, watercress or spinach every day, especially if you’re experiencing heavy periods, because you may be at risk of anaemia.
5. More broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage (and less alcohol) for balancing hormones
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower contain sulphur compounds which support the pathways in the liver involved in metabolising oestrogen, so that old oestrogen doesn’t build up in the bloodstream disrupting the balance of the other sex hormones. Liver support is crucial during the menopause, because of the role it plays in regulating oestrogen, promoting the appropriate balance of sex hormones, thyroid hormone production and supporting energy levels. Eating more broccoli and reducing your alcohol consumption could make a big difference to you and your hormones, because alcohol disrupts blood sugar balance, disrupts sleep and is known to increase the severity of hot flushes.
6. Oily fish to beat brain fog and for healthy bones
Boost your omega 3 fatty acids by eating oily fish two to three times per week. It will pay dividends in supporting your cognitive function and emotional health, as well as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease which increases for women post-menopause. It’s also a great source of protein and contains small amounts of vitamin D which is essential for calcium absorption to keep our bones strong and healthy. Bone density can reduce by up to 20 per cent in the five to seven years after the menopause, increasing the risk of fractures. There are lots of easy ways of adding oily fish to your diet: sardines on wholemeal toast is a quick and easy lunch; try salmon fishcakes or make your own mackerel pâté by blending it with some low-fat soft cheese, lemon juice and chopped dill.
Jackie Lynch is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and host of the popular diet and lifestyle podcast, The Happy Menopause . Her latest book is The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish . Follow her on social media at @ WellWellWellUK