Diet and menopausal symptoms are closely linked. What you eat has a profound effect on whether you cruise through menopause with minimal symptoms, or experience troublesome hot flushes, night sweats, tiredness, sleep problems, low sex drive and mood swings.
Diet and Menopause
Every woman has a different experience of menopause – one in five quickly adapt to lower levels of oestrogen and notice few, if any, symptoms. Of the women that do experience menopause symptoms, around half find them manageable without too much bother, while the others experience distressing symptoms that typically last from one to five years, and occasionally longer.
An US study involving 17,473 postmenopausal women, aged 50 to 79 years, who were not taking hormone replacement therapy, looked for links between diet and menopause symptoms. Those who were advised to follow a diet that was low in fat and high in whole grains, fruit and vegetables, as part of a healthy diet, were more likely to experience a shorter duration of symptoms, so that hot flushes either disappeared or were minimal within one year.
Similarly, when the diets of over 6,000 Australian women going through a natural menopause were analysed, researchers found that those who ate the most fruit (especially strawberries, pineapple, melon, apricots and mango) or who followed a Mediterranean-style diet (providing garlic, peppers, mushrooms, salad greens, pasta and red wine) were, on average, 19% less likely to experience menopause symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats compared with those following a typical Western style diet.
Those who ate the most ‘unhealthy’ foods that were high in fat or sugar, such as meat pies, pastries, sweet biscuits, cakes, jam and confectionary were 23% more likely to experience menopause symptoms.
Select healthy fats for menopause
Healthy fats are important in the diet, so concentrate on obtaining those rich in monounsaturates and omega-3s, such as nuts (especially almonds walnuts and macadamias), olive oil, rapeseed and flaxseed oils, avocados and oily fish. These contribute to a healthy hormone and cholesterol balance.
Select an organic diet for menopause
A diet that is as organic as possible is ideal if you have menopause symptoms. A wide range of agricultural chemicals (pesticides, weed killers, fungicides, fumigants, growth promoters, growth retardants, antibiotics, hormones and fertilisers) can affect human hormone balance and have been implicated in worsening menopause symptoms and low sex drive.
While these chemicals are considered safe to use on crops, their full effects on long-term health, immunity and hormone balance are not completely understood. Organic food is also more nutritious, partly because it has a lower water content, and partly because of increased absorption of a wider range of minerals.
Data from 343 studies show that organically grown fruit, vegetables and cereals provide 20% to 40%more antioxidants, such as polyphenols, than non-organically grown produce – the equivalent of eating two extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day but with no increase in calories.
Not surprisingly, the level of pesticide residues were also between ten and a hundred fold lower in the organic foods compared with those that were conventionally grown.
Whether or not you choose to select organic produce, you can maximise the level of vitamins and minerals you consume by eating fruit and vegetables raw, or only lightly steamed, where possible. Obviously some root veg need to be cooked until soft, but leaving on their skins, where practical, will increase their nutritional benefit.
Reuse juices from cooking vegetables (eg in sauces, soups or gravy) to reclaim lost nutrients – that yellow-green (or brown) discolouration of the water represents lost micronutrients such as iron, magnesium and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) which is a lovely, bright yellow.
Dietary oestrogens and menopause
In Asian cultures, few women experience troublesome menopause symptoms and there is no Japanese term for hot flashes. This is not a genetic effect, as when Japanese women adopt a more Western style of diet, their menopausal symptoms increase.
The traditional Japanese diet is believed to account for the lack of menopause symptoms due to a high intake of plant-based oestrogen hormones, such as soy isoflavones, which help to smooth this mid-life transition.
The traditional Asian diet is low in fat, especially saturated fat, and consist mainly of rice, soy products (eg edamame, soy beans, soy meal, tofu) and fish together with other legumes, grains and members of the cabbage and turnip family such as broccoli, Pak choi, kohlrabi and Chinese leaves.
These plants provide high levels of oestrogen-like plant hormones known as phytoestrogens, of which isoflavones, lignans and other polyphenols are the most important.
Although not as powerful as prescribed hormone replacement therapy, they can significantly reduce troublesome symptoms and are sometimes referred to as nature’s HRT.
Plant oestrogens help to relieve the short and medium term menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, nights sweats and vaginal dryness, as well as helping to protect against the long-term effects of oestrogen withdrawal such as increased risk of coronary heart disease and osteoporosis.
To help minimise menopause symptoms, increase your intake of natural plant hormones from:
- Beans, especially soy products, chickpeas, lentils, alfalfa and mung beans
- Members of the cabbage and turnip family, such as broccoli, spinach, Chinese leaves, kohl rabi, radish, fennel and maca powder
- Nuts and seeds, especially flaxseed, pumpkin, sesame and sprouting seeds
- Sweet potatoes which have a high lignan content
- Apples and onions which are the richest dietary source of flavonoid polyphenols
- Fresh fruit, especially strawberries, pineapple, melons, apricots, mango, papayas, rhubarb and avocado
- Dried fruit, especially dates, figs, prunes and raisins
- Kitchen herbs, especially angelica, chervil, chives, garlic, ginger, horseradish, nutmeg, parsley, rosemary and sage.
- Honey, especially that made from wild flowers such as clover
- Wholegrains, especially corn, buckwheat, millet, oats and rye.
Breads fortified with soy and linseed to enrich their oestrogen content are available in supermarkets and health food stores.
Soy and menopause
Women following an Asian-style diet including high amounts of soy products (eg tofu, miso, tempeh, edamame beans) obtain between 50 mg and 100 mg isoflavones from their diet each day – twenty to thirty times more than the typical Western intake of just 2 – 5 mg isoflavones per day.
Blood levels of phytoestrogen are therefore as much as 110 times higher in Japanese women of menopausal age than those typically found in the West, which largely accounts for their ability to breeze through the menopause with so few symptoms.
Aim to eat at least one serving of legumes (eg chickpeas, lentils, soy) every day, three servings of soy foods (eg tofu, edamame, soy yogurts) per week, and use soy milk regularly (eg with cereals in place of cows’ milk). Add soy beans to soups, stews, chili, stir fries, risotto, salads and vegetarian dishes. You can even add soy-bean protein powder to smoothies and shakes.
Lignan-rich foods and menopause
Like their close cousins, the isoflavones, lignans are eaten in an inactive form and are activated by bowel bacteria. This releases enterolignans (mainly enterolactone and enterodiol) which, as well as having a weak oestrogen-like action, are able to inhibit the enzyme, 5-alpha reductase, which converts testosterone to the stronger dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This action is beneficial for menopausal women who are experiencing excess unwanted facial hair and acne.
Flax seed are the richest dietary source of lignans, providing as much as 85.5 mg lignans per 28g (1oz) seeds. However, flaxseed must be ground or crushed to release their lignans – eating them whole is less effective.
Add one to two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds or pumpkin seeds to your diet per day. They can be lightly toasted for extra crunch and flavour. Sprinkle them on cereals, salads, soups, or add to nut and seed mixes for a healthy snack. While flaxseed oil provides a healthy blend of fatty acids, it contains very few plant oestrogens.
Useful amounts of lignans are also present in curly kale and broccoli, wholegrains, stone fruits (eg avocado, peaches, apricots, plums, nectarines), pumpkins, asparagus, courgettes/zucchini, carrots, oranges and berries. Green and black tea plus red wine also provide significant amounts of lignans.
Yoghurt and menopause
Dietary isoflavones are mostly consumed in an inactive form attached to sugars (glycosides). Once you eat these, probiotic intestinal bacteria break them down to release the active forms (aglycones) which you can absorb.
Some strains of bowel bacteria can also convert the soy isoflavone, daidzein, to a more powerful phytoestrogen called equol. Equol producers gain much greater benefits from soy foods than non-equol producers.
Whether or not you are an equol producer, or a non-equol producer, depends on the types of bacteria living in your gut. Less than 20 of the thousands of different bacterial species that can live in the human gut are able to convert daidzein to equol. These include some of the probiotic lactic-acid producing species of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium.
Many people don’t harbour these bacteria. Among Japanese adults, around one in two are equol producers, compared with between one in three and one in four Western adults.
Among people following a vegetarian diet, the frequency of equol producers was as high as 59% compared with 25% for non-vegetarians, suggesting that a more plant-based diet may allow equol-producing bacteria to flourish in your gut.
Eating live Bio yoghurt on most days, or taking a probiotic supplement with your isoflavones increased the chance of harbouring equol-producing digestive bacteria so you obtain the maximum benefit from isoflavones in your diet.
As a bonus, dairy based yogurt supplies around 200mg calcium per 150ml pot. Soy based yogurt has the benefit of supplying soy isoflavones, but as a trade-off, supplies significantly less calcium at around 20mg per pot.
Oily fish and menopause
Oily fish are a rich source of two, long-chain, omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, and also provide vitamin D, minerals such as magnesium, zinc and trace elements such as selenium, all of which are beneficial for general health and hormone balance.
Omega-3 fish oils are converted in the body into substances that regulate immune reactions, hormone responses and reduce inflammation. This helps to balance the action of omega-6 fatty acids (mostly derived from vegetables oils such as sunflower, safflower and corn oils) which are converted into substances that promote inflammation. Eating fish two or three times per week reduces the risk of a number of inflammatory diseases, and help to reduce the joint and muscle aches and pains associated with the menopause.
While girls and women of reproductive age are advised to eat no more than two portions of oily fish per week (to reduce exposure to marine pollutants such as mercury, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls), once you reach menopause you can have up to four portions of oily fish per week.
If you don’t like eating fish, omega-3 fish oil supplements are available.
Flax seed oil is an excellent source of the short-chain omega-3, ALA, some of which is converted on to EPA and DHA in the body.
Other tips for menopause
Cut back on salt.
Eat dairy products to obtain calcium.
If you smoke, make a major effort to stop – nicotine replacement products can help.
Keep your alcohol limit within the recommended safe maximum for women of no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, spread out over the week.
Keep your stress levels as low as possible. Find regular time for relaxation and quiet, at least half an hour per day – soaking in an aromatherapy bath surrounded with flickering candle-light is a great way to end the day, for example.
Hot flashes can be triggered by a number of factors, including heat, increased humidity, alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods, which are best avoided. Other coping strategies include wearing several layers of clothes which you can peel off, keeping a fan next to your bed to keep cool at night, and drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration headaches.
Gentle exercise, such as yoga, increases blood flow and can promote the production of oestrone – a weak oestrogen hormone that you continue to make in your adrenal glands and fat cells after the menopause.
Try Acupuncture – the results from 12 studies found that acupuncture can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of hot flushes to improve quality of life.
You will find my post on Supplements For Menopause HERE.
|This advice is summarised from my book, Menopause Diet: Eat To Beat Hot Flashes which is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
Which dietary changes have you found most helpful for menopause symptoms? Please share your experiences below.