Menopause, nutrition and activity
Alright ladies. Raise your hand if you’re having night sweats, hot flashes or unpredictable mood swings. In your 40s or 50s, normal hormonal changes lead to a stop of menstruation, and the accompanying decline of estrogen is responsible for these often-unpleasant symptoms.
The good news is that some women sail through menopause with hardly any symptoms at all. Others experience more symptoms, including vaginal dryness, weight gain, headaches, disturbed sleep, anxiety and depression. Each woman’s experience during menopause is highly individual. The symptoms you get – and how long they last – can’t be well-predicted. Even the age of menopause has a huge range – from the 30s to the 60s, with a median age of 51.
Menopause is official when you do not have a menstrual period for 12 months. After menopause, long-term effects of lower estrogen levels can increase the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. Good nutrition is important, and you may need to make some changes to ensure you are doing all you can to stay healthy for the long run.
Changes due to estrogen
A woman’s ovaries are the main source of hormones, which control female body characteristics such as the breasts, body shape and body hair. As the ovaries stop manufacturing the hormones estrogen and progesterone, symptoms may begin, and disease risk changes. For example, estrogen helps lift our mood so, when levels drop, we may feel depressed. Estrogen protects bone, so some woman develop osteoporosis when the ovaries do not produce adequate estrogen. And a decline in estrogen can lead to poor cholesterol ratios, which contributes to the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Some women opt for hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which includes a prescription for hormones like estrogen. But there are all-known links between HRT and the risk of heart disease, so this option should be discussed with your doctor.
Beyond medication, there are other measures you can take to protect your health.
Research shows that menopausal women who eat a Mediterranean-style diet are about 20 percent less likely to report hot flashes and night sweats. This diet is also linked to better bone density and muscle mass, and good heart health.
So, what should you be eating for a Mediterranean-style diet? It’s a balanced diet that includes lots of vegetables and fruit; adequate protein from lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, dairy, poultry and minimal meat; whole grains; and healthy fats like olive oil. It’s also low in ultra-processed foods, like soft drinks, fast food, chips, cakes and candy. Check out the diet plan here.
Specifically related to menopause, planning your meals and snacks should also factor in:
Bone health: Ensure your diet remains rich in calcium. At age 50, your daily need increases from 1000 mg to 1200 mg to protect bones after menopause. Calcium-rich foods include milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified soy or almond beverage, canned salmon with bones, sardines with bones, broccoli, almonds and tofu made with calcium chloride. Vitamin D is also important for maintaining strong bones. You need at least 600IU per day, often from supplements since vitamin D isn’t found in many foods. There is some vitamin D in fatty fish (like salmon and trout), fortified milk and eggs.
Heart health: Make sure you get at least two servings of fatty fish every week, such as salmon, tuna, trout or sardines. They are loaded with omega-3 fats, which protect heart health. If you aren’t a fish fan, talk to your doctor about omega-3 supplements.
Symptom relief: Some studies show that isoflavones from soy foods can help relieve symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness and depressive mood. Most studies use 1-2 servings per day of soy foods such as soy beverage, soy beans or edamame. These are better options than ultra-processed soy dogs, burgers, nutrition bars or veggie deli meats because the whole foods contain more of the vital isoflavones (the active ingredient!).
((Before you pop edamame or grill up some tofu, you may be wondering about the link between soy and breast cancer. The Word Cancer Research Fund says there is no evidence suggesting that you should avoid soy. Here’s why)).
You may also be able to avoid symptoms like hot flashes by identifying and cutting out trigger foods, such as coffee, chocolate, alcohol and cayenne or spicy foods.
Be physically active
In addition to a varied and nutritious diet, make sure to exercise. Physical activity has so many benefits! A combination of strength training, flexibility and cardiovascular exercise (so, say, weight training, yoga and walking) is recommended. Being physically active during and after menopause can help:
- Manage psychological problems like anxiety and depression
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Increase or maintain bone mineral density
- Reduce cardiovascular disease risk
- Reduced risk of colon and breast cancer
Aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week PLUS muscle strengthening activities on two days or more of the week.