Menopause and Diet: What to Eat (and Avoid) to Manage Symptoms

Menopause comes with a roll call of difficult challenges to overcome. And while nailing your nutrition isn't a cure-all, it can help. Here's nutritionist Ro Huntriss on what you need to know.

Although menopause is a period of life that the majority of women will experience in some way, the topic is not always discussed openly.

Thankfully this attitude is changing, with more and more women opening up about their experience. Talking about what menopause is, what to expect, and how to manage the symptoms in this way helps women to understand what is happening and why. It also brings awareness of menopause, creating a more transparent environment, so that women can feel supported by family, friends, and workplaces.

There are many ways in which menopause can be made easier to manage. From a medical perspective, hormone replacement therapy is the main medical treatment option for menopause, replacing the hormones at low levels, and relieving symptoms. While this option works well for some, for others it may not be suitable, and other options are available.

For many women, making simple changes to diet and lifestyle can help make symptoms such as hot flushes, more manageable and can help you take control of certain aspects of longer-term health such as your bones and heart.

Let’s take a look at the topic, paying particular attention to how diet can support women going through menopause.

What happens during menopause?

Menopause is defined as the ‘ceasing of menstruation’ meaning it is when your periods stop for good. A woman reaches menopause when she hasn’t had a period for 12 months and this typically occurs between the age of 45-55, with the average age in the UK being 51.

The timeframe leading up to the ceasing of menstruation is called perimenopause. This is typically the period of time when symptoms start to emerge as hormone levels start to fluctuate.

Before menopause, the ovaries release the hormones estrogen and progesterone in a cyclical fashion, with estrogen being dominant in the follicular phase of the cycle and progesterone dominant in the luteal phase. Generally, women will also experience a regular monthly period.

The symptoms of menopause or perimenopause are triggered when the ovaries start changing the amounts of estrogen and progesterone that they produce. Compared with before menopause, during peri-menopause levels of estrogen rise and fall unevenly. Progesterone levels also fluctuate and can be much higher or much lower than usual.

Estrogen levels in particular fluctuate during perimenopause, and this leads to periods becoming irregular which is often the first sign of menopause. These fluctuating hormone levels are what leads to the common symptoms of menopause.

Once menopause is reached, estrogen and progesterone levels settle at much lower levels than before, and periods stop altogether. 

What are the main signs of menopause?

The first sign is usually a change in the normal pattern of your periods, for example, they can become irregular years before stopping completely. Other common symptoms of perimenopause or menopause are:

Mental health symptoms

This could be mood changes, issues with memory and concentration including brain fog. Experiencing heightened anxiety, feelings of depression or feelings of low self esteem are also common.

Vasomotor symptoms

A very common physical symptom that many women experience is hot flushes this is when a sudden feeling of heat is felt over the face neck and chest. Night sweats are also common.

Other physical symptoms

Difficulty sleeping and staying asleep are regularly experienced. Women may also notice a change in their body shape. Muscle aches and joint pains can occur. Often headaches and migraines that are worse than usual are experienced.

Genitourinary symptoms

These can include vaginal dryness, sexual discomfort, and recurrent urinary tract infection.

Not every woman will experience all of these symptoms, and symptoms may come and go. Everyone's experience of menopause will be different, some people may have intense symptoms while others may experience them mildly.

Foods to eat during the menopause

Research has shed light on multiple ways in which what we eat can influence menopausal symptoms. Let's explore these further.

Choose a Mediterranean-style diet

This style of eating has the potential to improve vasomotor symptoms such as hot flushes, as well as reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is heightened in post-menopausal women following decreasing estrogen levels. It also has the potential to improve mood and symptoms of depression. This style of diet is based on a low intake of refined sugar and processed foods and focuses on consuming more wholegrains, a higher intake of lean and plant-based protein along with lots of fruit and vegetables.

Include omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of healthy polyunsaturated fat that is found in oily fish as well as some plant-based foods. They have anti-inflammatory properties and can help ease symptoms of hot flushes as well as reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease post-menopause. Oily fish contains the most amount of omega-3, but plant-based foods such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseed, and walnuts also contain small amounts so are a great way to top up your intake.

Consume sources of phytoestrogens

Soy foods contain a naturally occurring compound called phytoestrogens, which can have a weak effect on estrogen receptors in the body. Due to this mechanism, they can help to diminish the effect that the drop in estrogen levels has on the body.

They therefore can have positive effects on some of the symptoms of menopause such as hot flushes. Their consumption can also slow down the rate of bone loss that menopausal women experience and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women

Aim for 2-3 portions of calcium-rich foods per day

The reducing levels of estrogen during menopause speeds up the rate of bone loss which means menopausal and postmenopausal women can be at a higher risk of osteoporosis. Consuming enough calcium and vitamin D is important to support bone health.

Choosing 2-3 portions of calcium-rich foods every day such as milk and yoghurt every day can support your overall calcium intake. Taking a calcium supplement in conjunction with a vitamin D supplement may also be an important consideration to help to support bone health in postmenopausal women.

Foods to avoid during your menopause

Caffeine and alcohol

Both of these can make hot flushes worse so aim to moderate these.

Refined sugar and processed foods

Due to the decline in estrogen levels many women find it more difficult to lose weight or maintain their weight during and after menopause. Body shape may also change with weight predominantly carried on the abdominal region. Opting for a lower intake of refined sugar can help to manage calorie intake, along with more whole grains, a higher protein intake, and lots of fruit and vegetables.

A final word

Making changes to your diet during menopause has the potential to help make symptoms more tolerable and improve your quality of life. For some women these changes may be the only thing they need to do while for others medical treatments may be required as well. Seeking out advice and support about what treatment options are available and what is best for your body can help you positively navigate this period of life.

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