Menopause and diet
Hormones are some of the most powerful chemicals in the body, travelling through the bloodstream, giving instructions to cells and triggering a wide range of biological processes.
For women, certain hormones in particular (sex hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone) control a sequence of changes that do everything from maintaining fertility and the menstrual cycle, to ultimately triggering menopause.
Hormone imbalances can wreak havoc on your health at any time of life. However, during the menopause, which is already a period of transition for your body, the effects can be particularly unpleasant and even debilitating.
Luckily, many (if not all) of these symptoms are avoidable if you can manage to keep your hormones in balance. Hormones are made from components of the food that you eat, which is how diet can play a central role in helping to maintain this balance.
What is menopause?
Before we look at the ways in which we can use diets to support the body through menopause, let’s first consider what it actually is.
Menopause is a perfectly natural process in a woman’s life when her menstrual cycles stop. This physical transition explains why many people refer to menopause as “the change”.
As mentioned above, menopause, like many other cycles and processes in the body are governed by a delicate balance of hormones. In women, the balance between progesterone and oestrogen is critical.
During the menopause, a woman’s body slowly produces less of these two sex hormones (usually between the ages of 45 and 55). A woman has reached menopause when she has not had a period for 12 months in a row. After menopause, the ovaries continue to produce low levels of oestrogen and androgens, as do the adrenal glands.
Common symptoms of menopause
60% of women experience what have become accepted as the “normal” symptoms of menopause. For example, hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, bone thinning, anxiety, depression, memory loss, joint pain and weight gain.
The nature and severity of these symptoms largely depends on the fluctuations of hormone levels, the individual’s capacity to cope with these kinds of fluctuations and, ultimately, the body’s ability to return to a balanced state following menopause.
Unfortunately, in many cases symptoms continue even after menopause has taken place, as a result of the body’s inability to do just that. A number of lifestyle factors, including everything from diet to stress levels, can mean that the body struggles to regain its equilibrium.
Eating your way to balance
As already mentioned above, hormones are made from nutrients sourced from the food we eat on a daily basis. In this sense, we really are what we eat because, if our diets are poor, our hormonal balance is very likely to reflect that.
Similarly, by living off stimulants such as coffee, cigarettes and sugar, you risk having problems associated with sex hormone imbalances. This is a long-term side-effect of prolonged stress – any body system that is continually over-stimulated in an unnatural way will eventually under-function or malfunction.
And many other aspects of our daily lives can affect hormonal balance (before, during and after menopause), including:
– exposure to toxins
– hormones found in meat and dairy products
– exposure to pesticides
– chemicals in soft plastics (often used in food wrapping)
– and medication (including birth control).
With this in mind, it is important to remember that the menopause is a natural process. If your body is equipped with the right nutrients, this process can be made a lot smoother and (even if it presents some physical and emotional challenges) these should be far easier to cope with.
The best part about eating your way to healthier hormonal balance is that it doesn’t bring with it some of the nasty side-effects associated with medication (such as HRT). It is your body doing what comes naturally – using natural nutrients to fuel itself and ensure that it functions as it is supposed to, and all systems remain in balance.
Therefore, what kind of nutrients are we talking about? Well, it is a long list, but essential fatty acids are top of the list. For instance, prostaglandins (a group of lipids) are responsible for sensitising cells to hormones – and they are made from these healthy fats.
There is a strong interaction between prostaglandins and hormones (especially sex hormones), which makes a high-quality daily source of Omega oils an important part of supporting your body’s hormonal balance.
Unfortunately, there is widespread deficiency in essential fats like Omega 3 and Omega 6, as a result of the average diet in the Western world – viz., dominated by saturated fats and refined foods. Similarly, it is common for the average diet to be lacking in many of the nutrients needed to convert these essential fats into prostaglandins (including vitamins B3, B6 and C, biotin, magnesium and zinc).
Excellent sources of vegan nutrients …
– vitamin C include bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, turnip greens, spinach, potatoes, melon, berries, papayas, romaine lettuce, watercress and vegan vitamin supplements.
– biotins include cereals and whole grains, yeast, almonds, peanuts, and legumes.
– magnesium include brown rice, spinach, legumes, nuts, dried figs, broccoli, wheat germ, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, bananas and peanuts.
Keep these essential nutrients topped up in your diet, opt for organic produce wherever possible, avoid stimulants, use vegan supplements formulated for women (if necessary) as a boost, and try to keep calm and you will be supporting optimal hormonal balance!