Eating to Support Your Perimenopause and Menopause Journey
The time leading up to and during menopause is a phase of life that can often benefit from a nutritional check-in. The unique hormonal changes that take place during this time can impact various aspects of health and wellbeing, and nourishing your body with the nutrients it needs can help to alleviate discomfort and keep you as healthy and strong as possible.
What is menopause?
Menopause occurs when the body gradually produces less of the hormone oestrogen until eventually menstrual periods stop permanently. It is a natural part of ageing and is marked following 12 consecutive months without a period. It usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average age of menopause in Ireland being 51. For some people - approximately 1 in 100 - their periods will stop before the age of 40 years. This is considered premature menopause.
Before the menopause is the perimenopause. This is the time leading up to your final period and can last for a few months or several years. During this time, periods may become irregular as your oestrogen levels decrease, and this is also the time you may begin to experience menopausal symptoms.
Symptoms of menopause
Menopause affects everyone differently. Some will experience few to no symptoms while for many, symptoms can be varied, severe, and have a significant impact on everyday life.
Some common menopausal symptoms include:
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Mood changes
- Low self esteem
- Poor memory and concentration
- Vaginal dryness
- Urinary issues
- Lack of interest in sex
- Sleep disturbances
- Headaches and migraines
- Skin changes including dry and itchy skin
- Reduced muscle mass
- Heart palpitations
- Joint and muscle stiffness or pain
Symptoms can start up to 7 years before periods stop and typically last for about 4 years after the final period.
Longer term health effects
The hormonal changes that occur leading up to and during menopause (mainly the loss of oestrogen) can cause not only the shorter term menopausal symptoms listed above, but also longer term health effects. Oestrogen plays an important role in normal sexual and reproductive development, but it also plays a role in other systems in our body like our bones, heart and brain.
In the longer term, this loss of oestrogen causes an increased risk of:
- Higher cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease
- Weight gain
Managing menopause symptoms through diet
The body’s nutrient needs change during menopause, and while there is no "menopause diet" that works for everyone, focusing on eating a balanced diet that provides the body with adequate nutrition can help to ease symptoms, manage blood sugar levels, reduce the risk of developing age-related diseases, and promote an overall sense of wellbeing.
- Whole grains
Whole grains are high in nutrients, including fibre and B vitamins. Fibre feeds the healthy bacteria in the gut, promoting digestive health, and B vitamins support brain health and mood.
A diet high in whole grains has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, and a longer lifespan1. Some examples of whole grains include wholewheat, oats, barley, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa and spelt.
- Quality protein
Adequate dietary protein is essential for preserving bone and muscle mass. Upping your protein intake during menopause can help to mitigate the decline in muscle mass and bone density that occurs due to reduced levels of oestrogen and reduce the risk of developing sarcopenia and osteoporosis.
Good sources of protein include lean meat, eggs, fish, legumes and dairy products.
- Fruit and vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are packed full of good stuff - vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants. They’re important to include in the diet at any age, but being generous with your fruit and veg servings can be particularly beneficial during menopause for preventing age-related diseases. Higher intakes of fruits and vegetables are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer, and they may even help us live longer3.
Keeping your heart healthy is essential during menopause. One way to do this is to increase your intake of healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids contribute to the maintenance of normal blood pressure, cholesterol levels and heart function4.
Omega-3s have also been seen to have a beneficial effect on mood5, and because they reduce inflammation in the body, they may help to relieve symptoms of certain inflammatory conditions such as joint pain and stiffness. Some people find that they provide some level of relief from hot flushes too6.
These omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, trout and anchovies, and seeds like flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds. There are also various omega-3 supplements available if you struggle to get enough omega-3 from food. Our pharmacists recommend Minami MorEPA Original Omega-3 Fish Oils 60 Softgels.
Dairy products, such as milk and yoghurt, contain calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and vitamins D and K — all of which are essential for bone health. Research shows that women who eat more dairy and animal protein have significantly higher bone density post menopause than those who eat less7. This is important for combatting the increased risk of osteoporosis that occurs during menopause due to hormonal changes.
Dairy may also play a role in improving sleep quality8, and certain dairy products, such as some yoghurts and kefir, contain probiotics which can benefit gut health too.
If you don’t eat dairy, green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, and soya products like tofu, are good for bone health, or a bone health supplement such as Solgar Ultimate Bone Support may be helpful. You can get probiotics from fermented foods such as kimchi, tempeh, and kombucha, or from a gut health supplement such as Symprove.
As well as supporting bone health, vitamin D also plays a role in reducing negative emotions and regulating mood9. It may help to alleviate genitourinary symptoms too, such as vaginal dryness, pain, recurrent vaginitis, difficulty urinating, and frequent and urgent urination10.
As vitamin D deficiency is common in Ireland, it is recommended that all Irish adults take a vitamin D supplement from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day, and if you have darker skin, you are recommended to take one all year round. If you’re on the lookout for a high quality vitamin D supplement, try Pharma Nord BioActive Vitamin D Pearls.
Phytoestrogens is the name given to oestrogens found in plants. These plant oestrogens have a similar structure to the human hormone oestrogen but have much weaker effects. Foods that contain high amounts of phytoestrogens include soy products like tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, and soya milk as well as seeds such as flaxseeds and linseeds. Including phytoestrogens in the diet may reduce some menopausal symptoms, such as the frequency of hot flushes11, and certain phytoestrogens may be beneficial for heart and brain health too.
Foods to Limit
There are also certain foods that can aggravate symptoms and may be best to limit during menopause:
- Caffeine and alcohol
Not an easy one for everyone to consider, but limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol can be beneficial during menopause. Both caffeine and alcohol can trigger hot flushes, they’re known sleep disruptors, and they can also affect our mood, increasing feelings of anxiety and depression. Try keeping alcohol and caffeine to a minimum and see how you feel. It could be an opportunity to explore the many decaffeinated and alcohol-free options that have been popping up on shelves recently.
Aiming to limit your salt intake to the recommended amount of 6g per day can benefit both heart and bone health. Eating too much salt has been linked to high blood pressure and lower bone density, increasing the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. And it’s not just the salt you add yourself that counts, watch out for high salt levels in the foods you buy too. Look for products with green and amber colour-coded labels for salt on the front of the packaging.
- Spicy foods
Avoiding spicy foods is a common recommendation for those going through menopause as there is some evidence to suggest that spicy foods may increase hot flushes. Use your best judgement when it comes to including spicy foods in your diet and avoid them if they seem to worsen your symptoms.
Focusing on eating a balanced and nutritious diet during menopause supports your body as it navigates an important transitional stage. Good nutrition can help to manage symptoms and promote long-term health by reducing the risk of developing various diseases, allowing you to enter your next life phase with your best foot forward!
If you are looking for more information and advice on menopause, please speak to one of our teams today, we are here to support you on your journey.