Menopause has been a taboo subject for too long. Even among women, the topic has often been shrouded in silence because many considered it the loss of youthfulness. Times are changing, however, and so, too, is the way we view and handle a biological chapter that makes up one-third to one-half of a woman’s life.
The menopause journey
Somewhere in our fourth decade of life, our bodies start acting up—hot flashes, night sweats, sleep problems, and irregular periods. Ditto for depression and mood swings, joint pain, bloating, memory issues, low libido, hair changes, and weight gain, particularly in the midsection.
It’s a rollercoaster, and it starts with perimenopause around the age of 40 (or earlier) and it can last between six to eight years.
Menopause is the one-day milestone women reach once they have gone without a period for a year (tracking makes sense!). After that, it’s all post-menopause. Many symptoms subside, but the risk of some chronic diseases can go up.
Behind the scenes
Estrogen and progesterone work together to orchestrate the menstrual cycle, and they start fluctuating during perimenopause. So does testosterone, which can cause depression and lower libido, and may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and insulin resistance during post-menopause.
Estrogen keeps almost everything running smoothly in a woman’s body: menstrual cycles, glucose balance, brain and heart health, temperature control, immunity, bone and muscle health, pelvic floor health, and skin and hair. Low estrogen means hot flashes, insomnia, vaginal dryness, and incontinence, among others. Too much of it leads to breast tenderness, bloating, and heavy periods.
The way our bodies change (and why it matters)
After 30, we lose approximately 3 to 5 percent of our muscle mass each decade, which is due to aging (so is fat tissue accumulation), but menopause can add to it due to dwindling estrogen levels.
We also lose bone tissue (20 percent of bone loss happens during menopause), more so after 50.
Both menopause and the aging process have impacts on metabolism. Postmenopausal women often have higher blood glucose and insulin levels, which can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
Not exactly hot news, but it’s not all gloom and doom either. Science has answers!
Eat better for a better journey
If you had to pick a diet pattern during menopause and beyond, go for Mediterranean, which includes veggies, fruit, lean protein, healthy fats (avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil) and plenty of health-promoting polyphenols. This supports your microbiome and helps reduce the risk of age-related chronic diseases.
Get enough protein
Protein is on many women’s minds. Boost your intake to 1.2 to 1.6 g per kilogram day to help maintain muscle mass, in conjunction with resistance training. Experiment with a high-protein breakfast to increase satiety. Plant protein comes with the benefit of fiber and phytochemicals, but if you prefer to have both, choose lean animal protein sources, low in saturated fats and salt. (You can eat some saturated fats; just don’t overdo it.)
Get plenty of fiber
Weight gain during menopause (also aging related) can steer women away from carbohydrates, but whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit supply fiber, which contributes to better gut health and improved digestion. Keep them and ditch simple sugars instead (occasional treats are okay!).
Add some probiotics
Adding fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi can also improve gut health and reduce bloating, and a little goes a long way.
Remember calcium and vitamin D
Dwindling estrogen levels affect bone density, so it’s essential to consume calcium-rich foods: leafy green vegetables, fermented dairy products and fortified plant-based alternatives, cruciferous veggies, calcium-set tofu, beans, sesame and sunflower seeds, and sardines.
Let’s not forget vitamin D, also needed for bone health. Safe sun exposure and regular consumption of fortified foods and fatty fish can help, but talk to your doctor about bone-supportive supplementation of these nutrients, along with vitamin K2 (produced by beneficial gut bacteria and found in broccoli and leafy greens).
Lifestyle matters, too
The menopausal journey overlaps high stress times for many women: parenting, work demands, caring for aging parents, and/or dramatic life changes.
Along with fluctuating hormones, stress can also affect sleep, sabotage eating habits, and make us crave foods high in added sugars and fat, which leads to visceral fat accumulation, a high-risk factor for age-related chronic illness.
Slash stress levels with yoga and meditation and prioritize sleep with good habits: early dinners, choosing books over screens, and swapping out beverages for soothing herbal teas. Alcohol can affect sleep quality and it can increase the risk of breast cancer.
Two to three sessions of resistance exercise weekly may help prevent muscle loss and bone loss, improve body composition, and boost cognition. Cardiovascular activities (walking counts!) can also boost brain health and reduce the risk of dementia.
So does a good circle of friends. Let’s remember that shared experiences make the journey a lot easier. Scary as they may be at times, rollercoasters can also be exciting, so why not this one?
Foods and supplements to consider
flaxseeds source of fiber, omega-3s, and lignans (help eliminate excess estrogen) soy (tofu, tempeh, soybeans, edamame) source of isoflavones, can reduce hot flashes, improve bone health, and reduce breast cancer risk probiotics and prebiotics may help with gut imbalances, including bloating and gas omega-3 fatty acids anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, increase insulin sensitivity vitamin B12 red blood cell and DNA production, cardio- and neuroprotective