By Cheryl A. Mothes, PhD, Natural health nutrition counselor
Sometime in our 40s, women begin to experience hormone changes that lead to menopause, the ceasing of menstruation. Though not an illness, its effects can be difficult to deal with. Much can be done, though, to help alleviate and even prevent these effects. The mean age of menopause is 51, and the resulting changes alter our gut microbiomes and insulin resistance, which then creates ripple effects throughout our bodies. Here’s exciting news: The greater the adherence we have to positive health behaviors, the lower the incidence of symptoms.
Here are a few ways to help your body as you move into a new phase of life.
1. Nutrition is key: A study of women who had hot flashes reduced them by 79% by eating a low-fat, vegan diet. Refined sugar and processed foods cause sharp rises and falls in blood sugar, which compounds hormone swings. Whole food, plant-based diets comprised of complex carbohydrates, fats and proteins are what our bodies are built for, and surprisingly, keeping a regular meal schedule throughout the day is important; skipping meals or irregular meal patterns impact our hormone levels.
In addition, higher body weight means higher symptom rates. One study showed women who lost 10 pounds were more likely to eliminate symptoms, including hot flashes and night sweats. Additionally, certain foods such as caffeine, alcohol, and sugary and spicy foods may trigger hot flashes, night sweats and even changes in our moods, more so when we eat them at night. Keeping a journal of foods you eat and instances of hot flashes, night sweats and mood changes can help identify our own triggers.
Eating more foods that are high in phytoestrogens — naturally-occurring plant compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen in our bodies — can help balance hormones. This may be why women in Asian countries have so few symptoms. These foods include soybeans, such as edamame, tofu and tempeh, as well as flax seeds, sesame seeds and beans. Diets high in soy are associated with reduced hot flashes and night sweats, not to mention cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
2. Staying hydrated may be another key to reducing the effects of hormonal changes, since decreases in estrogen levels cause dehydration. It’s very important to eat foods that are hydrating instead of those that are dehydrating. Compare a big bowl of vegetable soup and salad — a hydrating option — to a burger and fries, a dehydrating option: Not only are the burger and fries dehydrating on their own, but they are loaded with salt that makes them even more dehydrating. Drinking more water is important, as well: 10 glasses a day is a good goal.
3. Get enough vitamin D. Along with hormonal changes, bone loss can occur during menopause, but adequate vitamin D and calcium reduce the risk. Greens like kale, collard greens and spinach have high levels of calcium, as do beans and the soy foods mentioned earlier, like tofu, tempeh and edamame. Sunlight is our main source of vitamin D, but as we get older, our skin gets less efficient in making it, so we need to take a good supplement. I rarely recommend supplements, but the vast majority of us are low in vitamin D. Higher phytate levels also give us stronger bone health, which can be boosted through nuts, seeds, lentils and whole grains. It’s also very important to engage in weight-bearing and resistance exercises for bone strength.
4. Regular exercise has many benefits in regulating our hormone levels: It improves our energy and metabolism, helps us manage stress and sleep better, reduces anxiety, boosts our moods, and alleviates fatigue. One study found exercising just three hours per week for one year improved physical and mental health and overall quality of life for menopausal women.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, choosing plant-based, whole foods where nothing has been added or taken away and exercising can not only help alleviate the symptoms of menopause, but it can also help prevent a myriad of diseases and give us optimal health. The same lifestyle changes that reduce hormone imbalance struggles are so powerful they have a far-reaching impact on a wide range of health conditions.
Want to read more?
If you’d like to learn more about how to live longer and live stronger, my favorite resource is the book “How Not to Die,” by Dr. Michael Gregor. In this book, Dr. Gregor provides excellent, research-based ways to prevent, arrest and even reverse the leading diseases we face in our country.