Seven tips for navigating menopause
Menopause is a natural transition for women where the reproductive system starts to wind down. Our oestrogen levels that once played a key role in releasing a mature egg each month, start to fluctuate then decline. Other hormones, such as progesterone and testosterone that are produced by the ovaries, also start to trend downwards, preparing the body for the next phase of life.
During this transition the body can struggle with some of these changing hormones, often resulting in symptoms such as mood swings, weight gain, hot flushes, night sweats and trouble sleeping. These hormones also appear to provide women with some protection, especially for bone health, weight maintenance and cardiovascular health, so as they decrease, so can those protective factors.
The good news is that there are several changes we can make to minimise the impact these shifting hormones can have on our body. Here are our top six strategies for navigating this phase of life.
1/ Increase your fibre intake
Fibre is the part of plants we are unable to digest and it is found predominantly in foods such as:
- • Whole-grains such as rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice and seeded bread
- • Vegetables
- • Legumes e.g. chickpeas, beans, lentils
- • Fruits
- • Nuts and seeds
Researchers have identified that a higher fibre diet appears to reduce the occurrence of symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats in menopausal women. A high fibre diet is also associated with other health benefits such as:
– Reduced mortality risk
– Improved bowel health including reducing the risk of constipation, colorectal cancer and inflammatory bowel disease
– Reduced risk of type 2 Diabetes
– Lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of heart disease
1 in 2 Australian women are meeting the recommended fibre target. Aim for 28g of fibre per day. Our top tips for boosting your fibre intake are:
– Include 2 serves of fruit per day
– Include 3 different coloured vegetables at main meals
– Include 30g or a handful of nuts and seeds per day
– Include three serves of whole-grains per day such as rolled oats, natural muesli, seeded bread, grainy crackers, quinoa or brown rice
– Include the skins on fruits and vegetables wherever possible
Top your breakfast cereal with seeds such as hemp seeds, chia seeds or LSA
– Replace ½ the mince in a dish with lentils, beans or chickpeas
2/ Follow a Mediterranean style diet
A Mediterranean diet is one characterised by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes (all of which are high fibre!), a moderate intake of fish, eggs, extra-virgin olive oil and fermented dairy foods, and a limited intake of red meats and processed foods.
While this type of diet has long been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and several other chronic diseases in a general population, it is now
evident that this it may also play an important role in managing some postmenopausal health risks. In one study, a higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet was linked with a higher bone mineral density and therefore a reduced risk of osteoporosis and fractures as well as an increased lean muscle mass.
Dementia is also the leading cause of death in Australian women, and we have strong research to show how beneficial a Mediterranean style eating pattern when it comes to brain health, memory and mood and reducing cognitive decline as we age!
Further studies also found that a Mediterranean diet was linked with a lower risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. Traditionally, a Mediterranean diet includes a moderate intake of alcohol, but before you start topping up that wine glass, it is important to note that several of the studies actually excluded alcohol as part of the ‘healthy’ diet. Alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of various cancers and can contribute to weight gain, so limiting your intake is generally considered wise.
3/ Reduce your waist circumference
In our nutrition clinics we see an abundance of women distressed about extra weight gained (typically around the waist) during and after menopause. On average, women tend to gain approximately half a kilogram per year during this time. While it is a common phenomenon, a higher waist circumference increases the risk of several chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes in post-menopausal women.
There can be a myriad of factors that contribute to weight gain at this stage of life, such as hormonal fluctuations that are linked with psychological stress and increased emotional eating, or a decline in muscle mass which results in the body burning fewer calories during the day, storing the excess as fat tissue.
When it comes to reducing your waist, choose a sustainable and holistic approach that takes into consideration issues such as mood changes and lifestyle. A nutrient rich eating plan is also vital, that focuses on a healthy balance of wholefoods. When aiming for long term success:
- • Set small, achievable goals
- • Snack smart by choosing more sustaining snacks such as protein rich Greek yoghurt or nutrient rich avocado on a grainy crispbread
- • Avoid meal skipping
- • Visit your local Accredited Practising Dietitian for personalised advice
4/ Include phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are a natural component of various plant foods, such as soy, linseeds and chickpeas, known to produce mild oestrogen-like effects in the human body. As menopause is characterised by a decline in oestrogen, researchers have spent many years assessing the role these phytoestrogens play in post-menopausal symptom management. Recent review studies suggest that including phytoestrogens is associated with a reduction in hot flushes and may help to slow bone density losses, but the results are less convincing for many other common symptoms of menopause. However, these studies did identify that phytoestrogens have very few side effects, making them a safe addition to the diet. To increase the phytoestrogens in your diet:
- • Implement a meat free meal each week, swapping the animal protein for a plant protein such as soy, chickpeas or lentils
- • Boost salads with a sprinkle of linseeds or sesame seeds
- • Choose whole grain and seeded breads and cereals
- • Try your hand at cooking a tofu or tempeh based meal
5/ Include regular resistance training
While activity levels tend to wane as we progress in years, the research shows us that regular physical activity as we head towards menopause is vital to maintain good health! Physical activity of any kind is important in weight management, improving heart health and promoting mental health, however resistance exercise (where we lift, push or pull a weight of some kind) plays a specific role in our health as we age. Resistance exercise, such as weights, circuit classes or pilates, is known to promote the maintenance of our muscle mass that normally declines over the years. This is important for maintaining function, reducing injuries and also increasing our metabolic rate – the amount of calories our bodies burn in a day. Another less obvious benefit of this type of exercise is the positive impact on bone density, fighting the all too common progression towards osteoporosis. Osteoporosis Australia recommends including resistance exercise three times each week that gradually progresses (such as increasing the size of the weight lifted or increasing the repetitions) for optimal bone health.
6/ Manage your mood
The hormonal and physical changes that occur during menopause are closely linked with reduced mood and increased stress levels, both of which can trigger comfort or emotional eating in many women as well as increase the risk of depression and anxiety.
Practices such as yoga and meditation have been shown to be effective in managing mood and stress levels and some studies indicate yoga may in fact also play a role in improving sleep quality in post-menopausal women.
Ways to get started:
- • Download a mindful app for your smartphone, such as Smiling Mind or Headspace
- • Research beginner yoga classes in your area
- • Schedule in ‘mental-health’ time, such as a walk outdoors or a relaxing cup of tea somewhere quiet
- • Make sure you stay well connected to positive friends and family
If you would like to further discuss how dietary changes may help with managing menopause, book an appointment with one of our Accredited Practising Dietitians today!
7/ Consume enough calcium
Over 60% of Australians suffer from low bone mineral density. Menopause also results in a rapid decline in bone mineral density or strength due to a drop in our oestrogen levels. Not consuming enough calcium from the diet results in the body drawing more out from the bones, causing them to become weaker and more brittle. Post-menopausal women require 1300 mg per day of calcium preferably through diet. This equates to roughly four serves of calcium-rich foods. The following foods are equivalent to one serve:
– 250mL of milk or soy milk
– 1/2 x cup firm tofu
– 200g yoghurt
– 2 x slices (40g) cheese
– 1 x can sardines (90g)
– 150g tinned pink salmon
– 1 cup almonds
– 10 dried figs
– 12 prawns
– 170g mussels
There is also smaller amounts of calcium in tahini, soy beans, dried fruit and chia seeds.
If you are going through menopause and would benefit from the input of a specialised dietitian book in with one of our dietitians at Eatsense today.