Menopause is something that will affect half the population, and yet it’s just getting the attention it really deserves.
It can be a time of extreme change in a woman’s life, impacting her mood, skin tone, sleep, libido and energy.
In medical terms, menopause occurs when a woman has not had a period for 12 months.
However, many women experience symptoms for several years before menopause, known as perimenopause.
Although there is no change in menstruation, perimenopause is a time when female hormone levels begin to change.
Progesterone levels begin to drop, while estrogen is initially high before also dropping as menopause approaches.
It is this change in hormone levels that can cause some of the symptoms experienced by many women, including anxiety, depression, heavy periods, poor sleep, night sweats, sore breasts, low libido and headaches or migraines.
Many of these symptoms are temporary and will gradually disappear with the onset of menopause.
However, living with them for a decade or more can be distressing for both the women who experience them and their loved ones.
Fortunately, there are nutritional and lifestyle interventions that can minimize unwanted symptoms and support women in their transition to life after menopause.
The three key areas to address during perimenopause and menopause are reducing stress, reducing inflammation, and improving gut health.
Focusing on these will gradually and gently help restore balance to the body and make many symptoms more manageable.
Stress during perimenopause and menopause can often be a vicious cycle.
Long-term chronic stress can worsen general symptoms, while anxiety (and accompanying stress) is a recognized symptom of perimenopause. This in turn increases stress levels in the body – and so on.
The goal is to address all sources of stress and have a number of coping strategies for when it gets too much.
Not all techniques will work for everyone, and some should be made a daily habit rather than used when stress levels rise.
Try them out to see which works best for you:
Devote 15-20 minutes to “me time” each day
Get together regularly with friends for support and laughter
· Spend time outdoors every day – garden, walk your dog, sit in the garden
Start a meditation/yoga/mindfulness practice
Engage in gentle physical activity
Practice breathing techniques during times of stress
Inflammation in the body can increase many symptoms of menopause and can be caused by a number of different reasons. It happens when our immune system is overstimulated and our body is constantly ready to fight.
Heavy periods, hot flashes, lack of sleep, and mood swings can all be made worse by chronic inflammation.
There are a number of reasons why we may have increased inflammation – an ongoing disease; eat a typical Western diet; drink alcohol regularly; poor sleep; smoking; carrying excess weight.
Increased inflammation is also a direct result of menopause, as estrogen itself is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
In terms of diet, ways to reduce inflammation include adding brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and spices to your meals; aim for two to three servings of oily fish per week and limit alcohol and sugar intake as much as possible.
Lifestyle approaches could include cutting down or quitting smoking and optimizing your sleep – although this may be easier said than done when hot flashes wake you up in the early morning!
Improve gut health
Although it might not seem like an obvious area to target, good gut health is key to many symptoms of perimenopause and menopause.
We have a two-way communication between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis, which can impact symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Additionally, constipation can exacerbate heavy periods and sore breasts.
When clearance from the body slows, used estrogen can stay in the body longer than desired and can be reabsorbed into the blood, resulting in even higher levels.
And if you need another reason to support gut health, it’s believed that 70% of our immune system resides in our colon, which is linked to levels of inflammation throughout the body.
Ways to support gut health, and therefore perimenopause and menopause, include:
Eat a variety of plant foods every day – vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains
Reduce alcohol, sugar and caffeine
Minimize processed foods and takeaways
Identify and reduce food sensitivities or intolerances
Introduce fermented foods into the diet
Supplement with key nutrients and a good quality probiotic
Some women also find unwanted weight gain to be a symptom of perimenopause and menopause.
Again, the key to remedying this is to take it slow.
Crash diets and HIIT classes that might have helped you a few years ago are likely to increase your stress levels.
Instead, try intermittent fasting (going at least 12 hours overnight without food), reducing your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates, and including strength training in your weekly routine.
It may take longer, but this approach will work with your body throughout this new phase of your life.
The good news is that the symptoms will pass. By supporting these areas of health, it may be possible to minimize the adverse effects of hormonal changes and enjoy perimenopause and menopause feeling well and energized.
Please note that if your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, you should make an appointment with your GP to discuss your options, including HRT.
Emma Jamieson is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and Health Coach specializing in digestive health. Find more health tips on her website, emmajamieson.co.uk or follow her on Instagram for tips, recipes and more @emmajamieson_nutrition.