Nutrition During Menopause: Tips for Balancing Hormones and Managing Symptoms
If you’re a woman of mid-life age, the subject of menopause has likely been on your mind at some point. The bodily changes that occur during this time are often dreaded by most women due to the unwanted symptoms that often accompany it. Thankfully, what you eat plays a large role in how your body adapts to these changes, and can help ease the transition.
Read on to learn more about what menopause involves, and how you can use nutrition to help balance your hormones and manage your symptoms.
What is menopause?
Menopause is a term used to describe a series of hormonal changes that occur in middle aged women. It is a natural transition off of normal menstrual cycles and is officially diagnosed after a woman has been without a period for 12 months. It typically begins between the ages of 45 and 55, but it can also be triggered by the surgical removal of the ovaries, known as a hysterectomy. Menopause usually lasts between 7 to 14 years.
During menopause, the normal patterns of estrogen and progesterone change, and estrogen levels begin to decline. These hormonal changes often trigger a series of symptoms, including:
Weight gain and a slowed metabolism
Increased fat mass
Decline in muscle mass
Hot flashes and night sweats
Mood changes, including irritability, anxiety, and depression
Vaginal dryness, which can lead to sexual discomfort
In addition, other changes occur in the body during menopause, including:
Decrease in bone density, making the body more prone to fractures and the development of osteoporosis
Increased cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease
Changes in blood sugar levels, and a potentially higher risk of developing diabetes
How Nutrition Can Help
Food plays a large role in hormone levels, including during menopause. In addition, dietary changes can help your body cope with hormonal fluctuations and help manage less desirable symptoms, as well as reduce your risk of developing the conditions described which post-menopausal women are more prone to.
Foods to Focus on During and After Menopause
Low-fat dairy products – Dairy products are a good source of calcium, which is essential for maintaining strong bones and can help reduce the increased risk of fractures associated with menopause. Healthy sources of dairy include:
- Greek yogurt
- Raw or minimally processed cheeses
Vitamin D – Vitamin D works in combination with calcium to promote strong bones and reduce bone loss. In addition, one study found that women who consumed higher amounts of both calcium and vitamin D have a lower risk of experiencing early menopause. There are minimal natural food sources of vitamin D, and since a majority of the population is deficient in it, taking vitamin D as a supplement is the best way to help ensure adequate intake.
Omega-3 fats – These have been shown to potentially help manage symptoms of hot flashes and depression in menopausal women, and have been shown by research to help with other mood disorders that may occur in menopause as well. You can read more about how food can help improve mood on our other post here. Sources of omega-3 fats include:
- Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines
- Chia, hemp and flax seeds
- Fish and cod liver oil supplements
Phytoestrogens – These are compounds in some foods that mimic the function of estrogen in the body, and are linked to a lower risk of menopausal symptoms including hot flashes as well as a decreased chance of developing osteoporosis, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Food sources of phytoestrogens include:
- Soy products including soymilk, tofu, and edamame
- Green and black teas
- Legumes including chickpeas and peanuts
High quality protein – Protein is essential for muscle synthesis. Since menopause can cause a decline in muscle mass, eating enough protein throughout the day can help delay this progression, especially when coupled with adequate amounts of physical activity. Protein also helps maintain bone health and promotes satiety, or a feeling of fullness that can help control appetite and manage weight gain that is also a common symptom of menopause. Women should aim to consume about 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal to best stimulate muscle-protein synthesis. Good food sources of protein include:
- Lean meats and poultry
- Nuts, seeds, and the butters made from them
- Dairy products
In addition to all of these, it is also a good idea to take a daily multivitamin geared towards older women to fill in any nutritional gaps in the diet.
Foods to limit or avoid during and after menopause
On the flipside of the foods that can help manage menopause are ones that may instead make symptoms worse. It is beneficial to make extra effort to limit the following:
Caffeine & Alcohol – Both of these can interrupt sleep, and a lack of sleep is associated with an increased appetite and likelihood for weight gain, all of which are already common in menopause. Some research shows that caffeine and alcohol may also lead to worse hot flashes. High amounts of caffeine can also contribute to worse anxiety. Sources of caffeine include:
- Many teas
Added sugars – Eating excess sugar causes increased blood sugar levels in the body, which menopausal women are already more prone to. In addition, some research shows that high blood sugar may lead to an increased likelihood of hot flashes. You can help limit added sugars by reducing your intake of foods like:
- Sugar sweetened beverages
- Sweetened cereals
- And by checking the nutrition label for added sugar content
Just like with most conditions, food can be used as medicine for menopause too. By focusing on foods that can help manage symptoms and avoiding those that can make things worse, you can have a more pleasant menopausal experience.