Maintain Your Health & Well-Being During Menopause

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 - 12:41pm

By Wendy Hodsdon, ND

Menopause is a natural process that occurs in women, usually in their early 50s. It is a transitional time when a woman's hormones readjust to new lower levels. In traditional society, menopause was understood as a time of women's increased power and wisdom, a time when a woman joined the elders in her community and gave up her child bearing responsibilities. In modern Western society, menopause is often seen only as a sign of a woman's aging and decline. With more than 50 million postmenopausal American women (a number that is increasing), we have an opportunity to change our attitude toward this normal change in life which offers new opportunities for learning and adventure. When women start to celebrate menopause, the change will become easier and will lead to increased overall health.

What is menopause?

Technically, menopause is the day after which a woman's period has stopped for one year. Before that time, as her menses is irregular, a woman is peri-menopausal. After a woman's period has stopped for more than a year, she becomes post-menopausal.

By typical menopause (not menopause that is medically induced by removal of or damage to the ovaries), the numbers of eggs in the ovaries has decreased dramatically. The menstrual cycle begins to get more irregular and the level of FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) increases as the body tries to get the remaining eggs to mature in the ovaries. The amounts of estrogen and progesterone produced by the ovaries first increase and become imbalanced, then decrease overall as production of these hormones is taken over by the adrenal glands and fat tissue in the body. It is the fluctuation in hormone levels and the change in the balance of estrogen and progesterone that lead to most menopausal symptoms and cause the periods to become irregular and then to stop all together.

Menopause symptoms

During menopause, women commonly experience some of the following symptoms to varying degrees: hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, heart palpitations, depression, anxiety, short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, vaginal dryness, change in sex drive, acne, osteoporosis, facial hair, and hair loss. Many of these symptoms show up during peri-menopause, which precedes menopause, which is a time when the menstrual cycle becomes irregular but does not actually stop.

During the menopausal and post-menopausal years, a diet high in vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit, seeds and nuts contain important nutrients that can improve hormone balance, bone, and heart health.

Diet and hormone health during the menopause

Phytoestrogens are foods with weakly estrogenic properties. These foods have molecules in them that actually bind to estrogen receptors and can replace estrogen in women with low levels of that hormone. The most well-known phytoestrogen is soy. Isoflavones in soy are the active ingredients in soy foods, but are often missing in soy capsules or in soy protein powders. (Look on the label for isoflavone content.) Other phytoestrogenic foods include flaxseed (grind them to make the phytoestrogens more available) and some plant-based foods.

As a woman's body enters menopause, phytoestrogens can support estrogen levels. Hormone health can be improved by including more soy and flax in the diet as well as eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts, and healthy oils, and decreasing animal fat intake. This diet supports the liver to process hormones more effectively and gives the body the phytoestrogens it needs to relieve symptoms of menopause.

Diet and bone health

In women, peak bone mass occurs between the ages of 35-40. At menopause, there is a decrease in bone mass density. The dietary factors that make a woman more susceptible to osteoporosis include low calcium intake, high protein and high phosphorus intake, excessive salt intake, vitamin D deficiency, and other mineral deficiencies. One of the best sources of calcium is dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, romaine lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard. As well as being high in calcium, these vegetables are high in minerals that help keep bones strong. Other sources of calcium include low fat dairy products, beans, soy beans, sesame seeds, salmon and amaranth (a type of grain). Soft drinks, on the other hand, are high in phosphorus and are implicated in the development of osteoporosis.

The menopause: diet and heart health

Heart disease is the other major concern for women as they go through menopause and enter their post-menopausal years. A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in cold water fish, can prevent heart disease. Cold water fish include salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and halibut. Fish oils high in omega-3 fatty acids can also help to prevent blood clots, can decrease inflammation in the blood vessels, and can promote a regular cardiac rhythm. Increasing dietary fiber by eating a whole foods diet high in vegetables can lower cholesterol levels and can have a positive effect on the fat levels in the blood.

For more information on hormone replacements & HRT during the menopause see the following article from TheDietChannel: Soy & Menopause: Women Are Eating Soy to Combat Menopause