For women menopause is a life-changing event. It’s important to understand exactly what it is, how it occurs, and how this time of life is impacted by nutrition and exercise.
What is Menopause?
Menopause usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. It is characterized by an absence of menstrual cycles for twelve consecutive months, during which time a woman is considered to be in menopause. During this transition, a woman’s ovaries stop producing the hormone estrogen. This is significant because prior to menopause, 90 percent of a woman’s total estrogen is produced by the ovaries. Estrogen is crucial for maintaining physical and mental balance.
For several years prior to menopause, most women will first experience perimenopause. This occurs when a woman’s ovaries begin to produce less estrogen, and usually begins when a woman is in her 40’s (although it can begin up to a decade earlier).
Many women begin to experience menopausal symptoms during the last few years of perimenopause, which include irregular periods and hot flashes.
The average age at which American women begin menopause is 51.3 years old. Fewer than one percent of women under 40 years of age experience premature menopause.
Because of hormonal shifts, menopause is usually accompanied by the following symptoms:
- Hot flashes or flushing
- Breast tenderness
- Achy joints
- Vaginal dryness
- Discomfort during sex
- Worsening of premenstrual syndrome
- Greater chance of bladder infections
- Lack of sexual desire
- Skin dryness and itching
- Mood changes, such as irritability and anxiety
- Night sweats
- Hair thinning
- More facial hair
- Heart palpitations
- Inability to concentrate
- Headaches and migraines
A woman who has not had a menstrual period for twelve consecutive months is considered post-menopausal. The first five years after a woman’s last menstrual period is considered the first phase of post-menopause; beyond this a woman is considered to be in late post-menopause. After menopause, a woman is technically considered post-menopausal for the remainder of her life.
The best way to check if you are post-menopausal is to have your doctor measure your follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland (which is itself located at the base of the brain).
A woman’s FSH levels dramatically rise as her ovaries begin to shut down. These can be easily checked with a simple blood test.
The mood swings and feelings of anxiety that are brought on by the hormonal changes of menopause usually get better with time, and peak during perimenopause. Hot flashes and sleeplessness tend to decrease post-menopause.
However, even though some symptoms improve post-menopause, some get worse with time. These include vaginal dryness, incontinence, and bone loss.
The Dangers of Hormone Replacement Therapy
To fight the severity of menopause-related symptoms, some women turn to hormone replacement therapy (HRT). HRT has some benefits, as well as some significant risks.
HRT is a medical treatment for perimenopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal women. It usually involves the use of drugs to artificially boost hormone levels.
The drugs used during HRT typically provide small doses of estrogen, progesterone, and sometimes testosterone. HRT is administered in a variety of ways, including body patches, tablets, creams, IUD’s (intrauterine devices), vaginal rings, gels, and sometimes injections. HRT is usually administered for one to two years to assist in relieving the symptoms associated with menopause.
Two of the most well recognized studies concerning HRT are The Women’s Health Initiative by the National Institute of Health, and The Million Woman Study conducted in the United Kingdom. The Women’s Health Initiative study contrasted a group of women who received a placebo against a group that received estrogen plus progestin HRT. The HRT-receiving women experienced the following:
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Increased risk of stroke
- Increased risk of blood clots
- Increased risk of breast cancer
The Million Woman study found that those who received estrogen and progestagen HRT experienced the following:
- Increased risk of breast cancer
- Increased risk of womb cancer
- Increased risk of ovarian cancer
Due to the risks highlighted by these recent studies, HRT has become less popular.
Nutrition and Menopause
According to doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, healthy eating can help reduce many of the symptoms and side effects caused by menopause.
Many women also gain weight during menopause, making it especially important for menopausal women to eat well and exercise. If not, conditions such as high blood pressure, bone loss, and weight gain may become more pronounced during and after menopause.
Isoflavones are plant estrogens that have a similar chemical structure to human estrogen. They can help reduce some menopausal symptoms as estrogen production begins to wane. Some food items containing isoflavones are:
- Red clover blossom
- Red clover sprouts
- Fermented miso
However, hot flashes can be triggered by spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol.
Some Special Notes About Soy
Soy and soy-based products have been touted as a great way for women to deal with menopause because of their estrogen-mimicking effects. However, use caution when consuming soy.
In a personal conversation, Kaayla Daniel, the author of The Whole Soy Story told me the following:
So many women are self-medicating with soy foods and soy milk thinking it will help with menopause. Though the science on that is inconsistent, we have 70 years of studies [which] indicate soy contributes to thyroid disorders, most frequently hypothyroidism with its familiar symptoms of weight gain, fatigue, lethargy and malaise.
Today thyroid problems are epidemic already among midlife women. In addition, soy is known to contribute to breast cell proliferation, a known risk factor for breast cancer.
That’s why the Israeli Health Ministry, French Food Agency and German Institute of Risk Assessment have all warned that women who’ve been diagnosed with – or have a family history of – breast cancer should exercise caution when it comes to soy.
Katherine Czapp, contributor and editor for the Weston A. Price Foundation Journal, notes that:
Diets low in fat and high in soy, which are usually recommended for menopausal women, actually make the symptoms worse by putting strain on the already strained adrenal glands and by not having enough saturated fat that is essential for hormone production… A large number of individuals experiencing adrenal exhaustion, due to poor diet, exhibit the same symptoms women experiencing menopause.
What Other Foods and Supplements Can Help?
In contrast, fruits and vegetables have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels while reducing the severity of menopause-related hot flashes and night sweats. Women should include two to four servings of fruits and three to five servings of vegetables in their daily diet for optimal health and to avoid menopausal side effects.
Cleveland Clinic doctors recommend that menopausal women consume at least two to four servings of calcium-rich foods and drinks per day. Good sources of calcium include salmon, broccoli, dark leafy greens and dairy products.
Some calcium pills, even taken with vitamin D3, can be problematic, so I recommend you try to get adequate amounts of calcium in your diet before using a calcium supplements. Always remember to include a complete protein source with every full meal you consume during the day.
Vitamin and herbal supplements may also help alleviate some of the symptoms of menopause. Nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, author of Before the Change, recommends the following:
- Vitamin B6 can alleviate feelings of anxiety.
- Evening primrose oil, vitamin E and the chasteberry herb can help breast tenderness.
- John’s wort and flaxseed oil are recommended for depression.
- Quai, licorice root, chasteberry and black cohosh can reduce the severity of hot flashes.
- Magnesium helps with insomnia.
Note: Always check with your health provider before starting a new supplement regimen of any kind.
Menopause and the Importance of Exercise
Post-menopausal women can face a variety of health issues. Karen Collins, R.D., a nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research, notes that menopausal weight gain raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, and other hormonally related cancers.
In order to counter the weight gain caused by menopause, women should keep physically fit with regular exercise. Strength training exercises may help by maintaining muscle mass that is otherwise lost with age, thus better controlling weight.
Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., author of Strong Women Stay Young, has done extensive research at Tufts University on the benefits of weight training and menopause. Nelson compared two groups of healthy postmenopausal women who were sedentary at the start of the program. One group lifted weights for forty minutes twice a week; the other group remained sedentary.
The sedentary control group lost about two percent of their bone density during the year, while the strength-training women gained one percent in bone density.
Another study of menopausal women found a 3.5 percent increase in lumbar spine bone mineral density among women who exercised, compared to a 2.7 percent decrease in the group of women who didn’t.
Researchers in Sweden found regular physical exercise reduces the frequency of hot flashes during menopause. In the study, the frequency of moderate and severe hot flashes was investigated in seventy-nine postmenopausal women who took part in physical exercise on a regular basis. Their results were compared to those of a control group of 866 postmenopausal women between fifty-two and fifty-four years old.
The study showed that regular physical exercise decreased the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
The women in the exercising group passed through a natural menopause without the use of hormone replacement therapy. The physically active women who had no hot flashes whatsoever spent an average of 3.5 hours per week exercising. Women who exercised less than this amount were more likely to have hot flashes.
More benefits of exercise:
- Exercise helps prevent osteoporosis by keeping bone and cartilage tissue strong and healthy.
- Exercise reduces the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases by increasing heart and respiratory rates.
- Exercise keeps your joints moving and keeps the muscles around your joints strong. This helps prevent arthritis.
- Exercise helps to maintain regular bowel function, which is a common concern as people become older.
- Exercise improves a woman’s overall health and fitness by controlling weight, making the heart stronger and retaining a sense of well-being and alertness.
Take The Simple Life Approach for a Healthy Menopause
The kind of healthy diet and exercise habits that assist women with the symptoms of menopause are not very different from the diet and exercise regimen outlined in The Simple Life health books.
Nutrition and exercise affect everything you do and experience in life. Most of the common health problems of the average modern American can be attributed to the lackluster nutrition and exercise habits our society embraces today. When you know better, you can do better.
Remember the preceding ideas are just one part of the wellness puzzle. If you want to step it up a notch make sure to check out my book The Simple Life Guide To Optimal Health: How to Get Healthy, Lose Weight, Reverse Disease and Feel Better Than Ever
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