In most cases menopause is a natural process, however culturally we tend to look at it as a disease or dysfunction. As with any other time in our life, if we look after our health and wellbeing, our body will function better, we’ll be happier and have a better experience of life. Menopause doesn’t need to be looked at in a negative way; however for some women this can be difficult when they’re experiencing severe symptoms, and the stigma associated with menopause in our society is so negative.
Menopause is an individual experience in relation to age, progres
sion, intensity and type of symptoms. This individual experience depends largely on the level of sex hormones (including hormone replacement therapy), as well as the psychophysical state of an individual woman. However, we know that most women have reached menopause by age 54, so with all of us living longer, menopause is an almost universal occurrence amongst women in Australia.
Whilst menopause is not a disease or dysfunction, it does increase the incidence of certain diseases such as Osteoporosis, Breast Cancer (particularly with later onset menopause) and cardiovascular disease. Therefore, even more reason to take care of your health at this time.
Menopause is defined as the ending of menstruation due to depletion of eggs able to be released from the ovary. When follicles (eggs) stop responding to follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone, more FSH is produced. Increased FSH is a key test in determining menopause. It is widely agreed that 12 consecutive months without a period is menopause.
Whilst in most cases menopause occurs naturally, there are instances where this is different. There are a number of classifications of menopause based on the stage or the cause.
- Premature menopause – the last period happens before age 40 (early menopause happens before 45).
- Premature ovarian failure – occurs under age 40 with loss of period for more than 4 months due to low oestrogen and FSH, ovarian function can occur sporadically.
- Medically induced menopause – due to drugs prescribed to temporarily induce menopause for conditions such as endometriosis and uterine fibroids. Chemotherapy can also induce menopause, which will likely return.
- Surgically induced menopause – induced by removing the ovaries (hysterectomy) in conditions such as endometriosis, oestrogen-responsive breast cancer, ovarian tumours or ovarian cancer.
- Radiation induced menopause – when radiation is used to treat cancer, particularly in the pelvic region
Peri-menopause is another classification and relates to the stage prior to menopause, and can last for a number of years. Key symptoms are menstrual irregularities and emotional changes. Other symptoms related to peri-menopause and menopause includes hot flushes, sweating; sleep disturbances and mental changes. Later in menopause there can also appear urinary/genital tissue/skin changes and related sexual dysfunctions, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and muscular complaints. About 85% of menopausal women report at least one symptom.
There are many other factors that can influence severity of menopause symptoms including smoking, genetics, ethnicity, pregnancies etc. Adrenal function is another important factor being part of our overall hormone system that can influence menopausal symptoms. Going into menopause with under-functioning adrenals due to long-term stress will mean greater likelihood of menopausal symptoms. This is something often overlooked, yet very common due to our modern day stressful lives.
These are some of the ways nutrition can help to reduce symptoms of menopause:
- For all disease prevention and particularly for menopause eat a wholefood diet with a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds; and not too much animal protein. To avoid weight gain, particularly around the belly avoid saturated, trans and hydrogenated fats, simple carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods.
- Phyto-oestrogen food sources such as miso, flaxseed, tofu, legumes, apples, fennel, and parsley; and can help reduce symptoms such as hot flushes.
- Ensure adequate calcium through diet due to increased mineral density loss, supplementation (with Vitamin D) may be required. Minimise caffeine as it can effect decreases in bone mineral density, and have a negative impact on adrenal glands (see below).
- Minimise spicy foods if you are experiencing hot flushes.
- Hydration is important so drink plenty of water to make you feel full and aid energy levels. Increased water intake will help avoid bladder infections as it increases bladder flow.
- Antioxidants – Increased oxidative stress during menopause can be reduced with supplementation, such as:
- Vitamin C – helps offset increased oxidative stress, and enhances collagen synthesis, which may improve tissue integrity and bone density. & cardiovascular protection.
- Vitamin E – Can help relieve hot flushes and vaginal symptoms as it can improve blood supply and can be taken both orally and topically.
- Beta-carotene / Vitamin A will support immune function & integrity of skin cells and mucosal surfaces, creating a barrier against infection
- Essential Fatty Acids – May reduce the effect of hot flushes and reduce any cardiovascular symptoms
- Probiotics – Depletion of lactobacilli in the vagina & rise of pH can result in infections. Probiotics can raise vaginal flora quality have antidiarrheal effects, improve liver detoxification & gut wall integrity & decrease oxidative stress.
- B Vitamins – Particularly important during menopause as the body is placed under increased physiological stress as changes occur. B Vitamins individually are involved in many different functions, however overall in the case of peri menopause they will help during times of stress, can support the nervous system, help combat fatigue and are involved in promoting cardiovascular health.
- Zinc – Women with menopausal symptoms have found to have an increased urinary loss of zinc leading to zinc deficiency. Zinc also has an important indirect antioxidant role; and is important for immune response, neurological function, wound and skin healing, and is involved in the conversion of Beta-carotene to Vitamin A.
Other things important lifestyle factors to consider are regular exercise with an emphasis on weight bearing activities, keeping stress levels down and reducing exposure to external (synthasised) oestrogen mimicking chemicals.
Menopause should be a time to slow down a little and enjoy the things in life that you love. Whilst some symptoms may not be avoidable, not getting caught up in the negative stigmas associated with menopause can really improve your experience.