Hot flushes, weight gain, insomnia and mood swings are just a handful of the 30+ symptoms that have been recorded in the hormonal ride leading up to the menopause. As many as 75% of women experience menopausal symptoms which have the potential to last for years (1)! However, with simple diet and lifestyle tweaks, some of these symptoms can be more manageable in our everyday life...
1. Hot flushes
Phytoestrogens are dubbed as ‘plant oestrogen’, however, they exhibit weaker oestrogenic activity when compared to human oestrogen. Isoflavones are a particular type of phytoestrogen with soy foods being a top source. When consumed regularly, they can exhibit mild oestrogenic effects which is beneficial during menopause as levels fall. In fact, research suggest that consumption of 50mg of soy isoflavones daily (around two servings of soy a day) may reduce the ‘frequency and severity’ of hot flushes associated with menopause (2).
Mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, brain fog
Fluctuating hormones can play a big role in affecting emotional symptoms during menopause. Whilst some women may have no symptoms, others may experience mood swings, anxiety and even depression. Stress reduction techniques including regular exercise, mindfulness and even a healthy diet may help us to better manage symptoms. Some plant extracts such as rhodiola rosea have been shown to help fight mental fatigue and improve cognition when under stressful conditions (3,4). Calming plant extracts such as passionflower may help to reduce anxiety (5,6). Magnesium has been dubbed as ‘natures tranquiliser’ and a low magnesium status has been association with low mood (7).
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The menopause can affect fat storage, with weight gain more likely to be distributed around the middle. What can we do? Aim to include at least two strength training sessions into the weekly routine. After the age of 40, muscle mass is lost at a rate of 8% per decade, yet muscle burns more calories than fat at rest and is therefore important to hold onto (8). Alongside a balanced diet and exercise, some research suggests that green tea extracts may support with weight loss whilst decreasing waist circumference (9). Lastly, artichoke extracts may aid with digestion whilst helping to reduce that bloat (10).
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Loss of libido
Hormone such as oestrogen and progesterone take a nosedive during menopause which can result in some women experiencing a drop in libido (11). Maca root has a long history of being used as an aphrodisiac, and whilst it isn’t a magic bullet, research suggest that extracts may modestly tweak sexual desire and function. A 2010 review of 4 randomised controlled trials with 131 participants, showed modest improvements in libido when taking maca extracts for 6 weeks (12). Furthermore, exciting research suggest maca may aid with the relief of some menopausal symptoms (13).
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Poor sleep is not uncommon during menopause, with symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats and mood all affecting quality of sleep. If struggling to sleep, aim to follow a regular sleep pattern, minimise exposure to blue light, and keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature. Valerian root is the plant of choice when it comes to sleep disorders and has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. A 2015 meta-analysis of randomised placebo-controlled trials concluded those taking an extract of valerian root had an 80% greater chance of reporting improved sleep in comparison to the control group (14). Furthermore, scientist are now suggesting the secret to a good night’s sleep could lie within the gut. 10% of our gut bacteria have a circadian rhythm of their own, and exciting emerging research suggests that prebiotics feed stress protective gut bacteria which may improve restorative deep sleep (NREM sleep) and REM sleep (15,16).
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Thinning hair and hair loss can be a side effect of menopause as a result of the body producing less oestrogen and progesterone (17). A healthy balanced diet can provide key nutrients required for hair growth, including protein, iron, omega 3 fats, B vitamins and vitamin D. Protein rich foods provide sulphur containing amino acids such as L-cysteine which are the building block of keratin, the main protein found in hair. Horsetail is a plant found in nature, with the name arising due to its green densely branch stem which resembles a horse’s tail. It’s rich content of silica is likely to provide the benefits, with several studies of those taking horsetail extracts experiencing improvements in hair growth and strength (18,19,20).
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The drop in oestrogen which accompanies menopause can increase the risk of heart disease. Enjoying a heart friendly diet comprising of unsaturated fats, fibre rich wholegrains, plant protein, oily fish and a reduction in salt can play a role with keeping cholesterol and blood pressure in check (21). Research suggests that essential omega 3 fats are important within the diet as they contribute to the maintenance of normal blood pressure, triglycerides, and the function of the heart (22). An algae based vegan omega 3 is a source eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and is therefore on par with the quality of fish oil, yet is extremely sustainable and planet friendly.
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Calcium is slowly lost from our bones after the age of 35, a phenomenon accelerated by menopause! This loss increases the risk osteoporosis, therefore consuming a healthy balance diet may help to maintain bone health. Bone friendly nutrients include calcium and vitamin D. Unfortunately, if we were to rely on diet alone, on average we would obtain just a third of our daily vitamin D requirements. Due to the lack of sunlight during the winter months, Public Health England recommend everyone over the age of 4 are to supplement with 10 µg vitamin D between October to April. However, at risk groups may need to supplement all year round, for example those over the age of 65, and those with African, African-Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds (23,24).
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Thank you to Lily Soutter - Resident nutritionist at Hello Day for this contribution