When you reach the menopause
For most women the menopause (sometimes called 'the change') starts when they are in their late 40s or early 50s and usually lasts for several years. Hormonal changes, particularly a fall in oestrogen production, mean that the regularity of periods becomes more erratic and eventually they stop altogether. If you are suffering from unpleasant menopausal symptoms you are not alone - three-quarters of women in the UK suffer one or more symptoms during this time which commonly include hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, irritability and tiredness. For a third these symptoms are severe and interfere with everyday life. Many of them are caused by the altered hormone levels, in particular the loss of oestrogen, and can be treated with medication so speak with your GP for individual advice if your symptoms persist.
The good news is that a healthy diet and lifestyle can help to reduce the severity of many of these symptoms and protect against other problems associated with loss of oestrogen such as heart disease and calcium loss from bones.
Around this time, as a direct result of the fall in oestrogen production, your bone density decreases (by as much as 2-3% during the 5 to 10 years immediately after the menopause). If your bone density was low to start with, this additional reduction will make you more likely to develop osteoporosis, which increases your risk of suffering a bone fracture. A healthy diet, not smoking and regular weight bearing exercise all help keep bones healthy.
It is also the female hormones, such as oestrogen, that provide relative protection, compared to men, against heart disease and storage of fat around the waist. So, as you approach the menopause it is a good time to take stock of your diet to make sure it is heart-healthy and watch your weight. If you carry too much fat around your waist you have a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
Read on to find some useful tips on eating a healthy diet during and after the menopause; these will help you decrease your risk of certain diseases.
Protecting your health after the menopause
To decrease your risk of developing diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis or cancer, you should eat a healthy and varied diet, which is based on starchy foods and includes lots of fruit and vegetables. You can find more information on eating healthily here.
Take care of your bones!
Because of the hormonal changes during your menopause you will experience increased bone loss. To decrease this bone loss, you should particularly look out for two nutrients that are associated with your bone health and get sufficient amounts of them: calcium and vitamin D.
Important sources of calcium are:
- Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt or cheese (go for the fat-reduced options)
- Bread (most bread flour is fortified with calcium)
- Some green leafy vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and kale
- Dried fruit
- Fish that is eaten with bones (such as whitebait or canned sardines).
Vitamin D is also important for your bones. This vitamin is produced in our skin when we are exposed to sunlight. In summer, around 15 minutes of direct sunlight on our hands and face is usually enough to get the amount of vitamin D we need. In winter, the sunlight is not strong enough to produce vitamin D in our skin and we have to rely on food sources. But also, as we get older the vitamin D production in our skin slows down. So try to get some vitamin D from your food.
Important vitamin D sources are:
- Oily fish
- Foods with added vitamin D, such as margarine (which is fortified by law) and some low fat spreads and breakfast cereals (where it can be added voluntarily).
Very high intakes of vitamin A may have a negative effect on your bones and make them more likely to fracture when you are older. If you regularly eat liver and liver products you should avoid taking supplements containing more than 1.5 mg of vitamin A per day. Watch out for fish liver oil supplements as they are also often high in vitamin A.
Physical activity is also very important for your bones, particularly when you do weight bearing exercise such as brisk walking, running, dancing or climbing stairs. Although swimming is great for your heart, unfortunately it does not have an impact on your bones. But most types of physical activity or exercise are great to build up or maintain your muscles – this reduces the risk of falls and consequently the risk of fractures as you get older. For more on physical activity, click here.
Watch your waist
As you get older, your energy requirements usually decrease. This means that you need to eat less food to maintain your body weight. Your scales (or the fit of your clothes) will tell you if you eat too much – regularly check your body weight!
Because of the hormonal changes during the menopause, you are more likely to put on weight around the waist at this stage of life. Body fat around the waist, rather than the fat on your hips, increases your risk of developing certain diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes. This means that if you put on weight during and after your menopause, this is even more harmful because it is going to your waist area rather than your hips.
You should, particularly at this stage of life, try to avoid gaining weight by eating a healthy and varied diet and being physically active.
Take a measuring tape and measure your waist circumference. It shouldn’t be more than 31.5 inches (80cm). If it is more than this, you may be at higher risk of developing diabetes.
Diet, supplements and menopausal symptoms
A number of dietary factors, supplements and herbal remedies have been suggested to be of benefit in relieving symptoms of the menopause. In particular there has been a lot of interest in the role of phytoestrogens (such as isoflavones and lignans) in preventing hot flushes. These are substances found in plants, the richest sources being soya and linseed (flax) and foods made from these such as texturised vegetable protein, tofu and soya milk. They have a similar structure to oestrogen. Western women typically eat diets low in phytoestrogens (<3g/day) and more than 80% experience hot flushes. Chinese and Japanese women typically eat diets containing 30-100mg of these substances a day and less than 20% experience hot flushes during the menopause. But lifelong intake may be important and other factors may also be involved. There is currently limited evidence from scientific studies that increasing your intake of phytoestrogens from foods or supplements will prevent hot flushes or any other menopausal symptoms. Unless you are eating a lot of soya containing foods, it is difficult to increase your phytoestrogen intake substantially (you would need to include at least 2-3 servings/day).
There are a range of herbal remedies on the market claiming to combat menopausal symptoms but speak with your GP before taking any of these as they may have side effects or interact with other therapies (you can get some more information about herbal preparations on the website of the British Menopause Society).