Going through menopause affects many different systems and parts of the body and mind. In this article, we will focus on three areas of the body affected by menopause – the abdomen, the skin, the bowel, and the bladder. You will need nutrition solutions for each, as well as some oestrogen balancing tips.
If you were asked to name an aspect of menopause, the first image that may come to mind is a middle-aged woman having a hot flush. Yet that is such a tiny part of the whole picture. It’s not without good reason that menopause has been called ‘Reverse Puberty’. However, this major hormonal shift goes on for a lot longer than teenage puberty!
To get menopause ready, I am going to show you how your diet can be a great tool to help you thrive through the menopause transition and beyond.
FOODS TO TACKLE FAT AROUND THE MIDDLE
An expanding waistline that is difficult to shift is the number one complaint I hear in my nutrition practise from menopausal women.
As oestrogen levels decline, the body builds up fat stores – a way of holding onto oestrone (a form of oestrogen) and also due to the body becoming less efficient in the way it regulates insulin.
What is the best way to combat midlife weight gain?
It’s all about controlling the way your body stores fat by maintaining balanced insulin and blood sugar control. If you become insulin resistant your cells do not take up and use the sugar from your diet for energy. Instead, your liver will convert it to fat which is stored around the middle.
Your two best tools for avoiding this fat-dumping are protein and fibre eaten regularly throughout the day.
Research suggests that rather than frequent snacking, eating three meals spaced a few hours apart and having an overnight fasting period of at least 12 hours is most effective for keeping insulin and blood sugar balanced. There are a few people that are not suited to this way of eating, but I find it works well for many.
Good protein sources are high-quality meat and fish, eggs, cheese, beans, peas and lentils, nuts, seeds and tofu. Your choice of protein sources will depend on your physiology, whether you suffer from IBS and how much weight you need to lose, as well as your ethical values and personal food preferences. In my experience, small portions of good quality animal protein from unprocessed meat, fish, eggs and cheese, supplemented with plant protein from tofu, beans and lentils are ideal for producing that full feeling and preventing snacking on highly processed foods. However, IBS sufferers will not do well on beans and lentils
Once you have your protein ‘structure’ in place, you may find that you have fewer cravings for the foods and drinks that unbalance your insulin and blood sugar. These are the familiar foods that we all know are not good for us: sugar, alcohol, refined carbohydrates and highly processed snacks. These foods contribute to spikes in blood sugar and the associated energy drops, sugar cravings and eventually insulin resistance.
In addition to protein, eating the right type of fibre is very important for reducing insulin resistance and you can read more about that in the section on the bowel below.
FOODS TO ADDRESS BLOATING AND IBS
Symptoms such as bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea are particularly common in the years leading up to menopause.
If the GP has ruled out any underlying health issues, these symptoms are often wholly or partly due to the perimenopausal hormone fluctuations which affect the bowel flora and the functioning of the gut.
For a healthy gut ecosystem, there needs to be a good balance of beneficial bacteria to outnumber any disease-causing bacteria. It is the fibre in your diet that feeds beneficial bacteria.
The key here is to choose the right type of fibre to eat. Certain types of fibre may feed the good bacteria but they will make your IBS symptoms worse!
Helpful fibre could be milled seeds such as flax, sunflower, pumpkin and chia, or ground almonds, quinoa, brown rice, vegetables, oats or sourdough rye bread.
Examples of the type of fibre that is likely to make existing gut symptoms worse are tough fruit or vegetable skins, e.g. tomato or grape skins, or wheat fibre and beans or lentils. These are mostly insoluble fibres. Nuts and seeds if eaten whole can also be problematic, so grind them up.
FOODS TO SUPPORT A HEALTHY BLADDER
Mucous membranes form delicate linings in parts of the body such as the bladder, urethra (a tube that carries urine out of the bladder) and vagina. They trap moisture and protect the underlying tissue from wear and tear.
Declining oestrogen leads to thinning, drying and weakening of the membranes which cause discomfort and increased likelihood of infection in the bladder and vagina. Urinary incontinence or an urgent need to pee is also a common menopause-related bladder issue.
The muscles of the pelvic floor which support the urethra and bladder can also become weak. This can lead to pelvic prolapse. Constipation will increase the risk of pelvic prolapse. Yet another reason to focus on fibre!
Sea buckthorn oil (omega 7) has been scientifically studied concerning dry mucus membranes with good results and many women find it helpful.
Being mindful of caffeine and alcohol intake is also a good idea when it comes to bladder problems. Finally, counterintuitive as it may sound, drinking plenty of water helps. It will help to dilute your urine and make it less irritant to the bladder.
FOODS TO SUPPORT HEALTHY SKIN
As well as affecting the delicate tissue of the vagina and bladder, the reduced collagen production that occurs in perimenopause leads to a loss of elasticity in the skin on our face, arms and legs.
Skin that is dry and sagging is a common complaint I hear from women in their 40s and 50s. Preliminary studies suggest that vitamin C increases the production of collagen. So it could be worth taking extra vitamin C which has the added benefit of supporting your immune system function.
To help combat dry skin, increase polyunsaturated fats from the omega 6 and 3 families.
In your diet, this means eating more oily fish, nuts, seeds and cold-pressed oils in dark bottles, such as flax, rapeseed, hemp and walnut oils. Once exposed to light or heated, the benefits of these oils are destroyed so use them in salad dressings or mixed into yoghurt-based smoothies.
If you can’t eat enough of the omega fats (it can be difficult to get enough in your diet to make a difference), consider a supplement that contains fish oil and evening primrose oil (or a vegan alternative such as algae). A caveat here if you are on any medication, particularly relating to the heart, be sure to check with your health practitioner before taking this type of supplement.
And don’t forget nature’s best skin moisturiser: pure water. Aim to glug down at least a litre a day!
FOODS TO SUPPORT HEALTHY OESTROGEN LEVELS
Postmenopause your oestrogen levels will be naturally low unless you are taking HRT. Depending on what stage of perimenopause you are in, your oestrogen levels may be fluctuating, too high in proportion to levels of progesterone or declining.
Foods that contain plant oestrogens have a weak oestrogenic effect which is thought to keep oestrogen levels balanced, increasing low levels of oestrogen and reducing high levels.
Plant oestrogens are found in soya, flaxseeds, nuts, whole grains, and some vegetables and fruit.
Another important fact to remember about oestrogen is that there are different forms of it. Whether or not oestrogen turns into a beneficial, anti-cancer form or a form associated with breast cancer depends on how it is broken down in the body.
In your diet, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts help the body produce good estrogen.
Menopausal symptoms are much more common in countries with Western lifestyles. In Japan, menopausal hot flushes are so rare that there is no traditional word in the Japanese language to describe them. Asian women have a generally low incidence of hormone-related disorders and have one-sixth the rate of breast cancer that we do in the West, and this is attributed at least in part to the high soya content of their diet.
Soya is rich in plant chemicals called isoflavones which act as weak oestrogens and you should include some whole, cooked soya foods several times a week in your diet to support you through menopause.
Good soya foods to include are edamame beans (you will find them in the supermarket freezer), tofu, tempeh, miso soup and plain soy yoghurt. A portion of tofu or edamame beans is about 80g and of yoghurt 150g-200g.
A message to all the tofu haters out there: before you switch off, give this recipe a go as it is so quick to make and you are likely to become a convert. Tofu needs strong flavours such as the green curry paste in this recipe to avoid it being bland.
Tofu is vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free and low carb. As well as being a source of plant oestrogens, it contains calcium, magnesium, protein and iron. What’s not to like?!
Penny Crowther is a nutritional therapist, with a special interest in midlife nutrition and health coaching for women. Her mission is to help women thrive through perimenopause and beyond. She has many years of experience in practice in London and is now on Zoom.