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As we transition into the menopause, our diet plays an even more significant role in our overall wellbeing. Many women are dismayed that they can no longer eat, drink alcohol and live as hectic a life as they did in their 20s and 30s. The reality is that your body changes. But there are many ways in which we can still be fit, strong and supple. Here My Menopause Centre’s resident nutritionist Joanne Bolger shares some simple tips to get us started.
Can’t remember where you left the car keys – again? Us neither! While we’re quick to blame forgetfulness on life’s never-ending juggle, it’s quite possibly down to menopausal oestrogen dips. Our brain is home to many oestrogen receptors – so lower levels can affect our memory and ability to think clearly, often resulting in memory blips and brain fog. The good news is you can rebalance your grey matter with some smart nutritional choices.
Eating oily SMASH (salmon, mackerel, anchovy, sardine, herring) has been linked with improved brain health. They contain Omega 3 fatty acids which are needed for good brain function but that aren’t made by the body. Try to eat one of them three times a week.
Blood sugar balance plays a significant role in menopause, and can help with mood, anxiety, and energy levels. Keep this on an even keel by including protein and healthy fats at every meal. You could try eggs or Greek yoghurt at breakfast and organic tofu, chicken or fish for lunch or dinner. Not only will this help with satiety and prevent snacking between meals, but protein and fat are also macronutrients and make up the building blocks of the sex hormones oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone that all decline during the menopausal transition, so it’s important that they are supported.
Hydration is important for brain health and cognition. Aim for 1.5 to 2 litres per day. Filtered water is best but herbal teas are good too.
Looking after your gut health is vital during the menopause as your gut is responsible for producing 70% of serotonin, your “happy” neurotransmitter, and your gut microbes produce Vitamin K which is essential for good bone health. I’m frequently asked about probiotic supplements, but I always recommend improving the mixture of fruit and vegetables in your diet first. It may sound like a cliché but eating a rainbow of colours really does help.
Fibre is still important as there are oestrogen receptors in the bowel and low levels can cause constipation. Nice regular bowel movements can assist with the excretion of excess oestrogen circulating in the system during perimenopause. So, porridge, lentils, pulses, veggies and fruit are necessary (preferably with the skin on).
During the perimenopause many women find that their period becomes heavier and more frequent.
Lack of iron can make you feel tired and breathless. If this is you, boost your levels by reaching for iron-rich foods such as red meat, liver, beans (red kidney beans, edamame beans and chickpeas are great) and green leafy veg such as spinach and broccoli at your time of the month. Eating iron-rich foods with Vitamin C can improve iron absorption, so squeeze lime or lemon juice liberally over your veggies.
Iron should only be taken as a supplement if low levels are indicated from a blood test – too much iron can be as detrimental as too little.
Don’t hate me: alcohol can be particularly unhelpful during the menopause – even if there are times when it feels like rosé is the only answer. It can negatively affect sleep and make hot flushes and night sweats worse. It can damage your gut health and stimulate the appetite making you more likely to overeat. Excess alcohol has an impact on the metabolism of oestrogen. This can be an issue during the hormonal fluctuations of the menopause, and may be a contributory factor in the risk of developing breast cancer.
That said, wine o’clock isn’t completely off the table. Try saving it for special occasions or have it with a nice meal. Look out for organic wines, which contain fewer chemicals or sulphites (these are tougher for the liver to process) and use soda water and citrus fruits to dilute clear spirits rather than sugar-laden mixers. There are also some great non-alcoholic options out there such as Seedlip which are nice ‘grown-up’ alternatives to the harder stuff.
As we transition into the menopause we can put on one or two pounds a year which obviously adds up over time.
It’s tempting to try to manage this weight gain with the latest fad diets such as raw eating or ketogenics (especially when they initially appear to be working) but they are often unsustainable and can ultimately result in weight gain. Intermittent fasting has recently gained popularity (one of the current favourites is 16/8 where you eat in an 8-hour window and fast in the remaining 16) but this will only work if you’re mindful about what you consume in the “eating” window.
Think instead about realistic, manageable changes that you can stick to, such as adding more fibre-filled green, leafy vegetables into your meals (these are lower carb, less calorific and contain fibre) as well as a good portion of lean protein to help you feel fuller for longer. Eat enough at your main meal to avoid snacking later in the day and enable your body to rest and digest.
And remember that strong is better than skinny – the leaner muscle you have the more calories you will naturally burn. Build up your muscles by increasing the amount of protein you eat and doing regular weight bearing exercise such as walking, jogging, or playing tennis.
In my nutrition clinic, I work holistically looking at both body and mind. The majority of clients I see have significant stress at this life stage, and their HPA axis (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal) is frequently out of whack (the HPA axis is the communication between the brain and adrenal/stress glands). During stress, considerably more cortisol and adrenaline are made. This can contribute to insomnia, depression, low libido and insulin resistance – all symptoms that are associated with the menopause.
That’s why it’s so important to manage your stress levels (which I know is easier said than done).
Make restful sleep a priority – to rest, repair and regenerate is so important during the menopause transition. Research has suggested that exposure to early morning light can support the circulation of your circadian rhythm and sleep cycle. Turning off all screens, gadgets and blue light at least an hour before bedtime and reading a book or magazine can also lead to a more restful sleep.
Regular exercise is key in all stages of the menopause and can help to maintain weight and improve sleep and mood. Many women fall at the first hurdle as they believe that the only way to get in shape is high impact cardio such as HIIT and running 10k several times a week. I prefer to focus on ”moving” as much as possible, a brisk 45 minute walk every day can be very beneficial and it’s important to set yourself realistic goals. The ‘Couch to 5K’ app is an excellent and safe way to begin running, and yoga, pilates and breathwork can also keep the body flexible and supple and help with anxiety. Find what works for you – there’s something out there for everyone!
I hope you found these tips helpful and do get in touch if I can help create a nutrition plan that’s right for you.
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