Signs that your body is preparing for the end of your menstrual cycles generally start in your mid to late 40s. Many women refer to this as the menopause, but it’s actually the ‘peri-menopause’. The menopause, if you’re over 50, is when it’s been more than a year since your last period. In the UK the average age for this is 51.
The better prepared you are, the easier this menopausal time can be. Symptoms during this pre-menopausal time can include your periods getting lighter or heavier, your cycle becoming irregular, premenstrual tension, mood swings and irritability.
Your body starts producing less and less of the hormone oestrogen, and this causes further symptoms, including aching joints, depression, lack of energy, joint pains, declining libido, weight gain, headaches and, most commonly, hot flushes and night sweats.
It’s a time of great change. Your female hormones are fluctuating up and down as you go through this stage, until you come out the other side and into post-menopause, when your hormones stabilise.
Not all women have a bad time of it, though. Symptoms can vary and some women have no or almost no symptoms.
The more gradually you go through this time, the fewer hormone fluctuations you experience and the easier the transition. What you do now to prepare yourself for this stage – eating well, taking specifically tailored supplements and exercising – can make the difference between having a difficult or easy menopause.
Foods to balance hormones
Let’s start with your nutrition, as this is one of the most important ways to prepare for, and deal with, the peri-menopause. These are the key points of my 12-step hormone-balancing diet:
- Include hormone-balancing phytoestrogens in your diet (primarily pulses including soya, lentils and also flaxseeds )
- Eat more Omega 3 fatty acids (oily fish, egg yolks and flaxseeds)
- Increase your intake of fruit and vegetables. Eat seven portions a day of vegetables and fruit (of which five should be vegetables and only two fruit), or more if you can manage it
- Switch from refined carbohydrates (white bread, white pasta, cakes, etc) to unrefined ones such as wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta
- Eat organic foods as much as you possibly can as these foods are likely to contain more valuable nutrients because they are grown on soil which is not depleted; the other important reason is that you are reducing your exposure to xenoestrogens, which come from the pesticide and plastic industry. At this time in your life, when your body is going through a hormonal transition, you do not want to upset that delicate balance by exposing yourself to unnecessary and excessive amounts of external oestrogen. Also, excess oestrogens are a risk factor for breast cancer, so eat organic food wherever your budget allows in order to reduce the risk
- Reduce your intake of saturated fat from dairy products and meat; avoid red meat and processed meats in particular, and if you do eat dairy, organic live yoghurt is best, for its beneficial bacteria
- Drink enough fluids to prevent you getting thirsty. That’s around a litre and half a day for most of us (six to eight glasses), maybe more if you’re exercising strenuously
- Increase your intake of fibre by choosing better quality wholefoods e.g. oats, brown rice and flaxseeds
- Eliminate foods containing chemicals such as additives, preservatives and artificial sweeteners. You want your body to go through the different stages of the menopause as easily, comfortably and naturally as possible. The more chemicals that are allowed to impact on your body the harder it has to work to deal with these ‘foreign’ substances, and the fewer the resources that are available to take you through this transition and keep your hormones as balanced as possible as you go through each stage
- Avoid completely or at least reduce your intake of caffeine; that’s coffee, tea, chocolate and cola
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol
- Don’t consume refined sugar, either in your drinks, added to cereals, baking or cooking, or hidden in any processed foods you buy, including packaged soups and sauces
Vitamin and mineral supplements
I also always recommend that women take a good-quality multivitamin and mineral to prepare for and during the menopause.
This should contain vital nutrients for bone health, good levels of antioxidants to help slow down the ageing process, and other important vitamins and minerals, such as the B vitamins and chromium, to help keep blood-sugar levels balanced. It should also contain calcium, magnesium, manganese, boron and vitamin D3.
Also take a good Omega 3 fish oil supplement (I endorse NHP’s Omega 3). A deficiency of this nutrient can give you the same symptoms that may occur before and during menopause, such as dry skin, lifeless hair, cracked nails, fatigue, depression, dry eyes, lack of motivation, aching joints, difficulty in losing weight and forgetfulness.
Osteoporosis after menopause
The risk of osteoporosis increases with age, especially after the menopause when our oestrogen levels have declined. The more you can do to work on prevention the better, which means eating a healthy, bone-building diet (as outlined above), and a regular exercise programme.
Women can now live for 30 to 50 years after the menopause and you will want to live those years in good health. Making all these changes can help your body to adjust to the changes at the menopause. They may also keep your skin and hair soft, minimise aching joints and stiffness, slow the ageing process, control your weight naturally without dieting, maintain your libido, and help to prevent osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer.
Not only that, but being in better health can enhance the quality of your life generally.
• If you would like to join me on one of my women-only health weekends, I am leading two retreats at Champneys Health Resort and Spa in Tring: Fat around the Middle and How to Lose it for Good (30 Jan to 1 Feb 2015) and a two-night Menopause Retreat (20-22 Feb 2015). Book on Champney’s site or call 0843 316 2222