Irritability, anxiety, mood swings… our hormones have a lot to answer for. When they’re all working together in harmony you barely notice them. But in the years leading up to the menopause, fluctuating levels of oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone can not only play havoc with your emotions, they can also affect the quality of your life.
While not every woman experiences problems, common symptoms include night sweats, hot flushes, insomnia and joint pain. If you’re suffering, your doctor may suggest synthetic menopause medication such as HRT to help. But could filling your diet with foods that help menopause naturally help to ease your symptoms without a prescription?
It may surprise you to learn that the food we eat every day has been shown to affect both the timing of the menopause and how severely you may be affected by it.
In a fascinating four-year study following 14,000 women between the ages of 40 and 65, blood serum levels of different nutrients were analysed - and the results were astonishing. Higher intakes of vitamin B6 were found to delay the menopause by seven months per milligram, while zinc delayed it by three and a half months per milligram.
The women in the study also kept food diaries, and researchers discovered that a daily portion of oily fish, rich in Omega 3, delayed the age of natural menopause by three years. This is important when you consider that a later age at menopause is associated with greater longevity, lower risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and stroke.
Another study of over 17,000 women going through the menopause found those eating more vegetables and fruit had a 19% reduction in their hot flushes compared to the control group.
It’s clear that choosing the right foods can provide some much-needed menopause support. But which nutrients should a good menopause diet really consist of – and how do they work to reduce your symptoms? Let’s take a closer look at the best vitamins, minerals, herbal remedies and food for menopause to find out.
Menopause symptoms and why they occur
Defined as your last menstrual period, the menopause occurs because your ovaries’ supply of eggs, known as the ovarian reserve, has depleted. Women are born with around two million oocytes (immature eggs), but by puberty this has gone down to roughly 400,000 and in the run-up to the menopause (a period known as the perimenopause), there may be just 1,000 left.
Having fewer eggs available means you ovulate irregularly during the perimenopause, until finally stopping altogether. This irregular ovulation can cause levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone to fluctuate.
But because there are sex hormone receptors in almost every tissue and organ in the body, these wildly fluctuating levels can affect us anywhere, from our bones and skin to our joints and muscles. Hormone fluctuations can also affect the part of the brain that regulates body temperature, causing vasomotor symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats.
Other common symptoms of the menopause include vaginal dryness, insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, weight gain, low mood and urinary tract infections.
But while all of this may sound scary, it’s worth pointing out that many women experience only mild symptoms. According to a survey by the British Menopause Society, 50% of women aged 45 to 55 who have gone through the menopause in the last ten years have not had to seek help from a healthcare provider.
The best vitamins for menopause
Certain vitamins are known to be especially important for menopausal women. Some, such as B6 and vitamin E can help to reduce day-to-day symptoms. Others, such as vitamin D, reduce the risk of developing more serious problems caused by lower levels of oestrogen, like osteoporosis and heart disease. The best diet for menopause should include the following micronutrients.B complex vitamins
The vitamins that make up the B-complex play a key role in maintaining a positive mood and reducing feelings of stress while your hormones are changing. The B-group can also help you produce energy from the food you eat, making them the ideal vitamins for menopause fatigue.Vitamin B6
Oestrogen and serotonin are inextricably linked. As oestrogen levels fluctuate during the perimenopause, so does your serotonin levels, making you vulnerable to mood swings or even depression. But B6 has been shown to help, and for good reason. Your body needs vitamin B6 as a co-factor to make mood-soothing serotonin in the first place making it one of your essential vitamins for perimenopause.Vitamin B9
Otherwise known as folic acid, supplementing with vitamin B9 has been shown to help with both the severity and duration of hot flushes. In one study, 46 healthy menopausal women who suffered from vasomotor symptoms were given 5mg of folic acid each day. After the trial period, there was a 65% improvement in hot flush severity, compared to the control group.Vitamin B12
Low levels of vitamin B12 have been linked to cognitive decline in post menopausal women, but it’s also very important when it comes to maintaining your bone mineral density as you age. As women going through the menopause are susceptible to getting weaker bones and even conditions like osteoarthritis, taking in extra B12 through daily multivitamin supplements is often recommended.Where to find B-complex vitamins
B-vitamins are found in a wide range of foods, from meat to green leafy vegetables. But despite their important benefits, research has shown that many menopausal women are not getting enough from their diet.
This could be because they’re not eating enough foods containing B-vitamins, or because they’re not able to absorb it properly due to poor gut health or alcohol use. Vitamin B12 is particularly difficult to obtain through your diet if you don’t eat meat. A daily supplement can help, and the best multivitamin for menopause should include the B-group.
Although more well-known as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, research has shown that vitamin E can cool hot flushes, too. A 2007 study found that menopausal women taking 400mcg of vitamin E everyday for four weeks had fewer hot flushes and that those flushes were less severe.
Vitamin E may also be useful if you suffer from dry skin during the menopause, as it can help the dermis produce more natural oils (sebum). Used topically, vitamin E has also been shown to improve vaginal dryness and atrophy.Where to vitamin E:
You’ll find vitamin E in avocados, olive oil, seeds, nuts and oily fish.Vitamin C
While vitamin C is needed for growth and repair throughout the course of our life, our need for it only increases during the menopause.
According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, levels of collagen decline by 30% within the first five years of the menopause, something that’s been implicated in rapid bone loss, vaginal thinning and ageing of the skin. Vitamin C plays a vital role in collagen synthesis and can help protect your skin, joints and bones.
Vitamin C is abundant in fruits and vegetables.Vitamin D
Oestrogen helps to protect our bones, so declining levels of the sex hormone during the menopause can increase the rate at which bone tissue breaks down. Vitamin D is important for warding off the bone disease osteoporosis as it helps our intestines to absorb calcium. In fact, increasing levels of vitamin D deficiency seen in the West in recent years has been linked to rising cases of osteoporosis.Where to find vitamin D:
Made in the skin during exposure to sunlight, you can also find vitamin D in cheese, fatty fish and egg yolks. Current UK guidelines say that everyone over the age of five (including pregnant and breastfeeding women) should also consider taking a daily supplement of 10iu vitamin D, at least during the winter months.
However, many experts working in the field believe this is far too low to reach blood levels linked to better health outcomes. Based on current research, it’s believed that consuming 1,000 to 4,000iuof vitamin D daily is the only way for most people to achieve healthy blood levels linked to lower risks of osteoporosis.
Taking just one Inessa Multivitamin each day will provide you with a clinical 50mcg dose of bone-strengthening vitamin D, which equates to 2,000iu as well as providing all the vitamins and menopause supplements mentioned above in therapeutic doses.
Food for the menopause
Menopause is a word we have been taught to dread here in the West ever since it was first coined in 1821. But it’s worth noting that other cultures do not view this natural life stage quite so negatively. In Japan, for example, the word for menopause (konenki) translates as both ‘renewal years’ and ‘energy’.
And while we see night sweats and hot flushes as a near-inevitable part of the perimenopausal experience, neither are as prevalent in Japan.
While hot flush symptoms in Japan have risen in the last 20 years, they’re still significantly lower than here in the UK. Just one in five Japanese women suffer from daytime hot flushes, compared to approximately eight in ten women in the UK.
It’s known that women who report negative attitudes towards menopause and ageing are more likely to report a greater number and severity of menopausal symptoms. But could the Japanese experience of menopause be down to their healthy diet, as well as their positive attitudes?
The traditional Japanese diet is low in sugar, but high in fibrous vegetables, fish and soybean products such as fermented miso and tofu – and it’s known as one of the healthiest in the world. So does this way of eating make the ideal perimenopause diet, too? Let’s look at the evidence to find out.
Fibre is excellent for digestion and it’s one of the mainstays of the traditional Japanese diet. But what’s less widely known is the way fibre affects our levels of oestrogen. The amount of fibre in your diet can determine how much oestrogen you excrete and how much you store, making it very important during times of hormonal fluctuation such as the menopause.
Soluble fibre (found in fruit, oats and beans) also binds with some of the cholesterol in the food we eat, reducing the risk of heart disease post-menopause.
The Japanese diet has low levels of sugar, something that may play a part in greater hormonal balance. The hormones oestrogen and progesterone affect how our cells respond to insulin, so changes in hormone levels can trigger fluctuations in your blood sugar too. Many women see blood sugar levels rise during menopause, making sugar one of the foods to avoid during menopause. Having too much sugar in your diet can also overwork your liver and make it unable to process oestrogen effectively.Drink less alcohol
Women in Japan drink less alcohol than we do here in the UK, which may benefit their hormonal health during the menopause. One of the liver’s jobs is to convert oestradiol (a more toxic form of oestrogen) into the less toxic oestrone and oestriol. During the menopause, the liver is known to function less efficiently. Alcohol, processed foods and smoking can overload the liver still further, forcing organs such as the skin and adrenal glands to pick up the slack.Include oily fish
Oily fish is thought to be beneficial to the body during the menopause, primarily because it contains such large amounts of the essential fatty acid Omega 3. Japanese women eat about 100g of fish daily, and nutritional studies show that Japanese women get 1,300mg of Omega 3 fatty acids per day from their diet, compared to just 200g here in the UK.
In a study of 120 menopausal women carried out in Canada, those who took Omega 3 were found to have a 50% reduction in the frequency of their hot flushes.
When people say you should include plenty of oestrogen-rich foods for menopause, what they’re really talking about is phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens have a similar chemical structure to the oestrogen in your body which may explain their balancing effect. This similar structure allows them to take the place of the natural oestrogens and increase their levels when they are too low, and reduce them when they are too high.
Isoflavones are the richest source of phytoestrogens, and they’re found in legumes such as lentils, soya beans and chickpeas. In Japan, women have as much as 50 times the amount of isoflavones in their diet then we do here in the West, eating some 50mg per day compared to less than 1mg in countries such as the States.
But you don’t just have to rely on soy for menopause to get enough phytoestrogens into your menopause diet plan. Lignans are another important phytoestrogen, and they are found in high levels in flaxseed.
Other supplements for the menopause
Apart from vitamins and a healthy diet, is there anything else you could be taking to ease your symptoms naturally and improve the way you feel? The following perimenopause supplements all deserve their rightful place on your shelves.Calcium
You need calcium to maintain bone mass, and prevent and treat osteoporosis. But at menopause, our bodies are less able to retain calcium from dietary sources. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, brazil nuts, almonds, green leafy vegetables.Magnesium
Magnesium is known for its calming effects and can ease symptoms like irritability, anxiety and insomnia. It also helps your bones absorb calcium and has been shown to improve bone density to reduce the risk of osteoporosis after menopause. Good sources include almonds, cashews and dark leafy vegetables such as kale.Omega 3
A high-strength Omega 3 fish oil is known to be one of the best supplements for menopause joint pain.
As oestrogen levels lower, a major menopausal symptom can be painful joints, although the reasons for this are still unclear. The EPA and DHA in Omega 3 help to ease the pain thanks to their anti inflammatory properties. It works much the same way as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with several studies showing Omega 3 can be as effective as ibuprofen when it comes to treating joint pain.
Getting enough Omega 3 each day through diet alone can be difficult, either because you don’t like the taste of fish or due to fears of high toxin levels. For that reason it’s always a good idea to take a high-strength fish oil supplement as part of your menopause diet plan.Zinc
Although you only need tiny amounts of this trace metal in your diet, it’s a true essential when you’re going through the menopause. Our body relies on zinc for growth, maintenance and to create and balance our hormones. Increasing levels of zinc has also been shown to improve mood.
Herbal remedies for menopause
For centuries, women have sought relief from their menopausal symptoms in botanical remedies. The best menopause supplements use herbs known as adaptogens because of the way they balance the hormones of your body. If you’re already taking HRT, always ask you GP’s advice before taking any herbal remedies or supplements for menopause.Agnus castus
One of the most important herbal remedies for the menopause, agnus castus works as an adaptogen to balance your hormones. It appears to normalise the function of the pituitary gland, which controls and regulates the hormones in the body.Valerian
Although recent medical trials have proved inconclusive, the valerian root has been used for thousands of years to improve insomnia and sleep quality. It has also been successfully used to treat vasomotor symptoms such as hot flushes.Sage
Part of the mint family, sage is used to relieve several menopausal symptoms, including night sweats, hot flashes, and mood swings. A 2011 study found it reduced the severity of hot flushes in a group of perimenopausal women by 64% within eight weeks. If you don’t fancy adding the herb to your food, it’s also available in the form of sage tablets for menopause.
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