Nutrition for Menopause
An estimated 50 million women in the United States have already reached menopause. Many of these women suffer from a variety of menopausal symptoms that disrupt their lives, both during and after menopause. While many turn to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as a way to mange the condition, proper nutrition can be a natural alternative to help prevent or reduce menopause symptoms.
How Can Nutrition Help Menopause?
Nutritional changes for menopause can help in two ways: decreasing symptoms associated with menopause, and preventing diseases associated with menopause.
Calcium and Vitamin D
There is a direct relationship between the lack of estrogen after menopause and the development of weakened bones, called osteoporosis. Calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients increase bone mineral density. The calcium requirement rises for women when they reach menopause. The target calcium intake for most postmenopausal women is 1,200 mg/day. Adequate vitamin D is also required to achieve the nutritional benefits of calcium. Ten to fifteen minutes of sunshine three times a week is enough to produce the required vitamin D.
The best source of calcium is found in dairy products. Clams, sardines, broccoli and legumes also contain calcium. Two to four daily servings of dairy products and calcium-rich foods are recommended. High-quality calcium supplements (taken in divided doses) are alternative sources for women unable to consume enough dietary calcium.
Phytoestrogens, which are weak estrogenic compounds present in plants, deserve particular mention because recent research supports the suggestion that they may prevent bone loss associated with menopause. Estrogen levels decline in women during menopause causing a majority of the menoapausal symptoms. While phytoestrogens are not as strong as regular estrogen, additional supplementation of estrogen through this dietary change has a balancing effect on the body. Phytoestrogens can trick your body into thinking it has more estrogen than it really does diminishing some of the discomforts caused by lower estrogen levels during menopause.
A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are good sources of phytoestrogens. Flaxseed also contains phytoestrogens, up to 75 to 800 times as much as other plant sources. Flaxseeds must be ground before use to be effective. Flaxseed oil is not a substitute, because the oil does not contain any phytoestrogens.
Fruits and vegetables containing phytoestrogens include:
- Plums and prunes
- Red raspberries
- Bell peppers
- Broccoli stems
- Sweet potatoes
Lowered estrogen levels put menopausal women at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Incorporating more fruits and vegetables into the diet can help to lower the risk for heart disease. Flaxseed is also a source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, thought to be important for heart health.
Who can use Nutrition for Menopause?
Increasingly, women are turning to nutrition as a substitute for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to alleviate some of the more distressing symptoms of menopause. Women who are interested in a natural approach to controlling menopause symptoms through nutrition are good candidates for this method.
British researchers found that the use of nutritional supplementation, lifestyle changes, and an individualized herbal prescription improved menopausal symptoms, particularly hot flushes and low sex drive. This offers evidence to support herbal medicine and nutrition as treatment choices during the menopause.
Who should not use Nutrition for Menopause?
Soy products are not recommended for those with kidney stones or thyroid conditions. Researchers still don't know whether higher amounts of plant estrogens in the body increase the growth or risk of estrogen-sensitive cancers. Abnormal bleeding after menopause was found to be related to a high intake of soy products. The bleeding stopped when the soy products were discontinued.
Some people are highly allergic to flaxseed. Diabetics should use caution taking flaxseed products because the omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed and flaxseed oil may increase blood sugar levels.
Special Considerations for Nutritional Changes During Menopause
- In general, maintain a low fat, low animal protein diet. Hot sauces, spicy foods, alcohol, hot drinks, and coffee may aggravate hot flashes.
- Avoiding or reducing caffeine intake may also reduce stress and sleep problems.
- In several studies among breast cancer survivors, soy was not found to decrease menopausal symptoms.
- Menopause symptoms are unique. What works for one woman may not work for another, and what works for you now may not work as well a year from now.
What is Menopause?
Menopause is a normal event that signals the end of a woman’s reproductive years. It is the point when menstruation stops permanently. In general, menopause is considered complete when a woman has not menstruated for at least 1 year. The onset of natural menopause occurs between the ages of 40 and 58, with an average age of 47.5 years, according to the North American Menopause Society (NAMS). A different type of menopause, known as surgical menopause, occurs if both ovaries are removed for medical reasons. This may be done at the time of a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus).
Some symptoms of menopause include:
- irregular periods
- decreased fertility
- vaginal dryness
- diminished sex drive
- hot flashes, also called “hot flushes”
- mood swings
- sleep disturbances
- fat on abdomen
- thinning hair
- loss of breast fullness
Each woman experiences her own variation of these typical symptoms. Some studies suggest that the signs and symptoms of menopause may vary between cultural groups. For example, up to 80% of American women experience hot flashes during menopause while only 10% of Japanese women experience that symptom. Some researchers speculate that these differences may be due to differences in diet, lifestyle, and/or cultural attitudes toward aging. Adopting a healthy diet can help reduce the unpleasant symptoms of menopause.
MedLine Plus Interactive Menopause Tutorial
Adverse effects of phytoestrogens on reproductive health: a report of three cases. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2008 May;14(2):132-5.
Treatment of menopausal symptoms by qualified herbal practitioners: a prospective, randomized controlled trial. Journal of Family Practice. 2007 Oct;24(5):468-74.
Phytoestrogens and bone health.The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.2008 May;67(2):184-95.