Just like puberty, menopause is a life stage that has dramatic effects on the body. Everyone generally understands what teenagers go through when transitioning to adulthood; young girls’ breasts start to develop, they might notice fat deposits more around the hips and buttocks, and they begin menstruating. The rapid development of the reproductive system kicks hormones into overdrive and it affects their physical appearance and behaviour. Menopause is often misunderstood as a life stage by many women as the body slows down the production of reproductive hormones. Just like puberty, it has many physical and mental effects as the body transitions from being fertile to infertile. In this post I will explain what happens to the body during menopause and how to manage certain symptoms.
What is Menopause?
Menopause essentially means the cessation of menstrual bleeding; it most often occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 years. Women will go through a period of regular ovulation and cyclic menstruation to a period of erratic cycles and then to none at all. Perimenopause is the term most often used to describe the time leading up to menopause and directly following menopause. During this time, women may begin to experience a range of symptoms associated with hormone flucatuations. Hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, memory problems, weight-gain and vaginal dryness are some of the most common symptoms associated with going through this life-stage.
Can the Symptoms Associated with Menopause be Treated?
As menopause is a natural part of life, the best advice I can give you is to let the body do what it needs to do. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is sometimes prescribed by doctors in severe cases but has had some controversy in previous years. Conventional practice has often viewed menopause as a condition of ‘estrogen deficiency’ with HR therapy aiming to replace hormones with supplemental hormones. There are definitely some pros and cons for this type of treatment but it’s important to understand that the unpleasant symptoms associated with menopause will subside over time. HRT is effective for reducing hot flushes, vulvoginal atrophy (dryness, thinning and inflammation of the vagina) and preventing osteoporotic fractures. However, HRT can increase the risk for venous thromboembolism (formation of a thrombus within a vein) and increases the risk for developing breast cancer.
Although symptoms of menoupause can’t be cured per se, they can certainly be managed with a few lifestyle and dietary changes.
The Wonders of Exercise
Exercise is not only great for increasing energy levels and toning up, it also helps to moderate the severity of hot flushes. Women who exercise report a lower severity and frequency of hot flushes. If you’re thinking about joining a gym, this is yet another reason to start now! It’s also important to note that after menopause, women have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis due to the declining levels of estrogen. Regular exercise (but not too extreme) can increase bone density; it also strengthens the cardiovascular system and reduces the risk of a heart attack.
Metabolism and Weight Gain
Weight-gain is another complaint many women experience during menopause. As we age, metabolism slows down and we can lose a lot of muscle mass unless we exercise and eat well. During the lifespan, our body decides where fat is distributed which is dictated by hormones. As estrogen increases in the childbearing years, our bodies store more fat around the hips and thighs. During menopause, as estrogen production slows, fat is stored more around the abdomen. We need different nutrition regimes at different stages of the lifespan so it’s important to understand that what you eat must match your activity level and metabolic needs. For example, teenagers need to eat a lot more than adults to keep up with the body’s demand for extra nutrients needed for growth and development.
In Asian cultures, hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms are less common. It is thought that their high intake of soy and soy isoflavones has an influence as soy is high in phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are plant derived compounds which mimic estrogen in the body; as estrogen production subsides during perimenopause, foods rich in these compounds may alleviate certain symptoms.
Let’s take a closer look at estrogen’s role to understand what’s happening to the body.
The Many Roles of Estrogen
While estrogen is essential for reproduction, it also acts on many other organs and systems in the body. Cells in the vagina, heart, bladder, breasts, skin arteries, liver and brain all contain estrogen receptors and rely on estrogen to function normally. Estrogen is needed to keep the skin smooth and moist which can explain why some women experience dryness of the vagina and skin. The body’s internal thermostat also requires estrogen for proper functioning which can explain the unpleasant hot flushes associated with perimenopause.
It’s a myth that estrogen production stops during menopause; your body just produces less and other organs take over from the ovaries to produces a less potent form of estrogen.
Lifestyle & Dietary Advice
Eat foods high in phytoestrogens daily. These include soy,* flaxseeds, nuts, wholegrains, apples, fennel, celery, parsley and alfalfa. Be wary of processed soy products and don’t overeat them as they may have adverse affects on the endocrine system.
Drink at least 2 litres of water daily to prevent drying of the skin and mucous membranes.
If hot flashes affect you significantly, it would be wise to reduce caffeine, alcohol and sugar. These can aggravate hot flushes and make mood swings worse. These types of foods are also acidic to the body which prompts the release of calcium from the bones to buffer the acid in the blood. In this case, it would be beneficial to eat more alkalinising foods. Read my post on ‘How Alkaline Are You?’ for more information.
As the risk for osteoporosis increases after menopause, it’s important to preserve bone density. Getting enough calcium, vitamin D and exercise will be your biggest assets in preventing osteoporotic fractures as well as a diet high in fresh whole foods.
If you would like more information on menopause and any other symptoms I haven’t covered, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
I hope everyone is enjoying their weekend.
Love Stace x
*Choose tofu, tempeh, edamame and avoid soy milk and isolated soy proteins. Aim for about 2-3 servings of soy products per week for a more balanced effect on hormones. Consult a healthcare professional if you have a history of breast, uterine or ovarian cancer to discuss the risks of increasing soy intake.
Always consult a healthcare professional before beginning a supplement or exercise regime.