Menopause and peri-menopause (the few years leading up to menopause) is a time of great change and transition for all women as they move through their 40’s and 50’s. What we eat (our diet) can help to make this transition smoother.
Whilst not all women experience symptoms in the years leading up to menopause, many of the women I’ve spoken to here at the retreat report some of the common symptoms including:
- Weight gain and an increase in body fat, particularly around the tummy
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Disrupted sleep
- Poor concentration or brain fog
- Mood changes
- Irritability and anger
- Anxiety and/or, depression
- Tender breasts
- Erratic periods
- Headaches (or an increase in frequency in them)
- Joint pains
The foods that we eat (or don’t eat) can help us to manage these symptoms, and that’s what I’m going to focus on in this article: how food and nutrition can relieve menopause symptoms. I’ll first take a quick look at what is happening with our hormones during this time, so that we can understand the changes and symptoms we can experience.
Changing hormones during peri-menopause
There are many hormones involved in keeping our bodies functioning. Oestrogen is essentially the hormone that made us female when we hit puberty, and progesterone regulates our menstrual cycle. From puberty to menopause, the balance of progesterone and oestrogen generally rises and falls in cycles, producing our menstrual cycle. Menopause is a point in time, usually defined as 12 months since your last period. Peri-menopause typically lasts around four years (but can be anywhere from a few months or 10 years) and usually starts in your 40’s (and for some women in their 30’s). During this time, women experience a great deal of change in their hormones, as the level of oestrogen rises and falls more unevenly. Additionally, stress can lead to higher levels of cortisol (another hormone). Relaxation and exercise can produce dopamine, which helps us to feel better. By the time we are in menopause, ovarian hormones have stabilised and the symptoms tend to drop away.
Weight gain is one of the frequently cited side effects of menopause. The changes in hormones, combined with the natural process of aging, work together meaning we can no longer eat what we used to eat in our 20’s or 30’s, unfortunately! As we age, our metabolism and our basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy our body needs at rest) naturally starts to slow down. This means that you need to eat fewer calories (energy) than you used to. Muscle mass also typically decreases with age whilst as the same time body fat increases. (Read more about basal metabolic rate in our article: what is body composition analysis). Additionally, the way our bodies store fat starts to change, meaning it is more likely to go onto our tummy rather than hips. This change in shape can really affect our confidence, but you can take action to remedy this. And it’s not about starving yourself!
Hot flashes and night sweats
Hormones, in particular oestrogen, seem to play a role in our experience of hot flashes (also called hot flushes). However, medical science is still trying to work out how and why, as some women experience lots and others none, yet when tested they have similar levels of oestrogen. This suggests that other things are influencing hot flashes (including our response to changing events around us) – in my experience diet and nutrition can help, so too can mindset. Night sweats lead to disrupted sleep, which can lead to irritability and flashes of anger too. Treating one symptom can help to treat another.
Food and nutrition tips to relieve menopause symptoms
The food and nutrition tips below are like an orchestra, they come together to support our body during a time of hormonal change. They can also support you in the longer term to maintain your health and wellbeing. Every woman is different, so I suggest that you start with the items that resonate most with you and build them up. Here at the retreat we follow a plant-based (vegan) diet, so my nutritional guidelines are in that area.
Include a good source of fibre every day
Fibre helps to deal with clearing out old hormones, it also contributes to good digestive health. Wholegrains, like oats, brown (or wholegrain) rice, millet and quinoa are great for this. Swap white pasta to wholewheat, and if you eat bread, eat wholegrain (ideally with seeds for added nutrition). Beans and pulses are also good sources of fibre, so too are many vegetables. Eating fibre also contributes to heart health.
Eat healthy fats
Our bodies need fat to function, they provide energy, lubricate our joints, and the constituent part of fats (fatty acids) are essential for our health. So, give your body the best types of fats on a daily basis – mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated fats. Eating a fat free diet, whilst it might seem “sensible” when considering only weight-loss, I believe is actually detrimental to your longer-term health. Eating healthy fats also contributes to good heart health.
Food items that contain good sources of fats include: avocado, nuts, seeds and oils (like olive oil) in their natural (uncooked) state. Another tip for reducing fat is, when cooking, grill instead of fry. (When you fry, the food absorbs more fat than when you grill). I explore the role of fats and nutrition related to health and weight loss here.
Eat plenty of omega 3
Fatty acids help with the functioning of our body, they maintain healthy cells and organs and support our metabolism. Omega-3 is a fatty acid which can be lacking in many people’s diet, particularly if they eat lots of processed foods. Good sources are flaxseed (also called linseed – remember to grind the seeds first), pumpkin seeds, nuts and olive oil. I like to include at least one source every day.
Reduce sugar and salt – cut out processed foods
Processed foods often contain high levels of salt and sugar and tend to use highly processed oils. The action of creating a processed food also often means that the nutritional value of the food decreases – you will get better nutrients from live food, i.e. eating fruits, vegetables and wholegrains.
Too much salt in your diet can lead to fluid retention and bloating, making the “menopause” belly even more noticeable. Maintain a low salt intake – if you want to eat salt then add it to your meals after cooking for most effect.
Eating sugar can create instability in our blood sugar levels. If we eat a high sugar product (like a cake, chocolate bar, or other processed item), we often experience a high (lots of energy) followed by a slump, and in this slump we can have poor concentration and brain fog. Maintaining a steady supply of energy from natural sources is better for you and might help to avoid those brain fog moments. You can read more in our article: sugars – the highs, lows and alternatives here.
Avoid spicy foods
Swap hot spices (like cayenne and chili) for flavoursome spices, trying cumin, ginger and lots of herbs (dried and fresh) instead. This might help with reducing the number and frequency of hot flashes.
Vitamin D and calcium
One of the reported problems post-menopause for some women is osteoporosis – a weakness in our bones that can lead to fractures. We have been told for years about the importance of calcium for maintaining bone heath, however, vitamin D also plays an important role as it helps the absorption of calcium into the body. Where we live (the amount of natural sunlight available) can affect the level of vitamin D available to us naturally. Additionally, our skin makes less vitamin D as we age. You might consider taking a supplement for vitamin D if you live in a country where you do not get sufficient natural sunlight all year round.
Calcium is needed by the body’s cells for functioning, so if there is not enough available calcium circulating in our blood, it moves from the bones into the blood supply. That’s why we need to eat enough calcium every day. High calcium plant-based foods include leafy green vegetables (collard greens, broccoli, kale, bok choy), soy beans, figs and fortified items (it is often added to almond milk, tofu etc). You might also consider taking a low dose supplement of the two.
Explore the role of dairy in your body – dairy can exacerbate inflammation (which can increase pain), so if you do eat diary, I would suggest cutting it out for a few weeks to see how you feel. Keep a food diary to record changes in symptoms. Dairy products are high in fat, so reducing the amount you eat can help with weight loss.
Eat smaller meals, or eat little and often
Eating smaller meals could help to control the amount calories that you eat. However, this goes hand in hand with considering WHAT you eat. I prefer to recommend that you focus on including more vegetables, fruit and wholegrains and cutting down on the processed / fatty / dairy / high sugar / high salt products. Vegetables naturally contain fewer calories and they will fill you up, as well as giving the body antioxidants and nutrients. (Antioxidants are the fabulous things that nature provides to help to slow down aging. Fruit and vegetables are the best sources).
Rather than sitting down to eat three large meals every day, consider eating more frequently and eating much smaller portions. This can help to maintain a steadier sugar balance in the body, meaning you are less likely to want to snack (or sleep in the mid-afternoon).
Cut out or reduce alcohol
Alcohol can directly affect your night sweats and disrupt your sleep. Whilst in the short term it can feel that alcohol can help us to get to sleep and relaxes the body, after the initial relaxation it actually makes things worse. If you still wish to enjoy a glass of alcohol, aim to keep to a smaller amount (e.g. one glass of wine) and try to have 4 or 5 nights in between without drinking. Alcoholic drinks tend to have relatively high sugars and therefore also contains quite a high amount of calories, with low nutritional value. I experienced quite a lot of night sweats, which meant really poor sleep for an extended period of time – they seemed to reduce when I had periods of no alcohol. Alcohol also impairs the absorption of calcium. Less alcohol equals less calories and better sleep so check out our article on the alternatives: what are the health effects of alcohol and what to do instead.
Reduce or cut out caffeine
Caffeine has been found to contribute to hot flashes and night sweats, as has drinking hot beverages. It is also a known stimulant, so best avoided if you want to get better sleep. Caffeine impairs calcium absorption. If you can, swap to herbal alternatives and if you continue to drink caffeine, drink it on a morning, so your body has more time to process and get rid of it!
It´s good all round for health to be a non-smoker. No need for me to say any more on this!
Include a good source of protein in every meal
If you are following a plant-based diet, then you can include one of these items into each meal: nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, chickpeas and tofu. These items are also a good source of slow-release energy, so mid-afternoon slumps are less likely! Read more in our article: vegan protein – what is it and how do I get it.
Intermittent fasting? Try juicing
Some authors recommend intermittent fasting as a tool to manage menopause symptoms and in particular to lose weight during this time. Here at the retreat we prefer to use the juicing approach, swapping plant-based food for freshly prepared vegetable and fruit juices, for a short period of time. Juicing gives the digestive system a rest, whilst also delivering quality nutrition, including lots of antioxidants, allowing the body to heal. Even if you do not want to swap all your meals for juices, drinking a daily fresh juice can bring many health benefits. You might like to try our new Menopause Support juice.
Create a healthy supportive lifestyle
In our 40s and 50’s we often find ourselves with many responsibilities, for work and family life (sometimes sandwiched between the needs of teenagers and aging parents). This can bring about many challenges, stress and tension. Add this onto changing hormones and it’s no wonder our bodies send us messages (in the form of symptoms) to tell us that we need to make changes, not just to our diet, but also to our lifestyle. Our top lifestyle tips include:
- Make sure you get plenty of exercise, including aerobic exercise, every week. Try to include 15 minutes of brisk walking everyday (more if you can).
- Yoga is great for reducing stress, connecting to yourself and is a good form of exercise. At the same time, as it is a weight-bearing exercise, it can help to maintain good bone health. It also keeps you flexible, maintains body strength and helps to keep your physique toned.
- Reduce stress or make sure you include periods of calm into each day. Try meditation, reading a book, enjoying a walk in nature, enjoy a juice sat in quiet, whatever helps you to experience calm.
- Talk to other women, not a moan-and-groan session, but sharing your experiences can help to remind you that you are not alone. You might also pick up some tips!
- Get enough sleep. Create a night-time routine that helps you to relax. If you can go to bed at the same time each night and get up the same time each morning – this routine can help with balancing hormones.
In times of change, prioritise yourself, at least once every day, even for five minutes helps.
Related health and nutrition articles
If you are looking for more information about nutrition – and how your diet can affect your health – you might also like to read some of the other articles we have published on our health and wellbeing blog:
- Get help with brain fog and concentration in: Improve your diet – improve your brain health.
- Prepare your mindset for weight loss: three simple steps to achieving your weight loss goals.
- Check that you have a healthy gut and digestive system – nutrients can only be well absorbed if your digestive system functions well. Read our articles: digestive health part 1 (plant-based foods for relief from tummy troubles) and digestive health part 2 (the digestive system).
- Understand the hunger signals from your body. Hormones play a part in our feelings of hunger: what is the hunger hormone – hormone balance and food.
- Foods to lower your cholesterol and create good heart health.
You can also click on the word “nutrition” in the green topic box on the blog page.
La Crisalida health and wellbeing retreat
Nutrition is a core part of the La Crisalida holistic programme for health and wellbeing. I believe that what we eat plays an important role in our experience of ill-health or health. However, nutrition is a personal thing – we are all different and what works well for one person might not work for another. So be patient and approach your diet and nutrition with curiosity. It can take a couple of months for the effects of changes to be felt, so persevere. If you want a kickstart, then consider coming to La Crisalida for a week, to create some health habits for yourself. Read more about our retreats here.
Remember, the change in hormones will settle and symptoms will disappear (given time), leading us to a new phase in our lives to experience and enjoy.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).