Whether ready or not, all women come to the stage of life when menopause is upon them. The majority of us are familiar with this stage of life that marks the end of menstrual cycles due to the natural decline of the female reproductive hormones. Menopause is officially diagnosed once 12 months have passed without menstrual cycles (9).
During ‘perimenopause,’ women begin experiencing symptoms before the official end of their periods. Although the onset is different for all women, this generally occurs for women between their 40s and 50s (9).
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You can imagine that the cessation of important hormones that are linked to what makes one female sends a bit of a shock to the system. Consequently, this brings about a host of different symptoms as the body begins to find its new normal. The symptoms that each woman experiences are variable in severity.
The experience is different for each woman. Some common symptoms leading up to menopause include:
- irregular periods and shorter cycles (9)
- vaginal dryness
- hot flashes
- sleep disturbances
- changes in weight
- thinning of hair
- dry skin
- changes in mood
Treating the symptom of menopause can be looked at through a holistic lens using alternative therapies that can be quite effective and help a woman’s experience through menopause much more pleasant. In this article, I will discuss what to eat, what not to eat, how to maintain and manage a healthy weight, vaginal dryness and other alternative therapy that help with menopausal symptoms.
There are 5 key steps involved:
- Foods to Avoid
- Foods to Enjoy
- Treating Vaginal Dryness
- Managing Your Weight
- Using Natural Remedies for Menopause Symptoms
Step 1: Foods to Avoid During Menopause
Although there is no such thing as “the menopause diet”, it is especially important to eat right in order to supply the body with the essential nutrients it needs throughout this transition. It should be noted that you should not eliminate foods if you are not experiencing negative symptoms when consuming it.
Just as each woman will experience different symptoms throughout menopause, each woman may react differently to consumption of different nutrients. Therefore, you should always give your body what it needs. Below are some suggestions of foods to be aware of that could potentially have an effect on the severity of your menopausal symptoms.
1. Refined grains and flours
Yes, carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient to have throughout menopause. However, refined grains and flours can be avoided and rather complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, quinoa or brown rice, should be consumed.
Refined carbs are void of any other nutrients due to the way they are processed but complex carbs hold more bang for their buck since they hold vitamins, minerals, and fiber that will benefit you throughout this body transition.
Caffeine can send a cascade of effects throughout the body including affecting digestion and causing a fluctuation of the stress hormone cortisol. The goal during menopause is to find a new normal, a new state of balance. Therefore, it may be wise to stay away from caffeine for a while. Also, having caffeine may also intensify the effects of hot flashes (5).
Spicy foods, such as chili and hot salsa, may be a great idea on a cold day due to the effects they have on speeding up your metabolic system and heating the body. Spicy foods, such as hot peppers and cayenne, contain capsicum which is responsible for the fire you experience that warms the body.
During menopause, it is likely that the hot flashes will be heating you up enough, therefore, cut out the spicy foods for a while and see if this helps (5).
I can already hear the collective: “Don’t take my wine away!” I get it! However, if you are battling the difficult symptoms of menopause, you may want to take a break from booze altogether. It acts as a trigger to hot flashes and can contribute to the development of osteoporosis which menopausal woman are already susceptible to (5).
Step 2: Healthy Food Options to Consider During Menopause
Organic Non-GMO Soy
Women consuming soy is often a topic that brings lots of questions. Is it good for me? Is there a link to breast cancer? Specifically, as it relates to menopause, eating soy can be beneficial. Soy contains plant-based estrogens called isoflavones (12). When estrogen goes down during perimenopause, replenishing this hormone from a healthy outside source may help with symptoms.
The plant-based estrogen mimics the effect of your body’s estrogen. In fact, two isoflavones, genistein and daidzein, have been shown to help reduce the frequency of hot flashes (12). I would advise you to always ensure you are consuming organic and non-GMO soy since quality can be especially important when it comes to soy products.
Since estrogen is low, consuming extra soy is beneficial in menopause but be aware that ingesting soy in excess can be harmful if it is not of a quality source or if your estrogen is already at a high level. Reach for Nigari tofu, tempeh, or edamame beans as healthy soy containing options.
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It’s time to put healthy, quality fish on your plate if you haven’t already. Why? Fish are high in, the ever so popular, omega 3 fatty acids. You may have heard of them because omega-3s are beneficial in bringing down inflammation in the body which can lead to the development of chronic diseases, such as heart disease.
Rates of heart disease increase amongst women after menopause so taking care of the body by either consuming fish regularly or through supplementation is a good idea (1). Additionally, some studies have also shown a reduction in the frequency of hot flashes in women consuming omega 3 fish oil supplements (8).
Flaxseeds are a superstar nutrient for women going through menopause. These small seeds are a potent source of ALA, or Alpha Linolenic Acid. ALA is a plant-sourced omega-3 fatty acid so they are beneficial for the same reasons mentioned above related to fish. But, that’s not all! Flaxseeds are also high in lignans (11).
Lignans have an estrogenic effect within the body (11). They act similarly to the isoflavones in soy products and mimic the effect of estrogen that is lacking in the menopausal women’s body. In addition, studies have linked lignans to being protective against breast cancer (11).
I suggest to clients that they buy flax seeds whole and grind as they need or keep a jar of freshly ground seeds in their fridge to throw in smoothies or on top of salads.
Fermented foods have been having a major moment in the health and wellness world. You may be hearing a lot more about eating sauerkraut, kefir, miso or kombucha. Why? Fermented foods are healthy sources of probiotics that help keep our gut healthy. When we have healthy gut flora, our immunity and digestion are functioning more optimally. Probiotic foods may also be beneficial for menopause.
It has been suggested that healthy gut bacteria are thought to help you get more out of soy during digestion (7,15). Gut bacteria play a role in converting isoflavones in soy to a compound called equol (7,15). Equol is a more potent form of estrogen than its soy counterpart (7,15).
It should be noted that researchers are still unsure of which strain of bacteria that is specifically responsible for this conversion and it is possible that not all women have it within their guts (7,15).
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables likely don’t need a mention since we are all very familiar with their potent nutritional punch. But, a little reminder doesn’t hurt! Extra nutrition is always a good idea as one ages to support and nourish the body.
Step 3: Treat Vaginal Dryness (aka Atrophic Vaginitis)
A common condition that affects women throughout menopause is vaginal dryness or atrophic vaginitis. This condition is a result of the drop of estrogen within the body causing the vaginal walls to be thin, dry and inflamed (4). This irritation can be very uncomfortable for women especially when wearing certain tight clothing and may cause pain during sexual intercourse.
Vaginal dryness does have the potential to affect the emotional well-being due to the fact that it may affect sexual performance and intimacy. Many women choose to use a personal lubricant to help alleviate irritation and make sex a more pleasurable experience.
I recommend using an all-natural lubricant that does not contain parabens, preservatives or minerals. Our skin is very sensitive in this area, therefore, a quality product, such as this one, is recommended. It is suggested to avoid or minimize utilizing substances that tend to dry out the mucous membranes of the body, including the vaginal walls.
Substances that can contribute to further dryness include anti-histamines, alcohol, caffeine and diuretics (4).
Step 4: Manage Your Weight
Because of hormonal fluctuations in this stage of life, weight gain or loss often come along with menopause. More frequently, women struggle with weight gain during this stage of life. Again, this change from the norm has the potential to affect women from an emotional standpoint and may impact self-esteem and image.
Outside of following the dietary recommendations previously made, it is very important to keep active to stimulate metabolism and keep your heart healthy. Even mild to moderate physical movement daily will help improve energy levels, mood, weight management and prevent heart disease.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, it is recommended that women get at least 150 min of physical activity daily to prevent heart disease or an hour each day for weight management (1). I recommend getting involved in a movement that makes you feel good and that you enjoy.
This can be walking, biking, swimming, yoga, or spin classes. When we engage in something that makes us feel good, we are more likely to engage in the activity regularly. During this transition, quality of life should be your number one priority!
Step 5: Use Alternative Remedies for Menopausal Symptoms
In conventional medicine, often Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is recommended for women having menopausal symptoms. This involves taking only estrogen, or in other cases both estrogen and progesterone, in synthetic form, to replenish the hormones that are now low in the body.
Although this is the conventional treatment for menopausal symptoms, there are studies that exist that have linked the long-term use of HRT to breast and endometrial cancer (6). One study found that taking HRT (estrogen and progesterone) for 10-14.9 years increased the risk of breast cancer by 88% (6).
Due to this research and perhaps lack of satisfaction from women with the success of HRT, many women are now opting for more natural remedies to help alleviate their symptoms. There are several alternative therapies available that are quite effective for women experiencing symptoms. Below I get into some of the supplements and herbs that are beneficial in alleviating hot flashes and night sweats.
Supplement & Herbs for Hot Flashes and Night Sweats
Alternative remedies, such as herbs and supplements, work in two ways.
- The remedy works as a natural source of plant-based estrogens (also called: phytoestrogens).
- The remedy works through different mechanisms that help in alleviating the symptoms.
Most of the remedies listed here work through their phytoestrogenic action so they mimic the effect of the estrogen created in the body. As previously mentioned at the top of this post, every woman is different in how their symptoms present. Therefore, when it comes to alternative remedies, there may be some trial and error in order to find which remedies work more effectively for your body.
Black cohosh is an herb native to North America that is used to treat hot flashes and night sweats in menopausal women. This alternative remedy does not contain phytoestrogen, rather it acts in other ways in the body to help alleviate hot flashes (10,13,14).
It is believed that in order to do so it acts on hormones in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine or other receptions (10,13,14). Although it has literally been used for centuries in the treatment of menopausal symptoms, the studies are mixed when it comes to how effective this herb is for women.
A study completed in 2010 concluded that menopausal women experienced a 26% reduction in night sweats and hot flashes when using black cohosh supplements (16).
I already mentioned isoflavones in soy and ingesting it when putting it on your plate but it is also available in supplement form. This remedy is definitely phytoestrogenic in its mechanism and its efficacy is similar to the benefit described above regarding soy.
It should be noted that if you do have any predisposition or a history of estrogen positive cancers, you may want to avoid this type of remedy. Evidence is mixed as to if soy is protective or harmful in this regard (12).
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
You may recognize this herb from your kitchen! Sage or Salvia officinalis has been used for years as an herb to help combat excessive sweating associated with hot flashes during menopause (3). Sage is estrogenic in its nature so it does contain phytoestrogens.
It Is rich in essential oils and this is noticeable in its strong scent. These oils play a large role in its medicinal function. A clinical trial revealed that safe extract worked well for hot flashes in menopausal women (3).
Evening Primrose Oil (EPO)
Traditionally, the leaves of the evening primrose plant have been used by North Americans for treating sore throats, minor wounds and some gastrointestinal issues (17). However, modern-day use has shifted to the oil of the plant’s seeds.
Today, EPO is used to treat symptoms related to eczema, arthritis, PMS, and even menopause (17). When pressed, the plant’s seeds produce an oil with several compounds that have medicinal properties. This special oil contains a rare fatty acid known as GLA (Gamma-linolenic Acid), which isn’t usually found in our diets (18). This remedy is not estrogenic.
When it comes to menopause, research into the usefulness of the oil has been mixed. A review study from 2009 reported inconclusive results, yet a study completed in 2013 that included 56 menopausal participants who took either the oil or a placebo for six weeks showed different results (2). The women taking evening primrose oil reported hot flashes or decreased severity compared to the placebo group (2).
Managing menopause can be more challenging for some than others but becoming aware of the various remedies that exist is the first step in making your experience more pleasant. Be patient with your body as it goes through this transition and svupport it with quality nourishment and movement.
This amazing guest post was written by Stephani Fenk, holistic nutritionist and health blogger. We encourage you to check out her website!
- American Heart Association (2017). Menopause and Heart Disease. Accessed June 18, 2018 from <http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Menopause-and-Heart-Disease_UCM_448432_Article.jsp#.Ws4qqNPwaAx>
- Anthony, K. (2017). Evening Primerose Oil To Treat Menopausal Symptoms. Published online at Healthline. Accessed June 18, 2018 from < https://www.healthline.com/health/evening-primrose-oil-menopause>
- Bommer, S., Klein P., Suter, A. (2011). First time proof of sage’s tolerability and efficacy in menopausal women with hot flushes. Adv Ther. 28(6), 490-500. Accessed from < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21630133>
- Calhouhn Rice, S. Postmenopausal Atrophic Vaginitis (2017). Published online at Healthline. Accessed June 18, 2018 from < https://www.healthline.com/health/atrophic-vaginitis>
- Cure Joy. (2018). Menopause Foods: What to eat and what to avoid. Accessed Jun 18, 2018 from < https://www.curejoy.com/content/foods-to-eat-avoid-during-menopause/?utm_medium=IAR-MAR18_source=FBFeed&utm_campaign=FBAyurveda>
- Dr. Weil. (2012). How Dangerous is HRT? Published online at Dr.Weil.com. Accessed June 18, 2018 from <https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/health-centers/women/how-dangerous-is-hormone-replacement-therapy/>
- Jackson, R.L., Greive, J.S., Schwen, R.J. (2011). Emerging evidence of the health benefits of S-quol, an estrogen receptor β agonist. Nutr. Rev., 69(8), 432-48. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21790611>
- Lucas, M., Asselin G., Mertee, C., Poulin, MJ., Dobin, S. (2009). Effects of ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on hot flashes and quality of life among middle-aged women: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. Menopause, Mar-Apr 16(2), 357-66. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19034052>
- Mayo Clinic. (2017). Menopause. Accessed June 18, 2018 from <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/menopause/symptoms-causes/syc-20353397>
- Powell, S.L., Godecke., T., Nikolic, D., Chen, S.N., Ahn, S., Dietz, B., Farnsworth, N.R., Van Breemen, R.B., Lankin, D.C., Pauli, G.F., Bolton, J.L. (2008). In vitro serotonergic activity of black cohosh and identification of N(omega)-methylserotonin as a potential active constituent. J Agri Food Chem., 56(24), 11718-26. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19049296>
- Pruthi, S., Thompson, S.L., Novotny, P.J., Barton, D.L., Kottschade, L.A., Tan, A.D., Sloan, J.A., Loprinzi, C.L. (2007), Pilot evaluation of flaxseed for the management of hot flashes. Soc Integr Oncol., 5(2), 106-12. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17761129>
- Taku K., Melby M.K., Kronenberg F., Kurzer M.S., Messina M. Extracted or synthesized soybean isoflavones reduce menopausal hot flash frequency and severity: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Menopause, 19(7), 776-790. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK116362/>
- Reame, D.E., Lukacs, J.L., Padmanabhan, V., Eyvazzadeh, A.D., Smith, Y.R., Zubieta, J.K. (2008). Black cohosh has central opiod activity in postmenopausal women: evidence from nalozone blockade and positron emission tomography neuroimaging. Menopause, Sept-Oct 15(5), 832-40. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18521048>
- Rhyu, M.R., Lu, J., Webster, D.E., Fabricant, D.S., Farnsworth, N.R., Wang, Z.J. (2006). Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Cimicifuga racemosa) behaves as a mixed competitive ligand and partial agonist at the human mu opiate receptor. J Agric Food Chem. 54(26), 9852-7. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17177511>
- Yuan, J.P., Wang J.H., Liu, X. (2007). Metabolism of dietary soy isoflavones to equol by human intestinal microflora- implications for health. Mol Nutr Food Res. 51(7), 765-81. Accessed from < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17579894>
- Shams, T., Setia, M.S., Hemmings, R., McCusker, J., Sewitch, M., Ciampi, A. (2010). Efficacy of black cohosh-containing preparations on menopausal symptoms: a meta-analysis. Altern Ther Health Med, Jan-Feb 16(1), 36-44. Accessed from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20085176>
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). (2016, November 30). Evening Primrose Oil. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/eveningprimrose
- Eskin, N. A. (2008). Borage and evening primrose oil. European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology, 110(7), 651-654. doi:10.1002/ejlt.200700259
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