What is menopause?
As a woman gets older, her body starts to produce less oestrogen. As a result, her body ovulates less until eventually she no longer releases an egg each month and this also results in the end of her periods (1).
Menopause officially happens 12 months after a woman has her last period, and is just one part of the menopause transition.
The menopause transition actually starts with perimenopause. During this time, hormone levels fluctuate and this can result in irregular periods and menopause symptoms. It’s thought that perimenopause can last between 4-8 years, and it finishes once there has been no period for 12 months (2).
The average age of menopause in the UK is 51 but it can be experienced between the ages of 45-55 (3, 4). Some women may experience menopause as young as their teenage years, 20s or 30s. This is known as premature ovarian insufficiency.
What are menopause symptoms?
Depending where you look, you’ll see a different number of menopause symptoms. Menopause symptoms can affect the entire body, from head to toe. This is because there are oestrogen receptors throughout the body. As oestrogen levels decline at menopause, this can result in menopause symptoms.
Many people assume hot flushes and brain fog are the only menopause symptoms, but there are many more. Dry eyes, headaches, loss of libido, muscle pains, thinning hair, digestive symptoms and vaginal dryness are just a handful of the symptoms that can be experienced.
Find a menopause symptom checklist here.
What else is affected at menopause?
Declining oestrogen levels don’t only result in menopause symptoms, it can also impact bone health, heart health and weight.
Oestrogen is protective for bone health, but as oestrogen levels reduce this protection is lost. As a result, bone loss increases at menopause meaning there's a greater risk of osteoporosis.
Not only is there an increased risk for osteoporosis at menopause, but the risk of heart disease increases also. Oestrogen is cardioprotective, and this protection is lost when oestrogen levels decline.
Weight gain is also a common experience for women at perimenopause and menopause. An estimated 50% of women are thought to gain weight at this stage of life. Weight gain is usually central around the stomach, and not only does this increase the risk of heart disease, but it also reduces the self-esteem of many women.
How can food and nutrition help?
Evidence about the role of food and nutrition in supporting menopause symptoms is limited. There’s some suggestions that phytoestrogens found in soya may help reduce hot flush frequency and severity, but research is mixed and further studies are needed.
However, dietary and lifestyle habits can help support bone health, heart health and weight management efforts. Below are just a few dietary considerations for each.
As young children, we’re taught that calcium is important for building and maintaining strong bones, and this still remains true at menopause. Ensuring you eat sources of calcium each day is important. These include milk, yoghurt, cheese, calcium-fortified dairy alternatives, fish with bones, kale and foods made with white flour. By law in the UK, white flour is fortified with calcium.
Vitamin D helps calcium absorption. In the UK, sunlight is the main source of vitamin D. However between October and late March, there isn’t enough sunlight to meet our vitamin D requirements. Therefore, during this time a 10 microgram (or 400 IU) vitamin D supplement is recommended for all UK adults (5).
Well known for its heart friendly properties, omega 3 is a polyunsaturated fat that reduces levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol. Omega 3 can be found in oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and trout, as well as chia seeds and flaxseeds. However, it’s unknown how much omega 3 is obtained from plant-based foods because the type of omega 3 found in these foods must be converted into a form that can be used by the body. Oily fish contains omega 3 the body can readily use.
Eating your 5-a-day can also have heart friendly benefits, since fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent oxidative damage, which is a process that can increase the risk of heart disease.
Long-term weight loss requires poorer dietary and lifestyle habits to be addressed. Undergoing a fad diet (e.g. keto or paleo) will likely produce rapid results in a few weeks, but it’s another question whether you’re able to maintain that lifestyle - and the weight loss - long term.
Common lifestyle habits that I address with clients in clinic to support weight loss at perimenopause and menopause include:
Quality of foods eaten
Exercise and Movement
Menopause marks the end of periods, and declining oestrogen levels not only can bring menopause symptoms, but can result in weight gain and increased risks of osteoporosis and heart disease. Dietary and lifestyle changes can help manage these concerns. From ensuring you eat plenty of calcium and omega 3 to monitoring your portion sizes, these changes don’t need to be complicated.