If you’re in your forties and heading towards menopause, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re a bit worried – but there is no need to be!
The media is often filled with very negative stories associated with this life stage. But what if there were diet and lifestyle interventions you could do now, to prepare your body for menopause to help make things a little easier? Well, there are! Read on to find out the best ways to support your health naturally during perimenopause.
What is menopause and perimenopause?
The menopause is a natural part of ageing and signifies the end of our monthly cycle and fertility, and it usually occurs around the age of 50. However, you are genetically programmed to achieve menopause at a similar age to your mother or female relatives.
The medical definition for menopause is 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period, which means when it’s all finished. So the experiences you might associate with menopause are really part of the perimenopause, which is your body naturally transitioning towards menopause. For some women it begins in their 30s, but most often starts for women in their early to mid-40s and lasts up until menopause. During perimenopause, our ovarian function and oestrogen production start to become erratic and unpredictable, whilst progesterone (our calming hormone) is slowly decreasing, and these fluctuating hormones can bring a host of unwanted symptoms.
The most common symptoms in perimenopause
The perimenopause for some women brings symptoms that can be unpleasant and affect their day to day lives. Although I discuss the most common symptoms, it’s important to acknowledge that we will all have our own menopause journey and that there are support groups, nutritional interventions, food supplements and medications available to help if your journey is particularly bumpy. If symptoms do occur, it’s also helpful to remember they are only temporary.
Due to fluctuating hormones, you might notice variations in your cycle, hot sweats and cognitive issues. Firstly, periods could start changing. They may become heavier and last longer than normal, or you might experience shorter menstrual cycles, less than 26 days. To accompany these alterations, your breasts might start to become sore, swollen, and lumpy; as with any lumps and bumps, please get these checked out by your GP.
You might experience hot sweats during the day, (which can be inconvenient and embarrassing if you’re working), coupled with night sweats in bed when you are trying to sleep, (which then disrupts your sleep patterns). Premenstrual night sweats may also occur.
Some women encounter brain fog, poor word retrieval, forgetfulness, low mood and anxiety. These symptoms can really hit confidence, happiness and enjoyment of everyday living. So, if they are particularly troublesome for you, please seek guidance from your GP to rule out any underlying causes and see my tips below on how to help to dial them down.
Another very common complaint is menopausal weight gain, which can be upsetting for many women as the pounds seems to pile on no matter that they do to prevent it. Some of the reasons we might gain weight as we get older is that our digestive system is not as effective at breaking down carbohydrates as it once was, coupled with metabolic changes linked to fluctuations in adrenal and thyroid hormones. Research suggests that menopause increases metabolic syndrome showing an increase in insulin resistance, which may be one factor as to why some women put on weight and struggle to lose it, especially if they consume a high carbohydrate diet.
During perimenopause you may notice that your sex drive isn’t what it used to be, and this could be due to changes in your vagina. As we lose oestrogen, the vaginal lining can become thin and dry, resulting in sex becoming uncomfortable and painful. Results from the ANGEL study showed that of 747 women, vaginal atrophy was prevalent in 19.2% of women aged 40-45, and 53.8% of women aged 52-55. With symptoms such as dryness, dyspareunia (painful intercourse) itching and burning, it’s understandable if women don’t feel like getting intimate. There is good news though, as a study showed that sea buckthorn oil displayed beneficial effects on vaginal atrophy and we have seen this help countless women in our clinic over the years.
How to support your health during perimenopause
Thankfully, there’s lots we can do to support our hormone health in our 40s as we navigate perimenopause, and these changes will go some way to preparing our body for menopause and beyond. Diet and food supplements, stress management, exercise and connection with other women are the first steps in the right direction.
Diet and supplements
It’s super important to eat a diet which supports your current life stage. Very often our bodies are changing but our diet isn’t, and this could be an influencing factor when it comes to perimenopause symptoms. Try switching to a diet that is rich in vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, low-sugar fruits and omega-3 fats.
During our 40s, reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates, as well as cutting right back on stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol can make positive steps to help hormone balance. Due to the potential increase in insulin resistance, carbohydrates (which the body processes as sugar), are often drivers for weight gain.
If weight gain around the middle is your problem, then it’s time to move away from or reduce high-carb foods such as pasta, bread, wheat and rice. Replace them with pasta made from pulses or spiralised courgette, breads made from nuts and seeds, and legume or cauliflower rice.
Also remove processed foods like shop-bought cakes and biscuits and switch to home-made lower-carb options using protein and fat-rich flours such as ground almonds and choose coconut sugar, maple syrup or honey instead of table sugar. A good rule of thumb is to limit the overall amount of carbohydrates you consume per day to around 50-100g.
Omega-3 may help support our brain, heart, skin health and mood. It is found in oily fish, seafood, walnuts, flax seeds/oil, chia seeds, organic whole milk and grass fed red meat. Turn your focus to eating balanced meals which include some healthy fats as this will maintain blood sugar levels, which in turn helps to keep hormones balanced and may help dial down hot flushes, support mood, energy levels and prevent weight gain.
Eat Your Greens
Be sure to include cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, spinach, kale and cabbage as well as leafy green salad leaves such as rocket, lamb’s lettuce and pea shoots. These green vegetables and salad leaves contain a compound called 3,3-Diindolylmethane (DIM) which has been shown to support oestrogen detoxification in the liver which will reduce high levels of oestrogen.
Check Your Iron Levels
Due to heavy periods, some women may also find their iron levels deplete, so eating iron-rich foods is essential. Green vegetables, as well as liver, pulses, dried apricots, molasses and grass-fed red meat all contain iron; aim for three portions per day. Vegans or vegetarians or anyone who does not eat red meat very often could consider an iron supplement. Supplements are especially important if you know that your ferritin (iron stores) are below 70 in a recent blood test.
Also, ensure that your overall baseline vitamin and mineral levels are optimal. You can’t have your tank running on empty during perimenopause, as this may exacerbate symptoms. Some women choose to take a good quality multivitamin to ensure they keep topped up.
From around the age of 30 we start to lose muscle mass, which can become problematic because, as we age, we need healthy bones and muscles to live a full and active life. If you don’t yet engage in any form of exercise, now is the time to start. I love to mix my exercise routines up.
Every morning I try to do 10 minutes of gentle exercises such as squats and lunges carrying little weights. I’m also a big fan of running and tennis, and on occasions I take a cold-water plunge. When I’m working away from home, I enjoy hiking around the local area and during the summer I was lucky enough to go sailing.
Activity and exercise don’t need to be restricted to a gym or exercise class. We have a beautiful country just waiting to be explored. In fact, spending time in green spaces has the added health benefits of improving our mood and reducing stress. The NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week and ideally with a variety of different activities.
When we are stressed, our bodies produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline over the production of oestrogen and progesterone, which is bad news if we’re perimenopausal, as these hormones are already fluctuating and declining. Many women lead busy lives and may be juggling children, teenagers and elderly sick parents. Combine this with keeping the house running smoothly, work, walking the dog whilst also running mum’s taxi service – it’s no surprise that stress is a huge contributing factor for perimenopausal women.
Thankfully, switching your body into a relaxed state can be done with techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and deep breathing exercises. When we practice deep breathing, it increases the amount of oxygen to our brain which then stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed state), and this promotes a state of calm. There are great apps such as Calm and Headspace which offer guided meditations. You could also try yoga and Pilates if meditation or deep breathing isn’t for you, or just take ten minutes on your own doing something that relaxes you, but also brings you joy, such as reading or taking a bath with a couple of cups of gorgeous Epsom salts.
Finally, connection with other women during perimenopause can be a saving grace. Our bodies might be changing significantly, which can feel scary, lonely, and isolating. If you struggle with hot flushes and find yourself peeling off layers of clothing, or you pop to the shop only to forget what you went in for, you’ll likely find a kinship with other women experiencing the same thing as you.
Being able to talk (and joke) with other women about your symptoms, reassures you that you’re not in this alone and does wonders for the soul, whilst making you feel lighter. It is also an opportunity to share coping strategies and even better if you can connect whilst walking in a beautiful green space. If you are not sure where to start for support, head over to the NHS Menopause: Help and Support Page.
There are many ways we can stay healthy during the perimenopause, and most are easy to implement without any great expense or huge changes in lifestyle. However, if you are really struggling with symptoms and you see no changes despite implementing healthier choices, then please get in touch. At NatureDoc we have a team of Nutritional Therapists who can run hormone tests which assess oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and cortisol. We can also check baseline nutrient levels and thyroid function, which plays a significant role in female health.
- NHS – Menopause
- NHS – Menopause: Help and Support
- Mayo Clinic – Perimenopause
- Metabolic Syndrome During Menopause
- The relationship between greenspace and the mental wellbeing of adults: A systematic review
- A Review of the Health Benefits of Greenness
- Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students
- Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being
- Mindfulness on-the-go: Effects of a mindfulness meditation app on work stress and well-being
- Vaginal atrophy across the menopausal age: results from the ANGEL study
- Effects of sea buckthorn oil intake on vaginal atrophy in postmenopausal women: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study
- 3,3′-Diindolylmethane Modulates Estrogen Metabolism in Patients with Thyroid Proliferative Disease: A Pilot Study