Hot flashes? Anxious? What you eat during this period may be making your menopause symptoms worse.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and words by Naomi Mead – BSc (Hons) DipION FdSc
Menopause is a natural process that marks the natural end of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Night sweats, mood swings, hot flushes, weight gain, vaginal dryness and loss of libido are a few of the potential symptoms you may notice. Skin and hair can be affected and you may end up feeling a little out of control. Chances are you may have a lot on your plate at this time anyway and feel you cannot cope with any additional stress caused by hormonal changes.
What changes happen during menopause?
First, a little insight into what’s happening to your body: the menopause occurs when the ovaries stop making oestrogen and progesterone, the two key hormones that control your menstrual cycle. It’s this decline of oestrogen that can result in changes to energy levels, thought processes, mood, bone, skin and hair health health, as well as your levels of other hormones.
In the years leading up to the menopause and even if you are undergoing the changes now, there is a lot you can do to prevent or lessen symptoms through your diet, while giving your body the vital nutrients it needs at this time. There is not enough evidence to suggest doctor ‘prescribe’ specific diet regimes to counteract effects of the menopausal change but every little may help.
Best foods to eat
Omega 3 fats
Start filling your plate with foods like oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines), nuts and seeds (especially chia seeds and flaxseeds). These essential fats play an important role in regulating mood, and there are promising studies that they may actually help if you are feeling down and it is linked to your hormones. They’re vital for oil production in the skin too, helping keep it plump and hydrated, and can also aid vaginal dryness. It is far better to obtain omega 3 from your diet, but if you think you need a supplement, take advice from a trusted healthcare professional, as excess of Omega 3 can affect the digestion, blood clotting, blood sugar and blood pressure in certain people and many fish oils contain an excess of vitamin A that can be toxic.
Phytoestrogens are found in various seeds, nuts, fruits, soy, oats, barley, legumes and also in herb supplements such as red clover. Research suggests that phytoestrogens may help to support women during the menopause by producing oestrogen-like effects in the body, although these effects may be weak. Adding these components to the diet has been suggested to help in relieving some symptoms of menopause in some women. However, the topic of soy consumption has become and remains controversial in recent years, and research into the effects of soy on the menopause has been varied. NICE guidelines on management of early breast cancer recommend avoiding isoflavones (e.g. red clover and soy) in breast cancer patients due to its oestrogenic effect on the body. In some studies phyoestrogens are helpful but there is more research to be done as we do not know the effect of consuming high levels. We say everything in moderation.
Making sure you’re getting enough calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K2 is essential right now. As oestrogen levels fall, bone density can decrease, and this can contribute to osteoporosis (brittle bones). Food sources of calcium include dairy products, small fish with bones, green leafy vegetables (such as kale, spinach and cabbage), nuts and seeds. Vitamin D is required for adequate calcium absorption, and whilst some can be sourced from food (eggs, fish, meat), the body mostly makes its own vitamin D through exposure to the sunshine. In the absence of enough sunshine, and during the winter months especially, I’d recommend a vitamin D supplement. See NHS guidelines about Vitamin D supplementation. Vitamin K2 is vitally important to ensure calcium is deposited in the right places in the body, and can be found in meat, fish, eggs and fermented foods such as sauerkraut.
Decreases in collagen during the menopause can result in a loss of skin elasticity and a tendency to dry skin and more lines. Your hair may be affected too. Support your collagen production by eating foods rich in vitamin C like kale, spinach and citrus fruits; lycopene found in tomatoes; and an array of antioxidants found in colourful fruit and vegetables such as beetroot, red peppers, broccoli and berries.
It’s important to try to support the body’s adrenal glands, which alongside the fat cells are now the primary source of oestrogen production in the body (and also why you seem to be putting on weight for no reason…). Keeping blood sugar levels balanced by reducing your intake of sugar and refined or ‘white’ carbohydrates such as white bread, rice, pasta and flour, and replacing with complex ‘wholegrain’ carbohydrates such as brown rice, brown pasta and sweet potato, is crucial for adrenal support. The B vitamins also play an important role, and can be beneficial for those suffering from reduced energy levels and low mood. Vitamin B-rich foods include meat, poultry, yeast extract, nuts, pulses, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, bananas and potatoes.
Foods to avoid
Alcohol and caffeine
Alcohol and caffeine can trigger hot flashes in women going through menopause. One study showed that drinking alcohol and caffeine increased the severity of the hot flashes rather than the frequency. However, another study suggested that caffeine may help to lower the frequency of hot flashes. It is a good idea to see what works for you. However, both of these substances may further disrupt sleep.
Processed carbs and sugars
Studies have linked high blood sugar, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome to higher incidence of hot flashes in menopausal women. Processed foods with added sugar and a high glycemic index, such as white bread, pasta, cakes and biscuits, may worsen menopause symptoms.
It is often recommended that women going through menopause avoid spicy foods. Some studies have suggested that eating spicy foods may increase hot flashes or anxiety levels. However, there is limited evidence to support this.
However, everyone has different trigger foods. You can try to identify yours by keeping a food and symptom diary for a couple of weeks, then looking for patterns.