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Opinion: Nutrition can empower women through menopause alongside medicine

Nutritional therapist Jackie Lynch explains how diet and particularly sugar balance can help women cope with the changes of menopause.

Jackie Lynch

THERE’S A SENSE of gathering momentum around menopause which is very exciting after so many years where women have suffered in silence.

We’ve had an interesting debate in the UK, following Davina’s documentary and I see that you’re having similar discussions in Ireland.

I think that we’re the first generation unwilling to “put up and shut up” and the benefits of this open discussion around menopause are huge because it’s so important that women have easy access to all the different options that are available to them. 

One of the very well-kept secrets around menopause is that it starts much earlier and lasts much longer than you might expect. Although we use the term “menopause” as a catch-all term for the whole transition phase, technically the menopause is just one day – that day when it’s been 12 months since your last period.

After that, you’re officially post-menopausal, although symptoms may still linger for a little while as your body adjusts to the hormonal change.

Nutrition as support

The perimenopause is the pre-menopausal phase and this is when all the fun and games really start. Hormonal changes can be going on in the background from your early 40s onwards and progesterone is typically the first hormone to start to fluctuate which can lead to cognitive and psychological symptoms such as anxiety, low mood or brain fog.

While these are often an early warning sign that the menopause is on its way, many women don’t immediately make the connection, because they think they’re too young and they’re still having regular periods.

One thing that emerged in the recent Liveline conversations around menopause is the shocking number of perimenopausal women prescribed antidepressants by their doctors when a hormonal approach may have been more appropriate. The perimenopause can go on for several years with varying degrees of symptoms due to the ups and downs of oestrogen and progesterone. 

As a nutritional therapist who specialises in women’s health and the menopause, it’s been a constant source of frustration to me that there isn’t enough accessible information out there, especially around the crucial role that diet and lifestyle play in helping to balance hormones and relieve menopause symptoms.

This is why I launched my podcast The Happy Menopause and went on to write my book The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish.

Not every woman can take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) so a nutritional approach is crucial in these cases and even if you are taking it, a balanced diet provides your body with the tools to optimise the action of HRT, so that it works as effectively as possible.

Either way, focusing on diet and lifestyle is a win-win for women in midlife!
It’s important to remember that menopause isn’t something new – women have been going through this for millennia and of course, Mother Nature has a backup plan to support us through the transition and keep us fit and well. 

Blood sugar balancing act

The human body is a complex and clever high-performance machine, so it takes action as oestrogen production in the ovaries starts to decline. This job is taken over by the adrenal glands, which are two peanut-shaped glands that sit just above the kidneys and they’re programmed to release a weak form of oestrogen post-menopause. 

The catch is that the adrenal glands also produce our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline and because the body will always prioritise the lifesaving “fight or flight” response, chronic stress can disrupt the back-up strategy for oestrogen production.

I see so many midlife women in my clinic who are juggling the pressures of work with a busy family life, caring for elderly relatives and generally being the glue that holds everything together – it’s a tough combination which can be immensely stressful, and this ongoing pressure has a direct impact on the severity and longevity of menopause symptoms. 

From a clinical nutrition perspective my first approach is to focus on a hormone-balancing approach which regulates levels of stress and sex hormones. For me, the first place to start with this is blood sugar balance.

Every time your blood sugar drops, the body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which will simply exacerbate the hormone imbalance and make everything worse. 

The best way to balance blood sugar is to avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrate which cause a spike and aim for a combination of complex carbohydrate (e.g. wholemeal bread, brown rice or vegetables) and protein (e.g. meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts & seeds) with every meal and snack.

The body burns through complex carbohydrate more slowly, keeping you going for longer. Protein is hard to digest, so it slows down the release of the carbohydrate even further, maintaining that balance and helping to keep sugar cravings at bay. I devote a whole chapter to blood sugar balance in my book, because getting these basics right can make a huge difference to managing menopause symptoms. 

Here are three simple changes you could make to improve your health and wellbeing in midlife:

  1. Eat more protein - not only will this balance your blood sugar (see above), but it helps in lots of other ways. Women can lose up to 40% of muscle mass by the time they’ve gone through the menopause and we need protein to build muscle tone. It’s also vital for strong bones and loss of bone density is a serious concern for women post-menopause. Our skin, hair and nails are all made of protein, so we need to give our body the building blocks to keep them strong and healthy. 

  2. Eat two handfuls of green vegetables – such as spinach, rocket, broccoli, kale or cabbage every day. These are a one-stop shop of menopause-friendly nutrients: they’re a good plant source of iron, relevant for women dealing with heavy periods and flooding; they contain twice as much calcium per 100g as milk, which helps to build strong bones; they’re packed with vitamin C, which the body uses to make collagen, a key component of healthy bones and plump, elastic skin; they’re rich in magnesium which supports muscle function, metabolises calcium and plays a key role in energy production and a healthy nervous system. 

  3. Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to your morning cereal or smoothie. This contains phytoestrogens called lignans, which are plant compounds that influence our oestrogen receptors. Although the evidence base is inconclusive, some studies suggest that regular consumption of flaxseed can help to reduce hot flushes and night sweats. As flaxseed is also full of protein and fibre to balance blood sugar, as well as being an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids which promote heart health, it’s a great healthy option in any case. 

These simple steps are just some of the many ways that diet and lifestyle can help to promote your health and wellbeing during the menopause.

I would love to see a world where nutrition sits centre stage alongside the medical approach, because it’s such an important piece of the jigsaw and could make a real difference to so many women.

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Momentum is growing and as the first generation to speak out about the menopause, I believe we’re laying the groundwork for our daughters and granddaughters to have a much happier time of it.

Of course, there’s much to build on, but the current conversations are allowing us to move on from the mistakes of the past and recognise just how important it is to provide easily accessible health information and support to women in midlife. 

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Jackie Lynch is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and Founder of the WellWellWell nutrition clinic where she specialises in women’s health and the menopause. She is the host of the popular diet and lifestyle podcast The Happy Menopause and her book The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish is out now. Follow her on social media at @WellWellWellUK.

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