As we enter our late 40s, the levels of oestrogen and progesterone our body produces decrease, no matter how healthy and young we feel. This coincides with the time when our ovarian reserve decreases, and peri-menopause starts signalling the start of a new stage on your life. The drop in hormone production can lead to unpleasant symptoms including mood changes, weight gain, headaches, hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, vaginal dryness and indeed loss of libido.
This post addresses the question of what can we do to support our hormonal levels naturally rather than what measures can we take to mask the symptoms. Now, I am sure you have heard about Hormone Replacement Therapy or HRT, which although can be very effective for some women it can also increase the risk of hormone-related cancers like breast, ovary and womb, as well as the risk of developing blood clots and cardiovascular disease. But that’s not all, HRT can also have some unpleasant side effects including nausea, indigestion, bloating, breast tenderness and even vaginal bleeding.
But was is HRT? HRT uses a combination of synthetic oestrogen and progesterone and doses tend to be, more or less, standardised which means they might not suit everyone. Oestrogen only HRT is only recommended for women who’ve had their womb removed because, on its own, it can increase the risk of womb cancer.
There is a more natural option, which can also be gentler on those who have tried synthetic hormones and had unwanted side effects, known as Bio-identical Hormones which have exactly the same chemical structure as our oestrogen and progesterone and are extracted from yams rather than manufactured in a lab.
Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that can help balance oestrogen levels. Phytoestrogens have a similar structure to estradiol, an important female hormone, which gives them the nearly magical ability to mimic oestrogen activity by plugging themselves into cell sites for estrogen and reducing the severity of symptoms caused by low-oestrogen levels including hot flushes and mood changes.
These fabulous compounds should be part of our daily diet and in generous amounts but especially as we age to mitigate unwelcome peri-menopause and menopause symptoms.
There are two types of phytoestrogens: flavonoids, which include genistein found in abundance in soya beans, and lignans mainly found in seeds including flax and sesame seeds.
Foods high in flavonoids and lignans include: flaxseeds (linseeds), which are also high in vegetarian omega-3, soybeans and other soy products, tofu, tempeh, sesame seeds, hummus, garlic, pistachios and dried apricots. So, add a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds to your porridge, snack on edamame, add tofu to your curries and sesame seeds to your stir-fries. Forget about boring cheese sandwiches and mix hummus, avocado and peppers into a seeded tortilla wrap and add pistachios to your muesli. Easy, right?
And don’t forget that phytoestrogens are metabolised by your intestinal flora and absorbed in the intestine. So, look after your gut by eating a diet low in sugar and high in fibre and lean protein, reduce coffee, drink alcohol in moderation and ensure you get plenty of omega 3 fats like those from oily fish and flax and chia seeds. Probiotics like kefir, kimchi, miso and live yogurt can help support your gut flora as can prebiotic fibre, found in bananas, onions, leeks, garlic, chicory and asparagus, that “feeds” the good bacteria in your intestine.
Another thing to remember as we age is bone health. When oestrogen levels fall, bone density decreases, therefore it is really important to ensure that there is plenty of calcium in our diet from either dairy products or non-dairy sources like almonds, sesame seeds and green leafy veggies. For calcium to be absorbed efficiently we need sufficient vitamin D, which is synthesised by the skin when exposed to sunlight so given the pitiful amount of sunny days we get in the UK, supplementation is recommended. Talk to your GP or nutrition professional about what dose you need.
As our ovaries start producing less hormones, our adrenals increase production of both oestrogen and testosterone, which plays an important role in female libido. Therefore, supporting our adrenals through stress management (for example taking up yoga and meditation) and ensuring that we get plenty of nutrients to support our adrenal function, so these glands can produce sufficient hormones including B vitamins, especially vitamin B5 found in liver, salmon, avocadoes and sunflower seeds, and vitamin C, found in all fresh fruit and veg especially peppers, kiwi, oranges and tomatoes.
One of the most common menopause symptoms is fatigue. A diet high in sugar can exacerbate tiredness and play havoc with our blood sugar levels. So, ensure all your meals are balanced and include a portion of protein, a helping of carbohydrates like brown rice or baked/steamed potatoes and plenty of fresh vegetables and salads with a little healthy fat like olive oil, avocado, nuts or oily fish.
Pilar Manzanaro is the founder of Purple Carrot Nutrition, she is passionate about the impact diet can have on our long-term health. From more info on nutrition for women’s health please visit Purple Carrot Nutrition, join their Facebook group or simply get in touch with Pilar via email firstname.lastname@example.org