Menopause literally means “end of monthly cycles” in Greek. It’s a moment in time when you haven’t had a period for 12 months, after which you are post-menopause. The average age is 51.
It was named by a French doctor in 1821. This was at a time when the average life expectancy was 47. You can now expect to spend one-third of your life post-menopause. Understanding your body better is critical to adding quality of life to those years.
As well as having oestrogen receptors in the ovaries, breast and brain we also have them in a wide range of tissues like the kidneys, bone, heart, lungs, intestinal mucosa and the cells that line the blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. The loss of oestrogen after menopause (at whatever age) has a number of effects on the body but especially for the bones and heart.
What can you do to support the loss of oestrogen?
Phytoestrogens are plant-based compounds that mimic oestrogen in the body. There are two categories:
Lignans have a weak oestrogenic effect. They are found in many plants to avoid overgrazing. They are abundant in seeds, wholegrains, legumes and many fruit and vegetables. Broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts are good sources, and these cruciferous vegetables are also great for detoxification. The best source is flax seeds. Buy them whole, grind them in a coffee grinder or NutriBullet and store in a container in the freezer. Add 1-2 tablespoons to your diet daily.
Isoflavones can bind to some receptors and mimic the effects of oestrogen. They are found in soy eg miso, tofu, edamame beans and tempeh. Look out for organic versions.
Lignans and isoflavones belong to a category of compounds called polyphenols. They travel through the body largely undigested reaching the colon where the bacteria convert them into more active metabolites. These metabolites have a greater therapeutic action, which for phytoestrogens means a stronger oestrogenic effect, so the composition of your gut microbiome plays a key role in feeling the benefits.
HRT is another option that can be discussed with your doctor, in which case it’s important to support oestrogen detoxification (see Perimenopause).
What can you do to support your bone health?
It is estimated that on average women lose up to 10% of their bone mass in the first five years after menopause. In teenage years we want to be building as much bone as possible, and in peri-menopause and post-menopause we want to be losing as least as possible.
Bones are made up of a framework of collagen, and calcium makes that framework hard and strong. Nearly all the calcium in the body is stored in bone tissue. The small amount that is circulating is essential for muscle and nerve function. The body controls the amount of calcium in the bloodstream very carefully – when blood levels of calcium fall too low, the bones release calcium into the blood. The opposite happens if blood levels get too high.
We need to get calcium from our diet. Good sources include:
- Dairy – butter, milk, cheese and yoghurt. The process of turning milk into yoghurt and cheese is an ingenious outsourcing of the digestive process. Yoghurt, hard cheeses (especially aged cheese like parmesan) and butter have very little if any lactose.
- Tinned oil fish like sardines and salmon with the bones (the bones go very soft).
- Green leafy vegetables (especially kale), soy like edamame beans and tofu, flaxseeds, chia seeds, almonds and oranges.
Calcium and vitamin D work together. While calcium helps to build bones, vitamin D helps your body to absorb it. You can only make enough vitamin D from sunlight when your shadow is shorter than your body.
- Good food sources include oily fish, egg yolks and liver.
- You can make your own supply of vitamin D enriched mushrooms by exposing them to sunlight. Pop them on a windowsill gill side up and they will go from containing very little vitamin D to having good amounts of D2.
Try to limit excessive caffeine intake and avoid carbonated drinks like coke.
Weight-bearing exercise is important for stimulating extra calcium deposits.
What can you do to support your heart health?
Oestrogen increases nitric oxide, which helps with blood flow and blood pressure. There are other ways of improving nitric oxide. Through a chain reaction your body changes nitrates into nitric oxide. Beetroot is naturally high in nitrates. Other good sources are celery, cress, lettuce, spinach and rocket.
Menopause is associated with a progressive increase in total cholesterol, particularly higher LDL (the “bad” cholesterol). Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood that plays an essential role in how the cells in the body work. It’s also the backbone for the steroid hormones including oestrogen, progesterone and cortisol. Too much cholesterol can increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. There are different types of cholesterol, both good and bad, these are all included in the Advanced Wellness blood test (VC1) that we offer at The Verve Clinic.
Plant sterols can lower LDL cholesterol. These are known as phytosterols and they compete with cholesterol absorption in the digestive tract and as a result lower blood cholesterol levels. The best sources are pistachios, flaxseeds, almonds, walnuts and cucumber. Beta-glucans found in oats and soy are also beneficial.
The bottom line
From the different foods mentioned, you can see that the essence of what we are suggesting is a Mediterranean diet abundant in a variety of plants.
“the Mediterranean diet has been shown over and over again to be incredibly protective for women’s brains and women’s health in general” Dr Lisa Mosconi, Neuroscientist.
You can read more about the importance of variety in the diet under the Microbiome, but in the meantime focus on adding in rather than worrying about what you should be cutting out. It’s not just about fruit and vegetables, but includes beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, grains, herbs and spices.