Perimenopause symptoms such as depression and weight gain are often mistaken for the natural effects of ageing, but there’s plenty you can do to help control them, says Medical herbalist Katie Pande and Nutritionist Cassandra Barns
New research out today has shown that eating a daily portion of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines could help delay the menopause by three years. However, a diet rich in pasta could in fact hasten the onset.
A portion of refined pasta and rice a day was associated with reaching the menopause around 18 months earlier. Oily fish was the food most associated with a later onset of the menopause. A study by the University of Leeds on more than 14,000 women in the UK, found that the average age of menopause was 51.
Additionally, a diet rich in fresh legumes was also linked to a later menopause. The study also found that a higher intake of zinc and vitamins B6 also appeared to slow down the onset.
From mood swings to weight gain, often the symptoms many women put down to ageing are actually the perimenopause; that is, the years leading up to menopause, which tends to start about ten years before menopause strikes, around the ages of 43 – 45. But some women sail through while others suffer and struggle. Some of this is down to our genes, but other factors come into play too, such as what we eat and drink, and our healthy (or unhealthy) habits which all affect our hormone levels… and are very much under our control.
What is the perimenopause?
Although we all talk about the menopause, not everyone is familiar with the term perimenopause.
In fact, the menopause itself occurs when a woman’s menstrual periods stop altogether; or, more precisely, when she has gone 12 consecutive months without having a period. The perimenopause is the time leading up to that – also known as the ‘menopause transition’. It’s the time when hormonal changes start to occur and symptoms often appear. The perimenopause can start several years before menopause.
One of the first signs of perimenopause can be changes in your menstrual cycle – periods may become less regular, or more heavy or light. Later symptoms may include:
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Low mood
- Low libido
- Weight gain
- Vaginal dryness
- Sleeping problems (which may or may not be due to night sweats)
- Increased risk of urinary tract infections or vaginal infections
- Bone loss can start to occur.
8 ways to ease perimenopause symptoms
As women we can give ourselves the best chance of an easy perimenopause with good preparation. So, although many women may not experience perimenopause until their mid 40s or later, building that healthy foundation from our 30s onwards can be hugely helpful. Liken it to competing in a triathlon: chances are you wouldn’t turn up on the day with no training and expect to sail through it; the same goes for the perimenopause.
Even if you are experiencing symptoms or are well into the perimenopause, changes you make now can still be greatly beneficial, helping you manage symptoms and improve your long-term health.
Here are eight changes you can make right now.
1. Cut the refined carbs
Blood sugar dips and peaks can be a direct cause of symptoms such as hot flushes, as well as contributing to fatigue, low mood and weight gain. They can be caused by eating sugary snacks or refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pastries or pizza. If you regularly eat these types of foods, then start by swapping just a few of them for wholefood alternatives. For example, switch pastries for oatcakes with nut butter, and that packet of sweets for an apple with a small handful of nuts. Sugary drinks and even fruit juices cause the same problems, so gradually switch to healthier alternatives such as fruit-infused water. These changes will help keep your blood sugar stable.
2. Up your healthy fats
Sex hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone are made from fats. So make sure you have enough of the healthy kinds: from olive oil, avocadoes, oily fish and unroasted nuts and seeds. Omega-3s from oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines also help keep inflammation under control; too much inflammation is a cause of joint aches and pains and can be a factor in painful periods, low mood and weight gain too. Try to eat a serving of oily fish at least three times a week and include some of the other healthy fats daily.
3. Eat your greens
Magnesium aids detoxification of hormones, is vital for energy, supports sleep, helps us cope with stress1, and helps maintain strong bones. Dark green veggies such as kale, spinach, watercress, broccoli and cavolo nero are a great source of magnesium, so aim to get two servings a day.
If there’s one ‘star’ nutrient when it comes to women’s health, it’s magnesium.
The fibre they contain will also aid hormone balance, and their vitamin K will help protect your bones. If you’re struggling to get your green veggie quota, try adding a few teaspoons a day of a good quality organic super-greens mix (such as the Pukka Herbs organic Clean Greens powder £27.95 from Healthista Shop) into a glass or water, or blend into your smoothie.
4. Include phytoestrogens in your diet
Phytoestrogens are natural plant compounds that have a weak oestrogen-like effect in the body. They’re found in most plant foods including vegetables, but the best sources are beans, lentils and chickpeas, as well as flaxseeds. The phytoestrogens in these foods could help when our natural oestrogen levels decline – and may be especially helpful for reducing hot flushes. Use lentils, beans and chickpeas in stews, soups and homemade curries. When it comes to flaxseeds, buy them ground (or grind your own) to get the most benefits – add one tablespoon a day to porridge, muesli or natural yoghurt.
5. Cut back on the wine
As much as we all love a drink, alcohol can wreak havoc on hormone balance. It upsets blood sugar, and can trigger hot flushes and night sweats. It depletes nutrients from our body – including hormone-balancing B vitamins. And of course, it affects our liver, which has to be in top form to efficiently detoxify excess hormones. Our bodies all cope differently with alcohol, but a good guideline is to stick to no more than one glass a day, and have two or three alcohol-free days every week. If you are going to drink, try to pick organic and ‘no sulphur added’ wine.
6. Get a handle on stress
Stress can affect our hormones in multiple ways. Notably, it may worsen the drop in oestrogen that causes some of the unpleasant symptoms in perimenopause. And it can also reduce natural progesterone and testosterone levels. Although testosterone is considered a ‘male’ hormone, women do need it in small amounts, including for a healthy sex drive. So if your libido is on the floor, think about whether stress could be the culprit. One of the best natural remedies for tackling stress-induced low libido issues is the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha. Try taking it on a daily basis for one to three months to help you get back on track.
7. Are you doing the right type of exercise?
Exercise is important for keeping hormones in balance, and so aim for at least 30 minutes five times a week, as per government guidelines. But also consider whether the exercise you’ve chosen is right for you.
While endurance or high-intensity exercise such as running, triathlons or HIIT classes can be good for some, for others they can worsen fatigue and stress.
If you’re experiencing worsened symptoms, try switching to more weight training or resistance-type exercise. As well as being good for your bones – and less tiring – it can help maintain healthy levels of libido-boosting testosterone. Yoga, Tai chi and other relaxation-focused exercise are also helpful to reduce the impact of stress on your hormones.
8. Try an herbal helper: Shatavari
Shatavari is a traditional Ayurvedic herb that’s been used for centuries to support women’s health and address hormonal imbalances. It’s renowned for its ability to improve levels of ‘good’ oestrogen in the body and balance female hormones, reducing symptoms such as vaginal dryness, hot flushes, low mood and premenstrual tension, and helping to ease the menopause transition. Pukka’s organic Womankind and Womankind Menopause capsules combine Shatavari with other traditional botanicals in two formulas designed to support women’s health before, during and after the perimenopause and menopause.
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