For Menopause Awareness Month, Leyla Moudden, Naturopath and Educator for Enzymedica UK reveals how to support your digestive system during the menopause
As women get older, they experience a decline in oestrogen, and the gradual disappearance of menstruation – this is known as the menopause.
The decline of oestrogen is not steady and consistent, and so the symptoms experienced may be very haphazard and unpredictable.
In addition, digestion, sleep quality and mood may fluctuate from comfortable to uncomfortable and back again.
Digestive disruption during menopause is common and can often be very destabilising. Good digestion gives us access to the good nutrition we need for bone health, skin health and good energy levels.
However, when digestion is disrupted, it can affect us physically, leading to constipation, bloating and heartburn.
Digestive disruption during menopause is common
All of these disturbances have one thing in common; they are generated by the decline of oestrogen which leads to a rise in a stress hormone, called cortisol.
The relationship between cortisol and oestrogen is a balancing one like a set of old-fashioned kitchen scales; when oestrogen is high, cortisol is low.
When oestrogen is low, cortisol (stress) is unbalanced. With menopause, instead of remaining in balance, cortisol is going up and down, sometimes erratically and unpredictably.
As the hormones begin to unbalance, so too do all the body systems that rely on that balance to function effectively.
The good news is, there are many healthy ways to support your digestive system and ensure that you continue to gain nutrition from the food you eat…
#1 Eat mindfully
Weight gain around the middle, or ‘muffin top’ as its colloquially called, is a frequent occurrence reported by women once they reach menopause.
There are two mechanisms at work contributing to this during and after menopause; the first is that a decline in oestrogen triggers the ongoing storage of fat cells leading to overall weight gain, and the second is that rising cortisol slows down digestion, so we don’t feel as satisfied as we should after eating.
Digestion also works much better when you are in a relaxed state
Rising cortisol will also affect sleep, which will trigger food and particularly sugar and carbohydrate cravings the following day.
Healthy digestion begins with the thought of food. Just the thought of biting into a juicy lemon can flood the mouth with saliva, releasing digestive enzymes in your mouth and stomach.
By thinking about food before you eat, and staying present when you eat, you help your body to digest food more easily. Digestion also works much better when you are in a relaxed state.
Sitting down, thinking about your food and enjoying the process of eating will help you to digest it more effectively.
#2 Stay hydrated
Every digestive process in your body requires water to work properly, especially stomach acid. If you are not drinking water, or you are consuming caffeine, your digestion may be affected.
Water is needed for stomach acid production and also for healthy bowel movements, so ensure you are drinking plenty of water.
#3 Chew well
Nutrients and minerals must be broken down by the digestive process before we can benefit from them. Give your digestion a head start by chewing food well.
Eating fast or eating while you are active will reduce digestive power.
#4 Make use of digestive enzyme supplements
During menopause, rising cortisol turns off the production of acid and digestive enzymes, which in turn leads to food particles reaching the intestines intact.
In the small intestine, good and bad bacteria try to eat the food and in doing so, they produce gas.
As gut bacteria are not designed to digest food that has not been effectively liquidised by digestive enzymes and stomach acid, the fermentation process goes on and on, producing more and more gas, inflating the abdomen, and causing discomfort.
During menopause, rising cortisol turns off the production of acid and digestive enzymes
Digestive enzymes taken with the first bite of food help to break down food while it is in the stomach, replacing the digestive capacity we have lost.
As well as increasing the absorption of nutrition, the act of supporting the breakdown of food in the stomach protects the intestines from having to ferment the food we have swallowed, and in doing so reduces the occurrence of excessive gas and bloating.
This is why a broad-spectrum, digestive enzyme like Digest Gold™ from Enzymedica UK is an essential part of the menopause and beyond survival strategy.
#5 Eat foods that have natural enzymes
There are many healthy foods that are full of natural plant enzymes that can help digest food.
Pineapple contains high amounts of an enzyme called bromelain which can break down the proteins found in meat, fish and eggs. Papaya is similar to pineapple and also has strong protein digesting enzymes.
Plant enzymes are a great digestive aid because they offer so many extra benefits. Enzymes from plants not only help you to better digest your meals and absorb the nutrients within, but they also have a lot of anti-inflammatory properties.
Anti-inflammatory effects of plant enzymes can also help with muscular aches and pains.
#6 Eat smaller, more frequent meals
At the top of our stomach is a little flap that keeps our stomach closed, protecting our throat from the burn of stomach acid, and that door is closed when stomach acid reaches a high enough volume.
As cortisol is reducing those secretions, we may feel a burning sensation in our chest or throat after we eat.
more likely to get good nutrition from eating smaller, more frequent meals
Lower down inside our stomach, we may find that larger meals, which give our digestive system more work to do, trigger bloating, wind and cramps.
This happens because poorly digested food enters the small intestine where it irritates the lining of the gut, triggering inflammation and gas production.
We are more likely to get good nutrition from eating smaller, more frequent meals rather than eating a very large meal every day. Small, frequent nutrient dense meals are an excellent way of supporting our digestive system.
Leyla El Moudden BA Hons, Dip Herb, Dip Nat is an experienced herbalist and naturopath, with a special interest in skin and digestive health.
Leyla provides key education and practitioner support for the Enzyme Science™ brand in the UK as well as running her own client practice.
Previously, she was President of the Association of Naturopathic Practitioners (ANP), the largest and most influential Naturopathic Association in the UK, and the Business Development Director and Short Courses Director of the College of Natural Medicine (CNM), the UK’s largest and longest running training provider of Nutritional Therapists, Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Natural Chefs.
Leyla is also contributing editor for IHCAN magazine, and a guest contributor to Holistic Therapist Magazine, Indigo Herbs and Amchara.