From brain fog to fragile bones, hot flushes to night sweats, plus disturbed sleep and joint pain, the hormonal changes of the menopause can cause a multitude of uncomfortable symptoms.
Thankfully, watching what you eat and drink can help alleviate and reduce many of these unpleasant issues.
During the menopause, oestrogen and progesterone levels gradually decrease and adrenaline and cortisol are released as the body tries to rebalance itself, explains Dr Anne Henderson, consultant gynaecologist and author of Natural Menopause.
“This leads to mood swings as well as heightened anxiety, which is often associated with heart palpitations during the perimenopause,” she says. “So eat foods rich in magnesium – it dampens down the production of cortisol.”
Good magnesium sources include bananas, avocados, dark leafy greens, brown rice, lentils, nuts and seeds.
Soothe stiff joints
“Many women find their joints start to ache and feel stiff during the menopause, especially first thing in the morning,” says Dr Henderson, who also works with herbalists at A.Vogel (avogel.co.uk).
“It’s due to the gradual decline in oestrogen levels, as the hormone is critical for good bone and joint health throughout the body. As well as ensuring your diet is rich in whole unprocessed foods and fresh fruit and veg, eat omega-3 anti-inflammatory foods like oily fish.
“Add turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and garlic to food when you’re cooking as they will naturally help to reduce inflammation. Drink plenty of water to keep tissues moist and supple, and limit alcohol consumption.”
Eas e insomnia
Many women going through menopause find they struggle to fall asleep. Or they wake in the early hours unable to drop back off again. Disrupted sleep – caused by night sweats – is also common.
“When sleepless nights persist for months, or even years, the results can be debilitating, affecting energy levels, clarity and focus, as well as mental health,” says Dr Henderson.
“Eat foods high in iron, such as spinach and lentils, plus plenty of high-quality protein (like chicken, eggs, fish, wholegrains and Greek yogurt) to provide energy and minimise fatigue.”
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening and increase your magnesium intake, as research indicates it can lead to better sleep.
Snack on walnuts, which contain a source of melatonin, and sip on tart cherry juice. One study found people aged 50-plus with chronic insomnia slept 84 minutes longer per night after drinking it.
Relieve gynae issues
“A lack of oestrogen affects the lining of both the vagina and bladder, causing these tissues to become thinner and more sensitive,” says Dr Henderson. “This results in an increased susceptibility to problems such as vaginal discomfort and urinary tract infections.”
Ensure you drink plenty of water for natural lubrication of all body tissues.
“Not drinking enough will also cause urine to be more concentrated which can irritate the bladder and lead to urinary tract infections,” she adds. If you’re not keen on plain tap water try herbal teas such as chamomile, marigold or red clover or coconut water.
Build bone density
“As oestrogen gradually decreases over time, its protective effect on bone health also begins to diminish,” explains Karen Kawolics, dietitian and coach for Noom (noom.com), a digital health platform focused on behaviour change. “So it’s important for women over the age of 51 to focus on weight-bearing exercise and to have a diet rich in foods containing calcium and vitamin D.
“Calcium is found in all food groups, but most notably in dairy products. Other sources are leafy greens, sardines, and grains.
“Vitamin D can come from sun exposure for a few minutes a day or from your diet – in oily fish such as salmon or sardines, liver, egg yolks and fortified cereals.”
Boost brain power
Mild memory loss, trouble focusing and losing your train of thought are common menopausal issues.
“Sleep disturbances, increased stress and dropping oestrogen levels may contribute to a foggy brain as a woman transitions through to menopause,” says Karen.
“Some studies have found that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and leafy greens may aid in sharpening things up a bit. Common sources of omega-3s are fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, walnuts, and kiwis. Leafy greens, such as spinach, contain folic acid, which aids brain health too.”
Help for hot flushes and night sweats
These are thought to be the result of reduced oestrogen levels causing a glitch in the body’s thermostat control centre in the brain. “While research is weak in this area, studies have speculated that avoiding caffeine, spicy food and alcohol may be effective at reducing the severity and number of hot flushes for some women,” says Karen.
“Also eating foods that contain phytoestrogens, plant-based compounds that mimic oestrogen in the body, may be helpful to some.”
Soybeans, lentils and chickpeas contain high levels of phytoestrogens.
Banish the bloat
Fluctuating hormone levels can affect the digestive tract and gut health, often resulting in problems such as abdominal bloating, fluid retention and an increase in gas.
“A high sodium diet can cause bloating at any stage of life,” says Karen. “Some women may rely more on convenience foods during this time of life as many are caring for children and/or ageing parents, plus working full time.
“It can be difficult, but try to limit the amount of processed foods you eat and do more home cooking to control how much salt you use.
“Be sure to drink plenty of water to offset bloating. As we age, the ability to sense thirst declines so it’s important to get into the habit of drinking water throughout the day.
“And keep an eye on what foods trigger a tight stomach or flatulence. Some women experience bloating and gas with spicy foods, dairy, gluten and artificial sweeteners.”