by Kamyra La Fauci
Senior Accredited Practising Dietitian for Master Menopause Australia
Menopause is a natural time in a woman’s life that signifies the end of their menstrual cycles, and reproductive years. Divided into three basic stages – perimenopause, menopause, and post menopause – a woman’s ovaries begin to atrophy (aka decrease in size), which results in a series of significant hormonal changes, where female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone decline.
The fluctuation of these hormone levels during perimenopause and marked reduction during menopause can lead to a variety of physical and emotional symptoms such as hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, and weight gain – just to name a few! While the symptoms experienced are different for every woman, it’s important to know there are steps you can take to alleviate your symptoms and improve your quality of life during this time of transition.
While most women have heard of Hormone Replacement Therapy as a therapy for menopause symptoms, many in fact don’t realise that food and nutrition can also be effective in helping to balance hormone levels. Here are my top tips on foods you can enjoy to help balance hormone levels during menopause.
1. Phytoestrogen-rich foods
While we can’t obtain oestrogen from the foods we eat, we can consume certain foods that contain phytoestrogens. Put simply, phytoestrogens are natural compounds found in plant foods that when consumed, can mimic oestrogen in the body. Because they have a similar chemical structure and effect to oestrogen, they can provide natural relief from the symptoms of menopause, for example, hot flushes, by naturally balancing hormone levels.
They’ve also been found to have several other health benefits, such as helping to prevent osteoporosis, promoting heart and reproductive health and even reducing the risk of breast cancer.
Foods That Contain Phytoestrogens:
- Soybeans e.g. edamame and soy products e.g. tofu, tempeh, miso paste.
- Legumes such as chickpeas and mung beans.
- Fruits e.g., apples, strawberries, grapes, cranberries, and pomegranates.
- Vegetables including carrots, and sprouts.
- Nuts and seeds e.g., almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, sunflower, and sesame seeds.
- Some whole grains e.g., oats, barley, and wheat germ.
Try incorporating at least two servings of phytoestrogen-rich foods daily to experience the benefits.
Healthy fats including omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in hormone production and can combat symptoms of menopause such as brain fog, hot flushes, night sweats and even menopause-related joint pain. Aim to include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like fatty fish (salmon, mackerel), chia seeds, walnuts, and avocados in your diet.
Lastly, it’s important to consume a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as part of a balanced diet. Why? While they may not be able to balance hormone levels, they’ve been shown to help relieve some symptoms of menopause.
If you’re struggling with the symptoms of menopause, and are looking to improve your overall health, seek personalised advice from an Accredited Practising Dietitian or speak to your GP about your options.
Brain Fog and Memory
If you’re going through menopause, and are finding it harder to think clearly, or make decisions – you’re not alone. According to research, up to two-thirds of women experience ‘brain fog’ and issues surrounding memory, particularly in the earlier stages of menopause.
Women who experience these symptoms find it difficult to focus or to think clearly, make decisions and function well mentally. If you’ve forgotten what you were saying mid-sentence, walked into a room and couldn’t remember why, it could well be due to “Menopause Brain”.
What causes this? Put simply, researchers believe the changing levels of hormones during menopause e.g., the dip in progesterone and oestrogen affect cognition and contribute to these symptoms. Hot flushes, night sweats and insomnia are also commonly reported during menopause, all of which affect sleep quality and can compromise our memory and ability to function optimally throughout the day.
But while this may sound all doom and gloom, the good news is that the symptoms are often temporary and can be combated with several lifestyle changes – including nutrition. When we look at the science, the Mediterranean diet is proven to be one of the best to boost cognition, as it features several key nutrients and foods that promote brain health. But fear not, you don’t have to overhaul your whole diet, rather include more of these foods to reap the benefits and combat brain fog and memory issues during menopause:
Well known for its health benefits, fatty fish typically top the list when it comes to boosting brain health. That’s because it’s used by our brain to build nerve and brain cells, which are vital for memory and learning. Also, ~60% of our brain is made of fat, and around half of this fat is made up of omega-3 fatty acids. Pretty cool, right? Here are 3 simple ways you can get more omega 3’s in your diet:
1. Add a can of tuna to some instant brown rice and salad for a quick and easy lunch.
2. Enjoy a can of sardines on a whole-grain cracker for a nutritious snack.
3. Simply add some salmon, plus veggies on a tray and bake in the oven for a quick, mid-week meal
Eat The Rainbow
While all fruit and vegetables carry several health benefits, the colourful varieties are the best for brain health. Why? Because they contain a variety of antioxidants including polyphenols, which have been shown to have neuroprotective effects on our brain. Next time you’re at the supermarket, be sure to eat the rainbow and add a variety of fruit and veggies to your trolley. Broccoli, berries, carrot, and spinach is a great places to start.
Olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. Wondering what all these foods have in common? They are all a great source of unsaturated fats, which have been shown to boost learning by producing more acetylcholine, a chemical messenger involved in making new memories. Plus, these foods (in addition to omega-3 fatty acids) improve neuroplasticity and improve overall cognition. So be sure to add these foods to the weekly shopping list.
Rest and Reset
Besides dietary changes, remaining hydrated, moving your body, and getting adequate rest can help to combat brain fog and memory issues during menopause. If these symptoms are severely impacting your quality of life, always seek further support from your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian.