Hot flushes, night sweats and stubborn belly fat could all be indicators you‘re about to enter menopause. Healthy Food Guide reveals how the female body responds in the lead up to menopause, and what you can do to prepare for it, including how diet can help.
Here’s what we cover:
- What menopause is
- What your hormones are doing
- Symptoms of perimenopause
- Diet changes that help with symptoms
- Hormone replacement therapy
Sometime between the ages of 40 and your approach to the big 5-0, you might start noticing a few changes with your body. Perhaps you wake up in a sweat at night, or your periods become erratic and are often accompanied by heavy bleeding. If this sounds familiar, chances are you’re going through what is known as perimenopause. This is the stage leading up to menopause, when your monthly menstrual periods naturally stop and indicate the end of your reproductive years.
It’s common for women to experience a range of telling symptoms as their hormones begin to fluctuate during the months, and sometimes years, leading up to menopause.
Many women talk about perimenopause being a time of hormonal chaos, when hormone levels swing rapidly from low to high. Read on to find out all you need to know about perimenopause and what you can do to cope with the changes.
What is menopause (and perimenopause)?
Menopause is the point where a woman has not had a menstrual period for at least 12 months.
The average time a woman reaches menopause is between 51 and 52 years of age. Menopause is a normal part of ageing for women, and marks the end of their reproductive years.
Perimenopause, on the other hand, is an extended transitional state that can begin eight to 10 years before you reach menopause. The symptoms of perimenopause can be similar to, or even more intense, than those of menopause.
3 stages of menopause
The lead up to menopause (running out of eggs)
When you’ve had no periods for 12 months (no more eggs)
Your body adapts to lower levels of hormones
What your hormones are doing in the transition to menopause
Perimenopause is defined as the lead up to a woman’s final menstrual period. It’s when your ovaries start to wind down and run out of eggs. It usually happens in a woman’s 40s and, on average, lasts between four and six years. It can be as short as one year or as long as ten.
When you have experienced no period, spotting or staining for at least 12 months, you’ve reached menopause. Your body learns to function with lower hormone levels and you’re considered postmenopausal.
Declining ovarian function causes fluctuations in female hormones oestrogen and progesterone which, in turn, can affect your periods. Changes to your periods are often the first sign of perimenopause, but other common symptoms include hot flushes and mood swings.
Symptoms of perimenopause
Symptoms may come in waves and often get worse just before your period, when oestrogen levels drop. They can include:
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Irregular periods
- Trouble sleeping
- Itchy/crawly/dry skin
- Vaginal dryness
- Low sex drive
- More pronounced premenstrual tension
- Mood changes, such as feeling teary and more irritable
- Weight gain.
6 diet changes that can help with perimenopause symptoms
While you can’t stop nature from taking its course, there are changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to help you feel your best through perimenopause and beyond.
Now is not the time to embark on drastic diets or set unrealistic fitness goals. Instead, small yet sustainable changes to your daily habits will help set you up for the next stage of your life by decreasing your risk of developing chronic diseases associated with ageing. Try the following:
1 Eat three to four serves of dairy a day
As you age, your risk of osteoporosis, or brittle bones, increases. To meet your increased calcium needs, include more dairy foods in your diet. Try having a milk-based smoothie for breakfast, cheese and crackers for snacks, and a tub of yoghurt for dessert. You don’t have to choose reduced-fat dairy foods, but if you are trying to lose a few kilos, it’s one way to consume fewer kilojoules.
2 Snack on nuts and seeds
For a hit of hunger-busting protein and heart-healthy fats, snack on a small handful (about 30g) of nuts every day. They’re great in salads, too!
3 Load up on colourful veg
It’s never too late to up the ante when it comes to consuming more low-kilojoule, high-nutrient vegetables. If you’re not getting enough in your main meals, try eating vegie sticks with hoummos for an easy, between-meals snack.
4 Include soy foods
Many women think soy foods can have harmful hormonal effects. Yet, overall, research concludes eating whole soy foods like tofu and tempeh, in amounts similar to traditional Asian diets, is safe – and can even reduce your risk of developing breast cancer.
Soy foods are phytoestrogens, plant-based oestrogen that mimics the role of natural oestrogen in the body. For one in three, eating phytoestrogen-rich foods (soy milk, tempeh, tofu, soy-linseed bread) may ease menopausal symptoms.
5 Be active daily
It is never too late to start exercising. Even just 20 or 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise, such as walking, swimming or yoga, brings great health benefits. These include improved mood, better sleep, more energy and a lower risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.
6 Enjoy oily fish two to three times a week
Oily fish, such as sardines, tuna, salmon and mackerel, are rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that support brain and heart health. Research also suggests these omega-3 fats can help ease depressive symptoms associated with the menopausal transition. Don’t forget, either, that it doesn’t have to be fresh seafood – canned salmon and sardines are also high in omega-3 fats.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
Hormone replacement therapy consists of oestrogen or progesterone, or a combination of both. It comes in tablets, skin patches and gels. HRT got a bad wrap for a while due to some studies associating it with an increased risk of breast and other cancers.
But experts say the risk increase is small and people need to weigh up the potential benefits against that, when deciding whether or not to proceed with HRT.
A woman and her doctor can discuss if HRT is the right option based on the woman’s symptoms, medical history and risk factors.
Benefits of HRT include:
- Improved quality of life for women who suffer significant symptoms
- Reduced risk of fragile bones from osteoporosis after menopause
- HRT is usually not associated with weight gain
- Women who take combined HRT are less likely to have type 2 diabetes
Risks of HRT include:
- Long-term use (longer than five years) may increase the risk of breast cancer
- HRT increases the risk of blood clots and strokes. The risk is low in women aged under 60, and may be lower still when HRT is not combined, eg, oestrogen only
- Oral HRT has been associated with an increased risk of gallbladder inflammation.
What sets off hot flushes?
Hot flushes are the most commonly reported symptom of perimenopause. There are quite a few normal things in your daily life that could set off a hot flush. Some things to look out for include:
- Spicy food
- Stress and anxiety
- Tight clothing
- Hot weather
Article sources and references
- Freeman et al. 2011. Omega-3 fatty acids for major depressive disorder associated with the menopausal transition: a preliminary open trial. Menopause. 18(3): 279-284.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21037490/
- Jean Hailes for Women’s Health. 2020. Foods for menopause. Accessed March 2021https://www.jeanhailes.org.au/news/foods-for-menopause
- ean Hailes for Women’s Health. 2020. Perimenopause fact sheet. Accessed March 2021https://www.jeanhailes.org.au/resources/perimenopause-fact-sheet
- Mishra et al. 2011. Exercise beyond menopause: dos and don’ts. J Midlife Health. 2(2): 51-56.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3296386/