The ‘change of life’ doesn’t have to be marked by menopausal symptoms. There are natural remedies and supplements that can help, says Lisa Burn
For many women, the menopause is seen as something to dread – hot flushes, cold sweats, dryness and tears. Yet shouldn’t it be regarded as another of life’s milestones rather than a millstone? While it does mark the end of babies and birth it by no means marks the end of a woman’s useful life. It can be seen as another beginning, symbolised by the joy of worry-free sex; a time for concentrating on yourself and your partner.
The average age for menopause is 51, though some women do go through it earlier or later, the usual range being from 47 to 52. While it means the end of ovulation and menstruation it also results in reduced oestrogen levels, which has both emotional and physical effects.
Menopausal symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, irritability, depression, fatigue, increased weight, sleeplessness and headaches. Oestrogen deficiency can also cause hair loss, dry skin, wrinkles and spots as well as increasing risk of heart disease and stroke while decreasing bone mass, which could lead to osteoporosis. Yet all of these symptoms can be managed.
For many women in the UK treatment is via hormone replacement therapy (HRT) using oestrogen, progesterone or both, but health scares reported in the press about increased heart disease, deep vein thrombosis and breast cancer risk have put some off going down that route. According to the Department of Health HRT is okay on a short-term basis to relieve menopausal symptoms but long-term, to prevent osteoporosis for example, it should “only be prescribed if other treatments are inappropriate or have proven unsuccessful”.
So what other treatments are out there?
Eat well for health
This is where you can easily make a difference. Cut down on saturated fat from meat and dairy products, cut down on alcohol and if you’re a smoker, stop. During the reproductive years oestrogen offers a high degree of protection for women from heart attacks and strokes but after menopause a woman’s risk rises to that of a man. Reduced oestrogen can also lead to loss of bone density so eat calciumrich foods, such as green, leafy vegetables, as well as those containing vitamin D, magnesium and boron (to help calcium absorption and build bones). Choose semiskimmed or skimmed milk or try soya milk. Vitamin B12, found in meat, fish, milk and eggs, as well as fortified breakfast cereals, also affects bone health, with lower levels of the nutrient corresponding to lower bone mineral density, according to a new study.
Oily fish contains vitamin D as well as the essential fatty acid omega 3, also found in flax seeds (linseeds) and walnuts. Almonds contain boron, magnesium and calcium while all nuts have been shown to protect from heart disease and lower cholesterol levels. Omega 3 is essential for all cells in the body and it has a moisturising effect, so useful if you’re suffering skin and hair problems as a result of menopause. Eating more citrus fruit for their vitamin C content can also have a beneficial effect on skin – vitamin C is an antioxidant and also boosts collagen production, helping keep skin strong and healthy.
Studies have shown soya to have a protective effect – women in Asia and Japan suffer much lower levels of breast cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease and menopausal symptoms such as night sweats and hot flushes than women in the West. This protective effect is due to the phytoestrogens in soya, so consider switching to vitamin-enriched soya milk or eating tofu (also a good source of protein). Broad beans, kidney beans and chickpeas also contain phytoestrogens, as do cereals such as oats and barley, brown rice, linseeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, red onions, garlic, tomatoes and broccoli. Avoiding spicy foods and drinking less tea, coffee and alcohol can also improve hot flushes, while drinking chamomile tea can help relieve insomnia and irritable moods.
If you’re feeling low, weepy and prone to fly off the handle you may need to look at your blood sugar levels. Great peaks and troughs in insulin levels should be avoided by eating small, regular meals, up to six a day and choosing low GI foods such as wholewheat bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta, seeds, nuts and vegetables, cutting out refined and processed foods altogether. Again, avoid alcohol, which can have a depressant effect and coffee, which can exacerbate blood sugar problems.
Regular physical activity is particularly important during the menopause as it increases bone density. Weight-bearing exercise such as brisk walking, aerobics, tennis or running can help prevent osteoporosis (weakened bones), which, according to the National Osteoporosis Society, affects one in three women in the UK over the age of 50. Exercise also makes you feel good, lifting your mood, as well as helping with weight management – keeping off fat while increasing muscle mass.
Many of the nutrients found in food that help combat the symptoms of menopause are also found in supplement form. Phytoestrogens are available in products made from soya as well as those made from red clover, a potent source of plant oestrogens. Calcium and vitamin D formulations can help protect bones, B complex vitamins can improve mood; fish oil and linseed oil, available as liquid or capsules, contain the essential fatty acid omega 3, vital for heart and mental health, the mineral chromium can help stabilise blood sugar levels and magnesium can ease stress. Products specially formulated for the menopause combining various vitamins, minerals and herbs are available as are formulations targeting bone health or skin and hair.
Evening primrose oil has long been used to counteract pre-menstrual syndrome and tender breasts but it also works for menopausal symptoms including irritability and breast pain as it helps with hormonal balance. It contains gamma linolenic acid (GLA), also found in borage (starflower) oil. On the herbal front, black cohosh is effective for emotional symptoms including mood swings and depression, it can also lower blood pressure; sage works against hot flushes; St John’s Wort can also help depression; gingko biloba improves circulation and memory. Omega 7 supplements, from sea buckthorn, help keep mucous membranes healthy, reducing the vaginal dryness caused by decreased oestrogen levels.
The menopause should be regarded as a positive experience – after all it removes the fear of unwanted pregnancy and can be a boon if you’ve suffered from painful periods. “The radical and fundamental changes which take place in a woman’s life around the time of menopause are not signs of decay or pathology, but part of an exciting adventure,” says author and health guru Leslie Kenton in her book Ten Steps to a Natural Menopause. “This is a time to regenerate and rejuvenate our bodies, to unearth parts of our personality that have been hidden beneath the responsibilities of the child-bearing years, a time to discover that our creativity is no longer bound to our obligation as a member of the human race to propagate the species.”
Note: please consult your doctor before taking supplements as they may interact with prescribed medication.