When starting my nutrition practice in the UK, I quickly realized one of the primary concerns from female patients were hormonal issues. Fertility, polycystic ovarian syndrome, fibroids, breast cancer, PMS, estrogen dominance and menopause are a few of the conditions I regularly help manage. Dealing with the symptoms of menopause can be extremely distressing, and every woman must go through it. There is a very obvious gap in treatments available to women in order to better help manage the hormonal symptoms they experience throughout the various stages of life. Women spend about one third of their life post-menopause so it seems negligent to not support them through this complex process of change later in life. We now have research proving supportive care is effective for menopausal women. This support entails the delivery of essential nutrients and lifestyle modification for women during this time.
There are 3 stages of menopause. Peri-menopause, menopause, and post-menopause. Menopause usually starts in the early 50s and lasts 2-5 years. The typical age of onset is usually any time between 45 and 55 years old but can sometimes be earlier.
Peri-menopause: Hormones start to change and periods become irregular.
Menopause: The last menstrual period.
Post-menopause: When menstruation has stopped for at least 12 months.
Common menopausal symptoms experienced are:
- Tiredness and lack of energy
- Weight gain (especially around the tummy)
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
- Low mood/anxiety/depression
- Brain fog
- Reduced sex drive
- Memory problems
- Night sweats and difficulty sleeping
- Muscle/joint pain
- Vaginal dryness
- Heart palpitations
- An increase in yeast infections
- Thinning hair
- Dry skin
During this phase of life there is also an increased risk of health issues such as:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Bone density issues (osteoporosis)
- Overweight and obesity
- Breast cancer
Currently the most common treatment for menopausal symptoms in Western medicine is hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which is replacing the hormones lost when the ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone. HRT can absolutely reduce some of the symptoms and improve bone health in menopausal women, but not without consequences such as increased risk of breast, ovarian, womb and endometrial cancer, heart disease and stroke. Currently heart disease is the leading cause of death in post-menopausal women, and now, 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
To date, there are countless studies on lifestyle modification and menopause, indicating that with the right changes, guidance and support, symptoms can be reduced or eliminated, body weight managed and/or reduced, and health risks lowered… So what can we do?
In regards to menopause specific nutrition… a lot. First of all, the dietary needs of menopausal women are far more important than any other stage of a woman’s life.
We need to reduce:
- Excess fat (especially saturated fat)
Focus on incorporating more of the following:
- Plant based proteins (beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy, nuts and seeds)
- Plenty of vegetables and fruit
- Low glycemic/high fiber carbohydrates (whole grain breads and pasta, quinoa, brown and wild rice, barley, whole potatoes, etc.)
- Healthy fats (avocado, nuts and seeds, oily fish, olive oil),
- Soy foods
Consuming enough soy everyday can reduce menopausal symptoms by approximately 20% and decrease hot flashes by as much as 50%. There are also some nutritional deficiencies like calcium, magnesium, omega-3, B vitamins, vitamin D that must be addressed to support hormone balance, bone health, energy production and reduce cardiovascular disease and cancer risk. This may sound confusing, difficult, or even impossible for many women, especially if it is the opposite of how they generally eat, but just like any lifestyle change, the goal is progress, not perfection. We know from the vast amount of research that the optimal diet for menopause helps detoxify excess estrogens from the body, improves physical and psychological symptoms drastically, reduces blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer risk, and improves quality of life. It may take some time to change and adjust your lifestyle to best support your body, but the result is well worth the effort.
What comes as frustrating news for many women, is that post menopause is the most important time in a women’s life to be a healthy body weight. This is because it is generally the most difficult life stage to manage weight gain, but it doesn’t have to be. Body fat cells increase the body’s estrogens which subsequently increases health risks like breast cancer and heart disease, while also exacerbating other difficult symptoms. In the case of excess weight, this is always a primary start to nutrition treatment since it would have the greatest effect on quality of life and modifying health risk. With the right support and guidance it is very achievable to lose the weight you want and keep it off. I also cannot stress enough how mainstream weight loss/diet advice (eating a ridiculous amount of protein and cutting out carbs) completely contradicts the current evidence for weight loss and menopause specific nutrition. Instead a combination of increased plant based proteins, whole grains, plenty of fiber, reduced fat and overall calories, and where appropriate, incorporating some intermittent fasting is essential.
The importance of physical activity also cannot be stressed enough. According to research, exercise is likely more important in later life than any other stage. Since muscle mass decreases with age, but even faster during the peri-menopausal phase, the consequence is a reduced resting metabolic rate (how many calories your body burns at rest) and subsequent weight gain due to needing less calories to maintain weight. Bone health, weight control, and psychological health rely on a steady supply of regular physical activity, so finding a way to include exercises appropriate to your fitness levels are crucial. Remember, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest.
The advice, evidence, and guidance can be overwhelming, but understanding that there is help outside of your primary caregiver or family doctor should come as reassuring news. I have helped many women achieve better menopausal symptom control and weight loss with great results. I continue to keep up to date on the latest research in menopausal health through frequent continuing education, so I can provide the best treatment possible. Women need to be educated on how to alter our lifestyle with nutrition, physical activity and appropriate supplementation; as well as having the support and positivity to embrace this new stage of life. We are no longer just being told “it is just a part of being a woman." We as women deserve to understand our bodies during these difficult times and have access to support and treatment available so we don’t have to sacrifice our quality of life, relationships, confidence and happiness.
Mel Cronshaw, Nutrition Therapist - Momentum Health West Springs
BSc (Hons), NNCP, ANutr
Melissa Cronshaw helps patients to optimize their nutrition for health and guides patients through sustainable weight loss and the various stages of life, particularly for challenging periods like menopause. Mel is an internationally educated Nutrition Therapist, registered with CANNP in Canada, as well as a Registered Associate Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition in the UK. She completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Nutritional Science, specializing in clinical and sport nutrition at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. After graduating, she set up a private practice in the UK where she provided 1-1 personalized nutrition programs. She also regularly delivered presentations to various groups on a range of health and wellness topics including chronic fatigue syndrome, menopause, and breast cancer nutrition. After moving back to Calgary in 2021, she continues to deliver these presentations to gyms, employers and community groups.
Our childhood habits, lifestyle, jobs, family dynamic, as well as many other factors, contribute to the development of our eating habits which may be detrimental to our long term health. We all eat so differently, which is why personalization through evidence-based nutrition is the only effective way of achieving sustainable weight loss and making meaningful food choices. Mel will guide you through the research to discover and understand the most impactful nutritional habits for your needs. The areas Mel can help manage include, but are not limited to, weight loss, women’s health (menopause, PMS, PCOS, etc), type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, IBS, nutritional deficiencies and more. Nutrition and lifestyle practices have the potential to profoundly change the course of our life from a poor state of health to optimal wellness, health and vitality. To see how nutrition therapy can help you, book a 15 minute discovery call with Mel so she may answer any questions you may have.