You might be surprised to hear that women outside of western countries experience less symptoms of menopause. It’s true! In places like Japan menopause is not treated as the end of the young and fertile years but rather as a gentle transformation towards maturity and with it comes an increase in respect and honor. Simply by having this stress-free attitude, women coast through perimenopause and menopause cool as cucumbers.
But we don’t live there…we are over here in Canada and the United States just trying not to melt with another “tropical moment”.
Yes, for most of us, menopause is not only the end of menstruation but also the beginning of a whole host of uncomfortable and irritating symptoms. It is a hormonal roller coaster ride! But with a little understanding of which hormones are rolling (twisting, turning, loop-de-looping), symptoms can be controlled and minimized - without turning to HRT (hormone replacement therapy)!
Hormones In Flux
There are several obvious hormones at play in the menopausal years, known as the primary sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. They all play a part in regulating the menstrual cycle, plus a whole lot more. There are also several other lesser known hormones that interact with the primary sex hormones during menopause and increase the all too familiar symptoms like hot flashes, weight gain and brain fog. These are cortisol, leptin and growth hormone.
During the childbearing years, estrogen rises in the first half of the menstrual cycle and peaks at ovulation. When perimenopause hits estrogen levels naturally decrease as the body no longer requires estrogen in the same amount. This is not to say estrogen is not needed! Estrogen is needed to keep the skin smooth and moist, and the body’s internal thermostat operating properly. It is also needed for proper bone formation. So, declining estrogen is a contributing factor to changes in skin (inside and out), hot flashes, and osteoporosis. A lesser known fact is that decreased estrogen is a contributing factor to abdominal fat, which tends to increase in our 40s and 50s.
During the second half of the menstrual cycle, progesterone rises as the body prepares a comfortable place for the baby to grow and peaks with ovulation. It continues to rise if conception happens, but if normal menses happens, progesterone levels come down. I was curious to know if progesterone is needed once menstruation ceases. Turns out progesterone levels, though low post menopause, have a calming effect on the brain and helps with mood swings and anxiety.
In women, testosterone is responsible for maintaining a healthy libido. It is also linked to energy and vitality. During fertile years, testosterone levels increase dramatically during ovulation and again right before we get our periods. Without the usual monthly rhythm, testosterone levels fall and your sex life might suffer as a result.
Estrogen naturally regulates cortisol; the stress hormone, so when estrogen begins to drop during the menopausal years, the adrenal glands can’t keep up and cortisol levels are no longer regulated. Moodiness, irritability and anxiety may result when the adrenal glands have been coping with long-term stress; this causes cortisol to decrease and epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) to increase. If your adrenals are functioning optimally symptoms of menopause will be greatly reduced if not non-existent. The key is to support the adrenals first – that means REDUCE stress.
This hormone controls how much fat you are carrying as well as how much you desire to eat. It is closely linked to estrogen and it also decreases during menopause. Usually leptin has the ability to shut down your appetite and increase your calorie-burning ability. When levels decrease so does your ability to feel satiated and weight gain may follow.
While sleeping, a hormone know as growth hormone (GH), is busy at work helping form healthy bones, skin and hair, it is also regulating the body’s proportions of fat and lean muscle mass. When menopause related insomnia hits, GH can be compromised. This leads to menopause symptoms of abdominal fat, vaginal dryness and thinning hair. Aiming to be asleep by 10pm will ensure that GH has a chance to be activated.
7 Hormone Balancing Foods
1. Flaxseeds. Flaxseeds contain a compound called phytoestrogens, a dietary estrogen that mimics estrogen by binding to the same sites. This is important when naturally occurring estrogens start to drop in menopause. Flaxseeds must be ground to have an optimal effect, as the body is not actually able to break down the hard seed shell, and it needs to be refrigerated to protect the fragile oils. TIP: Try sprinkling ground flaxseed on top of cereal in the morning.
2. Coconut Oil. You might be wondering why an oil would make the list of hormone balancing foods. It is actually a healthy type of saturated fat that boosts hormone production. Every cell of steroid hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, use fat as a component in its membrane – meaning that fat is essential to healthy hormones. TIP: Look for a label that has “organic” and “unrefined” listed. I like Spectrum Naturals brand Virgin Coconut Oil.
3. Broccoli. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower and cabbage, contain glucosinolates that modulate estrogens by reducing testosterone. This modulation has been shown to have anti-cancer effects, especially breast cancer. TIP: Sometimes raw cruciferous vegetables can be hard to digest and can interfere with thyroid function. To avoid this problem just steam your broccoli for about 5 minutes, or until still bright green.
4. Swiss Chard. Swiss chard falls into the “leafy green” category, which means it is high in both calcium and magnesium. Magnesium promotes better sleep, which is beneficial for growth hormones to function properly. Restful sleep is also wonderful for providing energy to drained adrenal glands. TIP: Add finely chopped Swiss chard to an oiled pan with garlic before pouring in some scrambled egg for an easy dinner omelette.
5. Salmon. The omega 3 oils in cold-water fish have so much going for them! They are key to brain function, which helps with memory loss and fuzzy thinking. They also contain vitamin D – which boosts happiness. Lastly they contain CoQ10, an enzyme whose synthesis declines with age. CoQ10 supports detoxification, eases depression and fatigue and supports adrenal glands. TIP: See www.seachoice.org for your best bet when it comes to fish.
6. A Variety Of Seeds (Sesame, Sunflower & Pumpkin). The reason I say you should have a variety of seeds is because they are all slightly different yet have similar characteristics. Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin E – which can reduce hot flashes. Sesame seeds are high in CoQ10. Pumpkin seeds are high in zinc, a mineral and antioxidant that is key to maintaining moist skin. They are all high in fiber, which is key to getting old estrogen out of the body so that there is a better balance of hormones. TIP: Try to incorporate seeds everyday by sprinkling them on your salad or snacking on them throughout the day.
7. Maca. I saved the best for last: Maca! This little known Peruvian root powder has the ability to adapt to the body’s needs for different hormones. This means that if you are low in estrogen, Maca will jumpstart estrogen production or if your libido is lacking, you will see an increase in testosterone production. With continued use (1-3 teaspoons daily), for up to 3 months in a row, Maca will improve symptoms of menopause: hot flashes, mood swings, insomnia, fatigue, breast tenderness, brain fog and low sex drive. Sounds too good to be true? Try it out for yourself to see if it works for you. TIP: It is available at most health food stores; the “Nativas Naturals” brand is my favorite.
In good health,
Cheryl Wahl, RHN, CPCC, Personal Trainer
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