Perimenopause – the gradual transition to non-reproductive years – strikes between the ages of 45-60, when a woman’s ovaries stop producing oestrogens. It can also occur prematurely following surgical removal of ovaries, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or certain anti-hormone drugs. As a result, the blood levels of oestrogens decline dramatically – which can bring a whole raft of symptoms.
Every woman experiences menopause differently. Some may breeze through it with few problems, while others may struggle both physically and psychologically. Hormones have a lot to answer for!
As a naturopath (and a woman!) I am well-aware of the discomfort that perimenopause can bring. I help other women through this transitional phase by providing comprehensive health evaluations that help to manage troubling symptoms. I also help them address and prevent changes that can affect their bone health, cardiovascular function, and mental wellbeing.
Symptoms of Menopause
Irregular menstruation: Heavy, infrequent and/or irregular uterine bleeding is one of the most common symptoms throughout menopause. This occurs due to the major fluctuations of oestradiol production.
Vasomotor symptoms: Hot flashes are also common. These are caused by gonadal hormone changes which alter the body’s temperature. A hot flash is often described as intense heat spreading over the body.
Urogenital symptoms: Vaginal dryness and/or atrophy, vaginal/bladder infections and painful sexual intercourse result from low levels of oestrogen and androgen sensitisation, causing irritation and soreness.
Other symptoms can include:
Increased visceral fat in the subcutaneous area
Loss of muscle mass and strength
Loss of bone density
Sleep disturbances and insomnia
Depression and/or mood swings
Menopause may be a risk factor for serious conditions such as:
Osteoporosis: The decline in oestrogen causes accelerated bone resorption and rapid decline in bone density.
Breast cancer: Later onset of menopause has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
Cardiovascular disease: Several studies have observed a link between increased risk of cardiovascular disease following menopause where amongst other things women have been found to experience a unique increase in lipids at the time of the menopause. It is important to note that most of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease are able to be modified through changes in diet, lifestyle and exercise.
Naturopathic Approaches to Perimenopause & Menopause
Eating plenty of foods rich in phyto-oestrogens may help to reduce symptoms of menopause. Phytoestrogens are plant molecules that have a similar chemical structure to oestrogen and act in a similar way by binding to oestrogen receptors on cells. The best and most-researched source of phytoestrogens in the form of isoflavones is soy. Edamame, miso, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, and soy-based meat substitutes all provide isoflavones.
Flaxseed is a rich source of isoflavones and dietary lignans. Lignans are polyphenolic compounds found in plants that have been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer.
B vitamins have numerous functions within the body, from energy production to cardiovascular health and brain function. B vitamins also help reduce fatigue, and support healthy adrenal function. They also play an important role in maintaining the functions of the nervous system. Many studies have shown numerous studies have linked low vitamin B-vitamin intake with cognitive dysfunction and cognitive decline in menopause and in older age.
Bone mineral density loss increases calcium requirements. Supplementation (with vitamin D) is usually more efficient than obtaining calcium through the diet. Increasing calcium intake alongside vitamin D has been shown to prevent bone loss and reduce fracture risk in peri- and postmenopausal women. The recommendation for most women is at least 1,200 mg/day of calcium, along with a daily intake of 400-600 IU of vitamin D.
Essential Fatty Acids
EFA supplements that include fish oil, borage oil, vitamin E, and lipoic acid can help to reduce hot flushes in menopausal women. Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids help to modulate neurotransmitter function and serotonin production, while also supporting cardiovascular health. Omega 3 supplementation has also been shown to significantly improve symptoms of psychological distress and mild depression in women going through menopause. Omega 3 is easy to obtain in the diet by eating oily fish (such as sardines, salmon, trout) but taking a quality supplement is usually preferred.
Women require a certain amount of ‘good’ bacteria to maintain vaginal health. During menopause, decreased oestrogen can lead to depletion of lactobacilli and a rise in vaginal pH, creating conditions for vaginal infections. Probiotics have been found to improve the microflora of the gut and vagina during menopause, which can help to prevent vaginal infections. Probiotics also help reduce the unpleasant symptoms that accompany vaginal infections, such as discharge and odor.
Menopause can be a very tiring and stressful time, so it’s important to take time out for your mental health. Cognitive behavioural strategies and relaxation techniques can make a huge difference when going through menopause. Studies show that these practices provide positive effects on the body, reducing both vasomotor and depression-related symptoms. Mindfulness-based therapies also help to improve coping mechanisms and self-acceptance through stress reduction.
If you’re heading into menopause – or you’re going through it now – you might be in need of a helping hand. And that’s to be expected! Don’t try to go it alone if things aren’t feeling right.
I’m a fully-qualified Highfields naturopath and nutritionist, and I can help make your transition through this difficult time easier. Just send me an email or contact me here.