Menopause is typically defined as occurring 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual period. The period leading up to that point is usually referred to as perimenopause or the menopausal transition. This transition can begin anywhere between the ages of 45 and 55 and can last from 7 to 14 years.1
Menopause is not a disease, but some of its symptoms can be unpleasant. While some women enter menopause blissfully free of any health complaints, others may suffer from one or more of the following: sleep disturbances, hot flashes and/or night sweats, irritability, depression, dry skin, or pain during intercourse.1,2
Menopause also brings with it a higher risk of certain health disorders such as heart disease and osteoporosis. Bones tend to lose density, and changes in the body’s fat cells make it easier for women to gain weight.3
When entering the menopausal transition, there are several steps you can take to support overall health and alleviate the more annoying symptoms of the change.
Good nutrition is a core component of any menopausal health plan. Compared with women on traditional Asian rice-based diets, Western women tend to consume much more meat and fat and only one-quarter to one-half the amount of fiber.4,5 If you are in menopause, take care to eat a diet that’s high in fiber and low in fat, and that contains plenty of whole-grain foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.6,7
Physical activity is also important for managing health during menopause. Health experts recommend some sort of weight-bearing exercise at least three days a week to help keep your bones strong and healthy. While you can do full-scale weight training if you are able, climbing stairs or dancing also count as weight-bearing activities.8
In addition to its role as a bone builder, calcium is essential for proper function of the heart, muscles, and nerves, as well as for blood to clot.9 Because of their higher risk of developing osteoporosis, menopausal women need to ensure they are getting enough calcium in their diet.10
It can be difficult to get the 1,200 milligrams of calcium recommended daily for women ages 51 through 709 through diet alone, especially if you are avoiding dairy products due to lactose intolerance. Taking a daily supplement can help make up any dietary gap in calcium intake. Also, monitor your dietary intake of protein and sodium, as high levels of both can cause calcium to be excreted through the kidneys.11,12
While menopause itself does not cause cardiovascular disease, certain risk factors do increase, and bad habits like smoking and consuming a fat-rich diet can really take a toll on your heart health. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to improve blood lipid levels and lower the risk of cardiac death.13
Seek out foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna, to help protect against the elevated heart disease risk that accompanies menopause.14 You can also take omega-3 supplements to gain the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition to their heart health benefits, a small study has found omega-3 fatty acids have potential in treating menopausal-related depression,15 and other studies are ongoing to determine their effectiveness in treating hot flashes.16
The need for B complex vitamins increases in menopause for a number of reasons, including reduced absorption due to intestinal problems and use of medicines that interfere with vitamin B metabolism. B vitamins like folate, B2, B6, and B12 all play a role in nervous system function, and deficiencies in any of them can contribute to adverse health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cognitive decline.17
You can get B complex vitamins through supplementation or a variety of dietary sources, including meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, grains like wheat and rice, and fresh fruits and vegetables.18
Getting enough vitamin D is key to adequate absorption of calcium by the body.19 Vitamin D also plays a role in modulating cell growth and reducing inflammation, as well as in neuromuscular and immune function.20
Exposure to sunlight is one way to get the body to produce vitamin D. It can also be found in supplements, in foods like liver and egg yolks, and in vitamin D-fortified products like milk and cereals. However, since many people avoid prolonged sun exposure, supplementation is often necessary to achieve the recommended daily amount of 600 IU for women between the ages of 51 and 70 and 800 IU for women older than 70.9
Menopause brings with it a decline in the hormone estrogen, which in addition to its reproductive functions can keep cholesterol levels in check and protect the health of the brain, bones, skin, and heart.2 Some menopausal women choose pharmaceutical estrogen replacement therapy to counteract the effects of decreasing estrogen levels.
There are substances found in certain plants, including soy, red clover, and flaxseed, that are similar in chemical structure to those of estrogen. While study results have been mixed as to whether these phytoestrogens can relieve the symptoms of menopause,21 at least one review determined that red clover alleviated hot flash symptoms in menopausal women.22
Research also suggests that the isoflavone found in soy foods and red clover can have a positive effect on cholesterol levels, bone density, and cognitive function.23
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is part of the buttercup family and an herb native to eastern North America. While its precise mechanism of action is unknown, some studies have shown that taking black cohosh can ease hot flash symptoms.24