Menopause,a natural part of ageing,is the end of a womans monthly menstrual periods. The process usually occurs when a woman is 45 to 55 years of age,as a result of a progressive decline in levels of the estrogen hormone. The beginning of this time of change is referred to as perimenopause,while the period after menopause is called postmenopause.
During menopause,fluctuations in estrogen levels can cause symptoms like hot flushes (sudden intense waves of heat and sweating),night sweats,depression,anxiety,forgetfulness,headaches, mood swings, insomnia,vaginal dryness or inflammation,infections,urinary incontinence,difficulty in concentrating,weight gain and skin and hair changes. While some may have a smooth sail into menopause,others are distressed with severe symptoms.
After menopause,a woman also faces a much higher risk of developing osteoporosis and heart disease. However,a healthy diet and regular exercise can help ease the symptoms of menopause and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
A diet rich in whole grains and pulses,fruits and vegetables,low-fat dairy,nuts and seeds with limited intake of sugar,salt,harmful fats (trans-fats) and alcohol is recommended. Special nutrients which have been found useful include calcium,magnesium,manganese,copper,zinc,vitamins B6,B 12,E and K,phyestrogens,essential fats and bioflavonoids. Foods that worsen the symptoms are caffeine (coffee,tea,chocolate,colas),alcohol and spicy foods.
Studies have shown that soya foods not only help ease hot flushes but also protect against heart disease. Soya foods contain isoflavones,which have a weak estrogenic effect in the body. They can be included in the diet in the form of tofu,soya beans,soya beverages,soya nuts,and soya protein. Addition of even small amounts on a regular basis,like a few servings a week can be beneficial. Excessive consumption,particularly for those with a history of hormone related cancers,can be counter-productive.
Other foods that contain phyto-estrogens are flaxseeds,chickpeas and other legumes,and in lesser amounts in carrots,corn,apples and oats. These phyto-estrogens may help alleviate menopause-related symptoms like hot flushes and also protect against heart disease and osteoporosis.
Four important nutrients for menopausal women:
Vitamin E: Considered useful in alleviating hot flushes and thought to offer some heart protection. A recent study showed that 400 IU of vitamin E taken twice daily did not seem to offer significant benefits. Although,benefits of supplements have not shown consistently,stepping up foods rich in vitamin E is recommended. In case of severe symptom short-term supplementation may be useful. Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts and seeds,egg yolk and wheat germ.
Calcium: A woman may lose 10-20 per cent of her bone mass in the decade following menopause,with a slower but still significant loss thereafter. Calcium intake has to be optimum during this period to help prevent the development of osteoporosis. Good sources are milk and milk products,almonds,ragi,amaranth,broccoli and spinach. To absorb calcium,body needs vitamin D,which can be made by the skin after exposure to the sun. Dietary sources of this vitamin include fortified milk,eggs and fish oil.
Magnesium: Works with calcium to maintain bone density. Some studies even point to magnesium intake as a stronger predictor of bone density than calcium intake. It is found in whole grains,milk and milk products,tofu,nuts and seeds and legumes.
Essential fats: Rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids are flax seeds and oily fish. They play important role in controlling depression and mood swings. They are also helpful for general well-being and to prevent chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease,high blood pressure and cancer.
Various herbal supplements,such as black cohosh,dong quai and wild yam have been used as a part of alternative therapy to ease the symptoms of menopause,but,as yet,there is not sufficient evidence to support their effectiveness.
Together with a healthy diet rich in calcium,exercises such as brisk walking,jogging,aerobics and swimming help keep bones strong and maintain good heart health.