Some women breeze through the menopause and hardly notice it’s happening – but four in five get hot flushes, and other symptoms including tiredness, disturbed sleep, low mood, loss of libido, panic attacks, vaginal dryness, and joint pain.
But does it really have to be that way? After all, the menopause is a totally natural occurrence that happens to all women lucky enough to live to middle-age. Why should our health and wellbeing suddenly take a nosedive, along with our fertility?
Menopause in different cultures
The menopause is a natural part of ageing, but it can be a challenging time for many women. I know from the vast number who contact me, seeking advice on how to manage their symptoms from hot flushes, bloating, and sudden unwanted weight gain to vaginal dryness. Their symptoms are at the very least uncomfortable and inconvenient and, at worst, can persist for a number of years. It’s no surprise that menopausal women are three times more likely to suffer from depression.
However, night sweats, mood swings and all the other symptoms mentioned above, are not the inevitable consequences of the menopause. For proof of that, we only have to step outside of our own Western culture and examine the experience of women around the world, particularly those in the East.
Chinese women, for example, have a consistently low chance of developing any menopause symptoms at all. Mayan women actually look forward to menopause as a time of newfound freedom and status. Hot flushes are so rare among middle-aged women in Japan, there’s not even a name for them. The Japanese word for menopause (konenki) translates as both ‘renewal years’ and ‘energy’.
Here in the West, we seem to have accepted the idea that the end of menstruation brings with it problems that range from the inconvenient and embarrassing (hot flushes, brain fog and grumpiness) to the serious (heart disease and arthritis). So why do women in other cultures suffer so much less than we do?
It is believed, and I am a supporter of this theory, that the answer may be found in our lifestyles. And in particular, on our dinner plates.
Does food really play a role?
Throughout our lives, here in the West, we consume much more meat, and about four times as much fat, as women on traditional Asian rice-based diets, and only a quarter to a half the fibre. For reasons that have never been completely clear, a high-fat, low-fibre diet causes a rise in oestrogen levels. Women on higher-fat diets have measurably more oestrogen activity than do those on low-fat diets. At menopause, the ovaries’ production of oestrogen comes to a halt, which means that those women who have been on high-fat diets then have a dramatic drop in oestrogen levels. The drop appears to be less dramatic for Asian women, who have lower levels of oestrogen both before and after menopause. The resulting symptoms are much milder or even non-existent.
The difference between Americans and Greeks and other Europeans on the one hand, for whom hot flushes are common, and the Mayans and Japanese on the other, for whom hot flushes are rare or unknown, appears to be diet. The Mayan diet consists of corn and corn tortillas, beans, tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, radishes, and other vegetables, with very little meat and no dairy products. Like the traditional Japanese diet, it is extremely low in animal products and low in fat in general. The Greek diet, while rich in vegetables and legumes, also contains meat, fish, cheese, and milk, as does the cuisine of other countries in Europe and North America. Animal-based meals affect hormone levels rapidly and strongly, and appear to contribute to the menopausal problems that are common in Western countries.
In short, there are dietary steps and other lifestyle changes that can make your menopause much more manageable.
Follow Japanese wisdom!
It’s rather intriguing that not only are the Japanese renowned for their longevity, but Japanese women experience far fewer difficulties with the menopause compared to women here in the West.
If you are struggling with your menopausal symptoms, then maybe it’s time to assess your dietary habits and look to the Japanese for inspiration and motivation.
From tofu to miso, the Japanese diet includes large amounts of soya products. These so-called phytoestrogens mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body and are thought to help with fluctuations in the hormone, hence their success in smoothing the rapid fluctuations brought on by the menopause.
It’s also worth noting that the Japanese government has a clear statement of 13 portions of vegetables accompanied by four portions of fruits a day. Research has shown that women who follow the eating pattern of vegetables and fruits tended to experience fewer of the general, physical, and mental symptoms associated with the menopause.
Omega 3 & Menopause
The other huge staple in the Japanese diet is oily fish. Japanese women eat about 100g of oily fish daily, while here in the UK many of us struggle to eat the recommended portion of oily fish twice a week. Oily fish is thought to be beneficial to the body primarily because it contains such large amounts of the essential fatty acid omega 3. In fact, nutritional studies show that Japanese women get 1,300mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day from their diet, compared to just 200g here in the UK.
Having a healthy diet is important for hormone balance at any age, but at a time of such rapid fluctuation as the menopause, it’s essential.
If you are not a fan of oily fish, then taking an Omega 3 supplement is a must. Take one capsule daily, with food.
Flaxseed Cookies Recipe
Omega 3 should only be part of your lifestyle overhaul. If you’re suffering from hot flushes, identifying common triggers (like caffeine, alcohol, and sugar) and avoiding them can be helpful, as well as upping the levels of oestrogen-balancing lignans and flavonoids in your diet, by eating more soya, chickpeas, and flax. These delicious hormone-balancing Dark Chocolate and Flaxseed cookies are a tasty and highly effective way of adding more lignans and flavonoids to your diet.
Exercise has also been shown to be invaluable, improving sleep, boosting mood and reducing your risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. Exercise that involves impact, such as running or weight lifting, is particularly beneficial for strengthening bones.
For more information on diet and lifestyle choices that will bring relief to menopause symptoms, you can download my Menopause Fact Sheet here.