Midlife is full of surprises – and not all of them are good… If you are reading this guide then I’m guessing that you are touched in some way by symptoms of the menopause – or more accurately, the transition to menopause. Perhaps you are even horrified at the person looking back at you in the mirror. Who is this person? What on earth happened? You are not alone. Until recently, when celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Gillian Anderson and Kirsty Walk started speaking out about their experiences, menopause was the silent shame. Yet experts reckon that 80% of women experience the symptoms of menopause.
1. Watch what you eat
One of the tragedies about menopause is the realisation that you really cannot get away with eating the same foods you used to. Your body has changed, and you need to learn to eat for this new way of being. Why? The drop in oestrogen levels that occurs during menopause has a side effect of redistributing body fat and excess pounds start to settle around the waist. On top of that, the change that happens in relation to oestrogen and progesterone at this stage of life is also likely to make your body less sensitive to insulin, the fat-storage hormone. This is produced in response to you eating carbohydrates. When the body’s cells are less sensitive to insulin, more insulin is needed to do the same job, and more insulin produced means more fat stored. There are also lifestyle factors to consider. Muscle mass diminishes with age while fat increases. That means it’s more important than ever to switch from whatever kind of diet you’re on now to a low-GL (glycaemic load) diet that balances your blood sugar levels. This means you will be eating foods that do not trigger insulin secretion in response to what you eat.
2. Eat functional foods
These are foods that actually do stuff in the body. On one level, the food you eat can help balance your blood sugar and energy levels. On another it keeps you feeling satiated and also nourishes you. The cherry on top is to use the very subtle yet magical powers of food to help support your body in times of need. At this time of your life, that means phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are plant-based chemicals (the good kind), which are structurally similar to oestrogen and exert a weak oestrogenic effect. They include soy beans, lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, barley, rye, oats, alfalfa, apples, pears, carrots, fennel, onion, garlic, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, liquorice root.
3. Manage your stress
Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones and it can make you gain weight, and feel both tired and miserable as well as using up stores of important vitamins. You probably already know that dwindling oestrogen levels are one of the main factors behind your symptoms. However, the effects of stress can be just as debilitating. Most hormones are made from the same basic ingredients. When it’s under fire, the body prioritises those jobs that are useful for sustaining life, which means that when you are stressed, your body will make stress hormones ahead of anything else. So all those raw materials that might have gone to make oestrogen now won’t. Apart from your fat cells, the only source of oestrogen after your ovaries stop making it is the adrenal glands, which is where the stress hormones are made. If your adrenals are busy making stress hormones This is why a stress action plan is a must. Self care in your 40s and 50s is no longer a ‘nice thing to do’, it is essential for managing symptoms of the transition to menopause and also – she says dramatically – staying alive. If you have not been good (and many women aren’t) at putting your needs first and doing nice things for yourself, start now. Write down 5 activities you really enjoy doing – even if it’s been a while since you did any of them! Examples might include painting your nails, doing a jigsaw, taking a bath surrounded by candles.
4. Do the right exercise
As the weight creeps on, it’s very common for women to start getting into types of exercise that are very punishing on the body, like running and high intensity interval training. What do I mean by punishing? These very intense forms of exercise stress the body and, if your body is already stressed, it’s just too much. Yoga, Pilates, Zumba and other dance-based classes are good, and don’t knock a decent walking workout. Resistance/ strength exercise (weights) is also good to help with the loss of muscle. Strength training also helps you shore up bone, maintain balance, and avoid injury—important for protecting your skeleton both now and when you’re older.
5. Avoid toxic chemicals
Chemicals in your body care products – anything from shampoo and conditioner to body wash, body lotion and other moisturisers – contain chemicals like parabens, sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate, ureas and the like. These are synthetic forms of oestrogen that are known Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (code for: they muck up your hormones). Scientifically, these chemicals are molecularly similar to oestrogen and your body finds it very tricky to distinguish between the fake oestrogen and the real oestrogen. At this time in your life, you really don’t want to be overloading your body. These toxins place an additional stress on the body, can damage the cells in your body that produce insulin, disrupting its action (and not in a good way), can impair thyroid hormones and place extra burden on the detoxification system.
6. Get better sleep
You have probably heard about all the good things sleep can do for you, from making you look younger and feel more energised to helping you lose weight – and so much in between. Suffice to say, sleep is good and you should get more of it. As you work on a diet and lifestyle plan to get your hormones back into balance, better sleep will start to follow.