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The menopause has become a hot health topic in Ireland in recent times, with greater awareness of its challenges for women. Rude Health magazine looks at what to expect and the best nutrition and supplementation on offer.

The menopause is a natural part of every woman's life, but not something we think about much in advance. If we do think about it, we tend to focus on the negative aspects. "During the menopause women can experience a wide variety of symptoms," says Lucy Kerr from health store The Good Earth in Kilkenny. "The most common are irregular periods, hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, irritability, tiredness, anxiety, vaginal dryness, joint pain and weight gain.

"Whilst these symptoms directly relate to menopause, there are other symptoms that can occur more frequently as a knock-on effect of the changes in oestrogen," says Sian Eustace of health store Healing Harvest in Kinvara Co Galway. "Examples of these are heart disease, type 2 diabetes, loss of bone density, other metabolic disease and increased likelihood of UTIs."

But it's not all bad news – the menopause can be a positive and empowering time and an opportunity to learn how best to take care of your health and wellbeing going forward.

The menopause diet

"When trying to balance hormones and reduce menopausal symptoms your diet should include plenty of essential minerals and healthy fats," says Lucy Kerr. "Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale and cabbage help to balance oestrogen. Go for high-fibre foods – nuts, seeds, legumes, wholegrains and vegetables and fruit; omega-3-rich foods such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, flax seeds or chia seeds; protein from fish, chicken, fermented tofu, legumes and beans, nuts and seeds. Water is vital for your body to stay hydrated.

"Avoid spicy foods which can aggravate hot flashes and night sweats. Many women find caffeine can cause their symptoms to worsen. Processed foods are lacking in the minerals and vitamins needed to nourish the body; and alcohol is found to aggravate menopausal symptoms. Some women benefit from cutting out dairy, wheat and gluten."

"There are certainly foods which can help with hormonal transit or which can mimic oestrogen in the system," says Sian Eustace. "Given the propensity for cardiovascular issues, osteoporosis and metabolic change at this time, consideration can be made to dietary changes and introduction of foods which can support women and protect against these conditions."

The role of exercise

"Exercise is very important in managing risk factors associated with menopause including weight gain, bone loss, high levels of inflammation and stress," says Lucy Kerr. "Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day. A brisk walk is great for boosting your circulation, as is swimming and yoga to help with flexibility. Try to stay as active as possible. Exercise boosts serotonin levels which boosts mood and helps with sleep."

"Exercise can help with mood as well as with cardiovascular health. Weight-bearing exercise includes bouncing on a rebounder, walking or jogging," says Sian Eustace. "There are many options from HIIT workouts to Zumba to yoga, Pilates or t'ai chi. Many fitness trainers offer groups specifically for women and even for women of menopausal age."

Natural health store help

"Your local health store contains many herbs, vitamins and minerals that can be helpful towards menopausal symptoms," says Lucy Kerr. "Staff will also be able to give you advice on your diet and lifestyle."

"Health stores can help with information about diet and foods which can help at this time as well as with supplements which can help create a gentler transition through this period of hormonal change," agrees Sian Eustace. "They can also help with the mental and emotional picture and with energy levels."

The role of herbs

"There are many herbs, vitamins and minerals which can help soften the changes that the reduction on oestrogen causes," says Sian Eustace. "Some products help in a more mechanical way, for example helping to reduce overheating."

"Soy isoflavones have been used for many years to help women through the menopause and are helpful for tiredness, memory loss and irritability," says Lucy Kerr. "Black cohosh helps prevent night sweats and hot flushes and may help improve sleep. Dong quai is a traditional botanical herb which is used to support female hormones. Red clover contains isoflavones that can help reduce symptoms related to oestrogen loss."

Magnesium – menopause wonder

"Magnesium helps for almost all of the pain points that menopause causes us," according to Meaghan Esser, registered holistic nutritionist at ITL Health. "These include:

  • Sleep: plays a significant role in reducing muscle tension and nerve stimulation. It helps the central nervous system relax and helps prevent restless leg syndrome.
  • Stress/anxiety/mood: helps regulate your neurotransmitters and supports the hypothalamus which regulates your endocrine (stress response) system.
  • Hormone balance: is essential to the production of steroid hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone, DHEA and testosterone.
  • Headaches: helps prevent headaches caused by the decline in hormone production.
  • Hot flashes: a recent study showed that magnesium may reduce instances of hot flashes by more than 50%. This may be through its ability to support liver health and because of its positive influence on serotonin.
  • Lack of sex drive: helps increase testosterone which declines in menopause. In addition, nothing kills the libido like increased stress or poor sleep – magnesium can help this.
  • Bone health: along with vitamin D and vitamin K2, magnesium helps direct calcium into the proper places in the body – the bones and teeth.

The most common menopause issues:

Hot flashes

These can come from nowhere and be triggered by anxiety or stress. It's a good ideas to keep a log in your phone or diary which can help to identify triggers. Try to drink two or three litres of water every day to help with hydration. Sage and red clover can help. These need to be taken for at least a month before you can expect to notice a difference.

Interrupted sleep

Sleeping through the night can seem a thing of the past for menopausal woman. Taking a theanine and magnesium supplement can help the nervous system to create the hormones needed for sleep. If you wake up throughout the night you could consider supporting liver with a cysteine complex and eating more bitter foods such as rocket, radish, cress and lemon.

Increased anxiety

Menopausal women can become anxious and overwhelmed, and suffer from mood changes. Tips include reducing caffeine, taking a magnesium and methylated B complex to support the nervous system; eating more foods rich in magnesium such as nuts and seeds, dark leafy green vegetables and wholegrains like brown rice. The herb rhodiola combined with Siberian ginseng and liquorice can benefit mood swings. The amino acid l-theanine on its own, or combined with lemon balm can help with anxiety. Many women find that yoga, mindfulness, swimming and walking can help calm the mind too.

Vaginal dryness

Many women reach a stage in life where they ‘dry out'. Their mucous membranes lose their ability to lubricate themselves and that can cause unpleasant symptoms such as dry eyes, skin and vaginal dryness. These symptoms are linked to menopause and the disruption of the body's hormonal balance, which can affect the health and state of mucous membranes.

Omega oils can help with this, but if you don't eat oily fish such as salmon, anchovies and mackerel three times every week then it's a good idea to supplement. Omega-7 contains sea buckthorn oil, one of nature's richest sources of vitamin A which maintains normal mucous membranes, is rich in antioxidants and plant sterols. It helps maintain healthy mucous membranes, such as in the eyes, nose, mouth and female reproductive tract.

Saffron extract can help with menopausal moods

A new study on saffron extract Affron has linked its consumption with reductions in a number of psychological symptoms associated with menopause such as mood changes, feeling melancholy and experiencing stress.

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Menopausal Medicine. Saffron extract was administered for 12 weeks at 28 mg a day in women experiencing menopausal symptoms during perimenopause.

Those who took Affron saw a 33% reduction in stress scores, and a 32% reduction in low mood scores. The authors of the study suggest that it is possible that saffron extract could be safely used by menopausal women in conjunction with other hormone-influencing ingredients.

"This is the first study of Affron examining menopause symptoms in average perimenopausal women," said Alberto Espinel from Pharmactive.

Affron has now been featured in seven human clinical trials which associate it with its capacity to improve mood, relieve stress and occasional sadness, support relaxation and enhance sleep.

Check with your professional healthcare practitioner before you take any new supplements, start a new diet or take up a vigorous new exercise routine.

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