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The menopausal journey - are you prepared?

“One must always be prepared for riotous and endless waves of transformation”

Elizabeth Gilbert

If you were heading off on a journey, you’d probably pack some bags, check you have everything you need and make any other essential preparations before you set out. In fact, there’s often lots more advance planning and preparing involved to ensure the journey goes as smoothly and comfortably as it can.

Your health as a journey
And this is also a great way to approach your health at different stages of life. With each life stage, a new health journey unfolds, and it makes complete sense to be as prepared as you can be.

The menopausal transition is one health journey in particular that really benefits from advance preparation; and just like any other journey or new venture, the more you invest in this, the smoother and more comfortable the transition is likely to be. In fact, UK leading nutrition and functional medicine practitioner Jo Gamble often says that every woman should ideally be considering the menopausal transition and making adaptations to their diet and lifestyle at least a decade before this journey begins. Don’t worry however, if you’re already experiencing symptoms; whilst it’s never too early to start thinking about this, it’s also never too late. Anything you can do to support this journey, at any point along the way is worthwhile and likely to make a difference.

So how can you best prepare for the menopausal transition?
In this article we take a closer look at the different stages of the menopausal journey, and share 7 steps to ensure it is as smooth and comfortable as possible.

Stages Of The Menopausal Journey

• Pre-menopause
Monthly menstrual periods are regular and hormone levels are predictable through the monthly cycle. Some early symptoms such as hot flashes and poor sleep may start to appear.

• Peri-menopause
Ovarian function starts to decline, levels of key sex hormones (oestrogen & progesterone) start to fluctuate, periods start to become irregular and symptoms may become more severe. Perimenopause is associated with a wide range of possible symptoms which may include hot flashes, insomnia, changes in cognitive function, night sweats, mood changes, anxiety, lowered resilience to stress, vaginal dryness, changes in skin tone and hair quality, low libido, weight changes, joint pain, low energy and headaches. The severity of symptoms and the time frame of perimenopause can be different for every woman; for some perimenopause may last for a few months, yet for others it can continue for many years.

• Post-menopause
A woman’s last menstrual period is defined as the menopause. The stage from the last period onwards is post-menopause. During post-menopause, ovarian function has declined, and the production of both oestrogen and progesterone decline. Women will continue to make some oestrogen for the rest of their lives, but progesterone production will stop completely. During the post-menopausal stage, women are at increased risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular health problems.

7 Steps To A Smooth And Comfortable Menopausal Transition

1. Balance Your Blood Sugar
The typical Western diet, packed full of sugary, processed, convenience foods, caffeine and alcohol, and often paired with poor sleep and chronic stress, is perfectly designed to disrupt blood sugar balance. Many people spend their lives on a blood sugar rollercoaster and this will only serve to make the menopausal journey much more problematic. No matter what stage you are on the journey, whether you’re thinking a few years ahead, or experiencing troublesome symptoms now, taking steps to balance blood sugar is a non-negotiable for female hormonal balance. Find out how to balance your blood sugar levels here. 

2. Nurture Your Adrenal Glands
Fast-paced 21st century living can place tremendous strain on the adrenal glands; the hard-working part of your body that deals with stress. Many people are aware that they are ‘running on empty’ and ‘need to find more ways to relax’, yet life ‘busy-ness’ often gets in the way and it never actually happens. Whilst stress reduction is important for just about every aspect of your health, it is an absolute necessity for the menopausal transition and if this resonates with you, it’s time to take action now. One primary reason being that the adrenal glands can produce a form of oestrogen to help compensate for the decline in ovarian production, and they are involved in progesterone production too. The adrenal glands can therefore be a significant help in supporting a smooth menopausal transition, but not if they are overworked, overtired and otherwise engaged dealing with stress elsewhere. Research has also shown that increased levels of adrenal hormones can have a negative impact on mood during the menopausal transition; another good reason to take the pressure off and nurture these hard-working glands. Key nutrients to consider for adrenal support include magnesium, vitamin C and vitamins B5 & B6. Read more here on supporting balance and calm during the menopausal transition.

3. Support Your Sex Hormones
Many of the symptoms associated with the perimenopause are due to fluctuating and declining levels of sex hormones, and this is a key area to support. Interestingly, there are some areas around the world, such as Asia, where women report minimal or no menopausal symptoms at all and scientists have long tried to understand why. One hypothesis which has received much attention is the potential hormone-balancing effects of regularly consuming soya in the traditional Asian diet. Soya products have been part of the Asian diet for thousands of years and are eaten daily in small amounts from childhood. Soya contains plant compounds called ‘phytoestrogens’ which have weak oestrogenic activity and may provide a little extra hormonal support during the menopausal transition. Dietary phytoestrogens may also have a part to play in lower rates of breast cancer observed in Japanese women; it is thought that these weaker plant oestrogens may block stronger, more harmful oestrogens and thus confer a protective effect. In fact, including phytoestrogen-rich foods in the diet may be helpful for hormonal balance for women at any stage of life. The best way to increase your intake of dietary phytoestrogens is to focus on traditional, unprocessed, non-GMO and organic fermented soya products such as tempeh and miso, packaged as nature intended. Other dietary sources of phytoestrogens include kudzu, grains, flaxseeds, brassica vegetables, grape skin, split beans, pinto beans and lima beans. 

4. Help Your Body To Process Oestrogen Safely
Not only is it important to support your body’s ability to produce oestrogen during the menopausal transition, it’s also critical to ensure your body is processing oestrogen safely too. Many people are unaware that oestrogen isn’t just one hormone, but rather a collection of different hormones, and that these hormones, once used, must be processed and safely eliminated from the body. Two plant compounds in particular may be helpful in supporting this process - di-indolylmethane (DIM), a phytonutrient found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, watercress and dark leafy greens, and resveratrol found in red grapes, black grapes, blueberries and strawberries. It is recommended that women at any stage on the menopausal journey include plenty of these beneficial plant compounds in their diet.

Gut bacteria are important for just about every aspect of your health and we now know that they are important for safe oestrogen processing too. The best way to support a diverse population of gut bacteria is by consuming a rich variety of plant foods every week, and including a daily serving of either kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut or kimchi. A supplement containing high quality and researched strains of beneficial bacteria may provide useful additional support.

5. Reduce Your Toxic Load / Fine Tune Biotransformation Processes
We all live in a toxic world and regularly come into contact with potentially harmful compounds on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many of these substances are known to be Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), which in simple terms means they have the potential to disrupt hormonal balance. And when the body is working its way through the menopausal transition, the last thing you want to introduce is even more potential for hormonal imbalance! Amongst many other sources, EDCs are commonly found in pesticides, plastics, cosmetics and toiletries. And whilst you can’t avoid toxins completely, you can go a long way towards reducing exposure if you take proactive steps to change your habits. How to detox your life is a great place to start. In addition to reducing your overall toxic load, it’s important to support your body’s ability to safely eliminate the ones that you can’t avoid. Include plenty of water and fibre in your diet to support regular bowel elimination, regular exercise and / or sauna helps you to eliminate toxins through sweat and consider adding supportive compounds such as glutathione, alpha lipoic acid, turmeric, milk thistle, green tea and selenium.

6. Natural Symptom Support
If you’re in the thick of experiencing hot flashes, night sweats, sleepless nights or any other symptoms commonly experienced during perimenopause, menopause supplements with targeted nutrient and botanical ingredients may provide extra support. Key botanicals include Rhodiola rosea, ashwagandha and shatavari for their stress-protective effects, sage, which has a long history of traditional use in supporting a reduction in hot flashes, night sweats and associated climacteric complaints in menopausal women and red clover, which is a rich source of phytoestrogens and commonly used as a traditional remedy to reduce high cholesterol, osteoporosis and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal atrophy and dryness.

Key nutrients include magnesium for its stress-protective, sleep-supportive, calming and mood-balancing effects. Magnesium has also been found to be a useful support for hot flashes. Vitamin C helps to protect against harmful toxins and is a vital nutrient involved in the stress response. In addition, vitamins B6, B12 and folate are often nicknamed ‘anti-stress’ nutrients for their powerful ability to balance mood and calm the nervous system. They are also important for the safe processing of oestrogens and to support cardiovascular health.

7. Post-menopause And Beyond
And finally, once hormone levels have stabilised and the transition from perimenopause to menopause has been made, it is important to support the new terrain of your body as it settles into this next phase. Regular intake of omega 3 fats found in nuts, seeds and oily fish provides important cardiovascular and cognitive support, whilst algae-sourced calcium, magnesium and vitamin D provides robust support for healthy bones. Regular exercise is an incredibly important lifestyle habit to nurture during this time, and has the capacity to support many of the most important areas of focus at this time. Exercise is beneficial for cardiovascular health, cognitive function, balanced mood, calm, weight maintenance and stress resilience, and weight-bearing exercise supports strong healthy bones too! There’s not many times that a ‘one size fits all’ approach works, but when it comes to regular exercise and post-menopausal health, it certainly does!

Time to embrace the journey
The menopausal transition is not a set of symptoms that need to be suppressed, rather it is a journey to be embraced. Understanding the changes that are happening inside the body, and then providing the support that is needed to enable this to happen as smoothly and comfortably as possible is an empowering way to approach this transformative phase of a woman’s life. Our bodies and the way they are constantly adapting to maintain homeostasis and equilibrium, are remarkable, and our job is simply to provide the optimal fuel and environment to enable these incredible processes to happen. Wherever you are on the journey, be all there.

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