The term menopause simply means the end of menstruation (menses + pause) and marks the end of a woman’s fertile years. Levels of the sex hormones fall as the ovaries stop producing high levels of estrogen and progesterone that are needed for reproduction. Menopause is often viewed as negative, but it’s not an illness! It’s simply a transition into a new life cycle for women.
What Happens During Perimenopause and Menopause?
Estrogen is produced primarily in the ovaries, and to a lesser extent by the adrenal glands. Our fat cells also have the ability to make estrogen via an enzyme called aromatase. Estradiol is the main form of estrogen produced by the ovaries during the premenopausal years. After menopause, the main estrogen the ovaries make is called estrone, which is just a weaker form of estrogen.
Women start to run low on eggs typically by their mid 30s to 40s cuing the perimenopausal years when progesterone and estrogen levels start to fluctuate and ultimately drop.
The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, sends a messenger called FSH to the ovaries to try to get them to produce more of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone. In perimenopause, progesterone decreases first leading to shorter cycles, PMS, sleep issues and night sweats. Estrogen drops in the year before a women’s final period. Having elevated follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels is predictive of menopause.
These hormonal fluctuations are implicated in symptoms such as increased appetite, vaginal dryness, depression, hot flashes, interrupted sleep, bone loss, a thickening waistline and insulin resistance.
Sounds fun, right?? Well, the good news is there are simple yet effective strategies to help your body respond better to the estrogen it is making after menopause to help reduce some of the symptoms outlined above and improve quality of life.
Include Whole Soy
Soy contains phytoestrogenic compounds called lignans which mimic estrogen in the body and can bind to our estrogen receptors, blocking more harmful estrogens (either xenoestrogens or more harmful estrogen metabolites) from binding to them. Asian women who eat large amounts of whole and fermented soy report fewer hot flashes and have lower rates of breast cancer and osteoporosis than women who do not. One review found that phytoestrogens like soy most likely have a favorable impact on bone mineral density and reduce bone resorption or breakdown.
Get Enough B’s
Ensuring proper B vitamin status (especially B12, Folate and B6) is crucial for energy production, gene regulation and neurotransmitter production of serotonin and dopamine. Estrogen helps to increase both serotonin and also serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin plays important roles in pain transmission and depression, so making sure you support your body’s ability to produce enough serotonin after menopause is crucial since you’ll have lower estrogen levels. Animal proteins like eggs, meat, fish, and cheese are excellent sources of B12, while B6 is found in pork, poultry, peanuts, oats and bananas. Folate is found in green, leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and legumes.
Balance Blood Sugar
Activating the blood sugar – insulin roller coaster often throughout the day is stressful for the body and can cause issues with the thyroid and adrenal function. Additionally, menopause triggers more insulin resistance since estrogen plays a role in keeping your cells insulin sensitive.
Eating protein, healthy fats and fiber at every meal is a great way to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day. Avoid refined, processed carbohydrates and choose those that provide a gentler rise in your blood sugar, rather than a rapid rise. Legumes, sweet potatoes, squash, quinoa, lentils, steel cut oats, berries and most non-starchy vegetables are great choices!
Eat More Flaxseed
Like soy, flaxseeds contain phytoestrogenic compounds called lignans which seem to help balance estrogen levels after menopause. Flaxseed has been studied for its ability to reduce hot flashes. It is also associated with reduced risk of breast cancers and reduced growth of tumors maybe because its lignans can block more harmful estrogens from attaching to cellular receptors.
One 2019 study found that supplementation of 200 IU of Vitamin E for 8 weeks significantly reduced hot flashes in postmenopausal women. Vitamin E is one of the fat-soluble vitamins found in sunflower seeds, peanuts, almonds, beet greens, spinach and red bell peppers. If you supplement with Vitamin E, we recommend looking for mixed tocopherols.
Estrogen is important for bone health, so decreased bone mineral density can occur in menopause. Making sure you get adequate Vitamin D is crucial for bone health as Vitamin D tells the body to absorb calcium. Salmon, Mushrooms and fortified foods are good sources of Vitamin D. Our skin also makes Vitamin when exposed to the sun, so getting at least 15 minutes of sun exposure daily can help boost Vitamin D levels as well! We recommend getting your Vitamin D level checked, especially if you live in the northern hemisphere or stay out of the sun. An optimal level is around 50-70 ng/mL.
Maca is a part of the cruciferous root vegetable family and is native to Peru. It has been used as a medicinal food for centuries among people living in the Andes mountains and is touted as the great hormone balancer. It is particularly used to improve thyroid and adrenal function and tone, soothe PMS, and for maintenance of lean mass and bone health in menopausal women.
One 2005 study found that both short and long term use of Maca-GO (a preparation that does not use chemicals and results in a higher density product) increased both estrogen and progesterone levels in early postmenopausal women. The subjects noted reduced symptoms of menopause over the course of the study though indication of a placebo effect was noted here. Another study published in 2008 found that preliminary research supported the use of 3.5 grams of maca daily for improvements in anxiety and depression and reduces sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women.
1 tsp. of maca root powder is about 3 grams. Mix into smoothies or get creative by adding to baked goods or energy bites! Or, if you don’t like the taste, you can opt for a supplement. Just be sure to work with a trusted health care professional before starting any nutritional supplements.