By Andrea Orr
Menopause is a time when a woman's body goes through major changes. Some may be due to the natural transformations that come with aging. Others are produced when a woman stops generating the hormones that regulate her menstrual periods. In many women, these changes can trigger hot flashes, vaginal dryness, insomnia, night sweats, depression, and loss of interest in sex. Weight gain is common among women going through the change.
Fortunately, a healthy diet can help you weather these symptoms, and it can also help ward off heart disease and osteoporosis, two of the biggest health threats facing all women as they age. Although there isn't much science to back up many of the claims that what you eat can definitely prevent menopausal symptoms, you can help yourself by eating the right diet and avoiding foods that can make your symptoms worse.
Can diet help control hot flashes?
What you eat may not be as important as eating regular meals. Much of the research available today about the effect of different foods, such as soy, on menopausal symptoms is inconclusive, but at least one small study found that eating regular meals may help to suppress hot flashes, while going without food for too long may increase the number of hot flashes.
It's also a good idea to limit alcohol, caffeine, and spicy food. If you're a smoker, you should try to quit. Cigarette smoke can trigger hot flashes for some women.
As more research is done into the connection between diet and menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, researchers are starting to conclude there is no single food or diet plan that will work for all women. A range of factors from climate to lifestyle and attitudes about aging may also influence symptoms. Some researchers believe that foods rich in soy protein minimize hot flashes because they contain soy isoflavones, which can act like estrogen in the body. But studies on this effect are inconclusive.
Flaxseed, an alternative to soy, is getting increasing attention, however. One small study found that flaxseed decreased the frequency of hot flashes by 50 percent in menopausal women not taking hormone replacement therapy. Ground flaxseed can be sprinkled over salads or cereal, blended into smoothies, or taken as a flaxseed oil supplement.
An herbal supplement commonly taken to treat hot flashes is black cohosh. However, the studies that have been done on black cohosh were small and produced inconsistent results. Herbal medicines are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so you should talk to your doctor about any herbal product you take.
How can I keep my bones strong?
Calcium is critical to maintain healthy bones, particularly during and after menopause when the body stops producing estrogen. There is a clear relationship between menopause-related estrogen deficiency, and the development of osteoporosis. Try to eat or drink two to four servings of dairy products such as low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese, and yogurt or other calcium-rich foods each day. Besides dairy, calcium can be found in clams, sardines, legumes, and leafy greens such as kale and broccoli. Vitamin D supplements are important to help the body absorb the calcium. Many women don't get enough calcium without taking supplements, and increasingly we are learning that many are also deficient in vitamin D. The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 400 to 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily for all adults under age 50. For adults age 50 and over, the NOF recommends 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily.
In addition to making smart food choices, weight-bearing exercises that make the muscles work against gravity also help build strong bones. Weight-bearing exercises include walking, jogging, hiking, stair climbing, jumping rope as well as weight lifting and dancing, and engaging in at least 30 minutes of such exercise every other day can help preserve or even increase bone mass, particularly in younger women.
What kind of foods will protect my heart?
To reduce the risk of heart disease, which increases as the estrogen in your body declines, limit your overall daily intake of fat to less than 30 percent of your total calories. Limit the saturated fats such as ice cream, butter, meats, and whole-milk cheeses to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. Some experts, however, suggest no more than 7 percent of daily calories should come from saturated fats. The oil found in fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, can help protect your heart. However, the fat found in butter and most types of meat can harm your heart. Eat plenty of fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Regular exercise is also helpful in lowering stress and cholesterol and helping you maintain a healthy weight.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bone Health. Last updated May 22, 2007 http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/nutrition/nutrition_for_everyone/basics/calcium.htm
Cleveland Clinic. Menopause basics. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/Menopause/hic_Menopause_Basics.aspx
Cleveland Clinic. Menopause and osteoporosis. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/Menopause/hic_Menopause_and_Osteoporosis.aspx
Cleveland Clinic. Menopause: Staying Healthy Through Good Nutrition. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/menopause/hic_menopause_staying_healthy_through_good_nutrition.aspx
Cleveland Clinic. Menopause and Hot Flashes. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/Menopause/hic_Menopause_and_Hot_Flashes.aspx
Dormire S, Howharn C. The effect of dietary intake on hot flashes in menopausal women. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic and Neonatal Nursing. 2007 May-June ;36(3) :255-62.
Carroll Dana G., Nonhormonal Therapies for Hot Flashes in Menopause. American Family Physician. 2006 Feb. 1. http://www.aafp.org/afp/20060201/457.htm
Freeman EW, Sherif K. Prevalence of hot flashes and night sweats around the world; a systematic review. 2007 Jun;10(3):197-214
Duffy C, Cyr M. Phytoestrogens: Potential benefits and implications for breast cancer survivors. J Womens Health (Larchmt). 2003 Sep;12(7):617-31. http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/154099903322404276
Pruthi S, Thompson SL et al. Pilot evaluation of flaxseed for the management of hot flashes." Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology. 2007 Summer;5(3):106-12.
National Osteoporosis Foundation. What you should know about calcium. http://www.nof.org/prevention/calcium2.htm
American Heart Association. Meet the fats. http://www.americanheart.org/downloadable/heart/1210953558714Large%20Print%20Pocket%20Guide%20PDF%20for%20Web.pdf
Circulation. American Heart Association Guidelines for Prevention of CVD in Women. March 20, 2007.
Last Updated: March 11, 2013
May 22: Surgery for Sleep Apnea?
Does removing the tonsils and adenoids help children with sleep apnea?