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Midlife can creep up on you. One minute you are scarfing down big bowls of pasta carbonara without a care in the world. The next you are looking forlornly at the wobbly mass where your midriff used to be. But it’s not simply a matter of vanity as we age. Once the menopause hits, simply feeling refreshed and energised is a far bigger prize than fitting back into those old jeans again.
Of all the changes our bodies undergo in midlife, the decline in hormone production (namely progesterone and oestrogen) is perhaps the most profound. This process can begin as soon as our late thirties and affects not just body fat distribution but can lead to disrupted sleep, lower energy levels and mood swings.
As a food and health writer, I see and speak to so many people transitioning through menopause who tell me they are comfort-eating to try and improve the way they are feeling. Low oestrogen levels that occur during the perimenopause and menopause can lead to sugar cravings and increased hunger which can be hard to ignore. Also, menopausers who are tired, are low in their mood, are more anxious, have reduced concentration and are less interested in life tend to eat a worse diet.
So, what can we do food-wise to help us through the menopause? The truth is that is no one food or supplement can replace our lost hormones*, but a healthy, balanced diet can go a very long way to help alleviate some of the symptoms.
There are some foods that studies have shown to be particularly beneficial and are worth including in our diet:
Broccoli: Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens and watercress contain the phytochemical Indole-3-Carbinol (I3C), which increases oestrogen metabolism.
Soy: Soybeans, edamame, tempeh and tofu are rich in isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen. Phytoestrogens are chemicals produced by plants that act like oestrogens in the body and are thought to lower rates of certain cancers, cardiovascular problems and menopausal symptoms.
Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds are a good source of phytoestrogens, which can help to regulate levels of oestrogen in the body.
Avocado: Avocado contains beneficial long chain fatty acids, which are crucial elements for hormonal production and function. Other sources of healthy fat are olive oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Another complaint in midlife is poor sleep and again a lot of this is down to declining hormones. But there’s no denying that the difference between a restless and a restful night has a lot to do with the quality of our diet. It’s important to provide the body with energy when it needs it most, so a nutritious breakfast will boost energy levels, but try not to eat a big meal too close to bedtime as this will make it harder to drop off. Alcohol and caffeine are also best avoided later in the day.
Here are some other simple dietary adjustments that can help us to sleep better:
Melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone, lets our body know when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up. But as we grow older, melatonin levels decline. A few foods contain melatonin naturally – for example, milk, cherries, grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and pistachios – so these are all great things to eat in the evening.
Calcium and vitamin B6 are both key micronutrients used in the production of melatonin. Calcium is found in high concentrations in dairy products (as well as leafy greens), so a glass of warm milk is a great drink to have before bed. Good sources of B6 include sunflower seeds, peanuts, oily fish, chicken, spinach and prunes.
Magnesium is another nutrient vital for sleep, a poor intake of which has been associated with higher levels of stress, anxiety and difficulty relaxing. Magnesium is found in almonds, leafy greens, bananas, avocado and fish.
Eating well really is your secret weapon for managing the menopause and, who knows, you might just get back into those jeans!
*A little word to the wise. If, despite your best efforts to eat well, you are still suffering from menopausal symptoms that are affecting your quality of life, it would be worth having a chat with your GP about HRT.
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