Supporting your Body through Each Phase of Menopause
Menopause is a gradual process that occurs in every woman’s life, when the ovaries stop producing eggs. Defined as the permanent and natural cessation of menstruation, menopause is generally diagnosed after 12 months of having no period. The average age at which this occurs is 51 years old, but it can happen at any time from the ages of 45 to 65. The changes can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms leaving a woman feeling frustrated and radically altered from how she may have felt before the onset of menopause. Nonetheless, menopause only produces symptoms to the extent that the body’s hormones, metabolism, and/or organ systems are out of balance.
Common symptoms associated with menopause include….
There are ways for a woman to implement dietary and lifestyle habits that will rebalance her foundational health so that menopause takes place within the best hormonal landscape to ease the transition at this delicate time.
Hormonal landscapes to avoid when approaching (or during) menopause
Adrenal exhaustion: Adrenal fatigue prior to the onset of menopause is one of the leading contributors to uncomfortable menopausal symptoms. At the onset of menopause, the ovaries’ production of estrogen begins to plummet rapidly. Typically, the adrenal glands, which produce small amounts of steroid hormones, will kick in to compensate for this decline in estrogen. However, if the adrenal glands are fatigued from overwork, lack of adequate restful sleep, alcohol consumption, and/or stress, then estrogen will plummet a lot more quickly than what is ideal. It’s this extremely rapid fluctuation in hormones that produces many of the unpleasant symptoms associated with menopause.
Liver toxicity: If the liver is clogged up with toxins, it can’t properly eliminate excess estrogens from the body. This leads to a condition of estrogen dominance, even though the body isn’t actually producing very much at this time. Estrogen dominance can exacerbate menopausal symptoms significantly and increase the risk of contracting allergies, breast cancer, autoimmune disorders, as well as accelerating the process of aging.
Sedentary lifestyle: A sedentary lifestyle leads to a sluggish metabolism, and sedentary women are more likely to experience severe menopausal symptoms. A lack of consistent exercise negatively impacts the entire body, decreasing the quality and efficiency of digestion, absorption, detoxification, metabolism and numerous other biochemical processes.
Phase by Phase Guide to Menopause
Phase 1: Premenopause (a.k.a. perimenopause)
5-10 years before menopause when your body begins to signal that hormonal changes are coming. Your estrogen and hormone levels unevenly start to drop and minor symptoms may begin to appear, such as irregular periods, hot flashes, mood swings, weight gain, vaginal dryness, decreasing sexual desire and/or fatigue.
Slow down and rest up: Use the time leading into menopause to take a step back and see what is depleting your energy, whether it be taking on too many responsibilities at work, a stressful marriage, or excessive alcohol (or other substance) consumption. Remove energy suckers and replace them with nourishing habits that leave you feeling calm and energized. Be sure to get enough rest and try to fall asleep and wake up around the same time every day. The body and adrenals love these stable routines. The more you can support your adrenal glands, the better you’re setting yourself up for a smooth transition through menopause.
Get moving- Important for general health but also shown to decrease menopausal symptoms and improve energy levels, mood, circulation and decrease anxiety. Even 3.5 hours/week has shown a significant improvement in menopausal women with associated symptoms compared to no exercise at all - this can be anything from yoga to walking. Exercise moves stagnant energy in the body, increases detoxification through the sweat glands, and encourages a healthy metabolism.
Detoxify your body: It is wise to focus on a whole body detox in the years leading up to menopause. There are many pre-existing conditions which can exacerbate menopausal symptoms such as blood sugar issues, digestive problems, liver toxicity, lymphatic stagnation, and heavy metal accumulation. It’s important to determine and address whatever it is in your body that needs improvement and work towards healing the foundation. The best place to start is with optimizing digestion; most people have at least some minor digestive complaints which can lead to a whole host of other more serious conditions if left unchecked. Make sure your channels of elimination--bowels, urinary tract, sweat glands--are all functioning well before embarking on any thorough detox protocol. Fiber promotes digestion and satiety helping to reduce cravings and stabilizes your blood sugar levels giving you longer lasting energy. Fiber also helps balance hormones by eliminating excess estrogens. Adding more whole fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, and cruciferous vegetables as well as chia seeds, psyllium husks or flax seeds is a great way to increase your fiber intake naturally.
Proper liver function is needed to properly eliminate toxins from the body which affects the balance of hormones, elimination of toxins (including excess estrogen), inflammatory response, and oxidative stress, all of which impact the severity of menopausal symptoms. Supportive foods for liver detoxification include cruciferous vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage) and bitters (herbs, arugula, dandelion, burdock). Supportive herbs for liver detoxification include milk thistle, dandelion root, and licorice.
Phase 2: Menopause
Begins after 12 consecutive months without a menstrual cycle. There are no more eggs left in your ovaries so pregnancy can no longer occur. Estrogen and progesterone levels decrease significantly at this time while the endocrine system adjusts and this shift may cause a combination of the common symptoms described above to varying degrees of intensity.
Try adaptogenic herbs: Adaptogenic herbs are particularly effective at stimulating and regulating hormone production, balancing the activity of the adrenal glands, and helping us produce more energy when we’re run down with less energy when we’re wired and anxious. This is especially useful during menopause when our hormones are more likely to fluctuate uncontrollably.
Seed cycling: Seed cycling involves using the nutrients from specific seeds to encourage the body to produce estrogen and progesterone at specific times throughout the month. This encourages the body to engage in a stable biological cycle which helps to ease the hormonal symptoms related to menopause. Flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds are eaten for two weeks, and sesame and sunflower seeds are eaten for the next two weeks each month. If you’re interested in syncing this cycle to the immense power of the moon, start the protocol on the new moon. Consume 1 tbsp of each type of seed. See our in depth guide here
Nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory diet: One of the greatest contributors to rapid aging and severe menopausal symptoms is chronic inflammation. Women are at particular risk of developing age-related diseases, such as osteoporosis, during or after menopause, particularly if predisposed to inflammation. To prevent this, it’s important to eat a primarily whole foods diet while focusing on the nutrient density of what you’re eating. Leafy greens, herbs, berries, and various superfoods, such as spirulina, are all chock full of nutrients that will help to maintain healthy bone mass after menopause. Consume an abundance of fiber from fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as organic, lean protein, heart-healthy oils (containing omega fatty acids), and minimal saturated fats during this phase.
Phase 3: Post-menopause
During the first few years after menopause, your body settles into a more stable balance and menopause symptoms reduce significantly. However, your body is now at higher risk of developing other conditions closely connected to the function of various hormones, which your body now produces in diminished amounts, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, gout, etc. Ongoing maintenance is imperative at this time to increase vitality and to prevent degenerative disease from setting in.
Digestive support: As we age, our body’s production of stomach acid declines significantly, contributing to many digestive ailments commonly seen in mature individuals such as indigestion and acid reflux. Perimenopause is a major cause of digestive problems in women aged 45-55 due to the interaction between estrogen and cortisol. Usually countered by estrogen, cortisol is a stress hormone that can impair digestion. When estrogen levels drop during menopause, and continuing through post-menopause, cortisol has a greater effect on the digestive system, creating symptoms like bloating, cramping, diarrhea, heartburn, and constipation. A hydrochloric acid supplement, such as Betaine HCl, helps support stomach acid levels to ease digestive issues. Consult with your holistic healthcare practitioner to determine how much to take prior to each meal as dosage recommendations can vary.
Healthy bone support: Women who are menopausal are at particular risk for developing osteoporosis. This is because estrogen promotes the formation of new bone matter so, when estrogen is less available after menopause, bone density decreases. However, there are a few ways to increase bone density after menopause.
Consume cholesterol-rich foods: This may seem counterintuitive with all the recommendations to stay away from cholesterol for heart health. However, cholesterol is a precursor to key hormones like estrogen, and it has been revealed that blood cholesterol is not to blame for clogged arteries. Note that it is quite common, and normal, to see slightly elevated levels of cholesterol in older adults as the body fights to create more hormones however it can. The most potent source of healthy cholesterol is organic eggs. Cholesterol can also be found in other animal products.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for preventing bone loss and maintaining healthy bone density. Vitamin D is also necessary for the proper absorption of calcium from the foods you’re eating. So, before you double down on calcium for your bones, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D from sunlight as well as egg yolks and fatty fish so your body absorbs all that extra calcium. Try to get 15-20 minutes of sun exposure daily.
Weight-bearing exercise: Weight training is one of the best habits to engage in around the time of menopause. Weight training can help protect yourself against fractures and prevent bone loss by increasing bone density. Weight training may even assist the body in building new bone!
Continued hormone balancing: Continue to apply the hormone-balancing practices from the previous phases including adaptogenic herbs, seed cycling, anti-stress habits, and maintain consistent restful sleep.
Herbs & Supplements to Support Transitions & Relieve Related Symptoms
For the most effective results combine with probiotics for optimal assimilation.
Black Cohosh: One of the most commonly used and effective herbs in treating hot flashes but also helps manage menopausal symptoms such as night sweats, headaches, insomnia, and mood swings. Best in capsule form.
Red Clover: Shown specifically to reduce hot flashes and night sweats. Also helpful for regulating estrogen. Best taken as a tea -drink often.
Dong Quai: An increasingly popular Chinese herb used as a uterine tonic and known for its treatment for menopausal complaints. Part of the parsley family, this plant helps balance estrogen levels. Best in tincture or capsule form.
Vitex: Helps balance out the progesterone-estrogen ratio and acts as a uterine tonic. Best in tincture or infusion form.
Maca: Rich in vitamins and minerals required for women’s health such as B-vitamins, zinc, iron, magnesium, and amino acids. It has been shown to have beneficial effects on energy levels, mood, hot flashes, anxiety, depression, and libido by balancing hormones and regulating estrogen. Best in powder or capsule form.
Wild Yam: Naturally boosts progesterone (commonly low) in the body. Typically used in cream form & found at most health food stores. Work with a holistic practitioner for dosing.
Essential fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6)Vital for overall health, they decrease inflammation and are important for hormone production and immune function. Many hormonal symptoms can worsen if there is a deficiency because the body cannot synthesize them on its own, we must acquire essential fatty acids from our diet. Try: Wild-caught salmon, free-range eggs, grass-fed meats, extra virgin olive oil, anchovies, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. In supplement form look for a 3:1 ratio of omega-3 to 6.
Poor adrenal function can result in fatigue, moodiness, weight change, low libido, and cravings which are also related to menopausal symptoms. The adrenal glands are the backup system for hormone production when the ovaries start to decline in function. So, if these glands are exhausted or impaired, they aren’t going to provide adequate backup and further hormonal imbalances will likely occur. Those suffering from adrenal fatigue are at a greater risk of experiencing more intense menopausal symptoms due to the added stress on the body during this transition. Try: Adreno-supportive herbs and supplements such as: Ashwagandha, vitamin C, B-vitamins, rhodiola, schisandra berry, and maca. Be sure to get plenty of sleep, reduce stressors, and eat whole foods such as colorful fruits and vegetables.
HRT Hormone Replacement Therapy is a medical method used to halt the symptoms of menopause and osteoporosis and has been touted as a helpful option to stay youthful. HRT is most commonly prescribed as a pill containing estrogen, or a combination of synthetic estrogen and progestin. However, there are a number of adverse reactions and serious side effects associated with these intense therapies, such as an increased risk of stroke, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and heart disease, arguing that the risks of this treatment outweigh the benefits. These unnatural sources of estrogen and progesterone contain many forms that are simply unrecognizable to the human body. These can build up and cause unpredictable reactions as we are unequipped to eliminate them effectively, if at all.
In natural medicine, natural hormone replacement therapy, also known as bioidentical hormone therapy, is an alternative to synthetic HRT. The most common hormones used to treat menopause are estrogen, progesterone, estradiol, estrone, estriol, testosterone, and DHEA. These natural hormones are often sourced from yam or soy and are processed to bio-identically resemble human hormones, so the body knows how to utilize them. The doses are considerably smaller than medical HRT and have been shown to yield much safer results.
Though hormone replacement therapies may be a beneficial for some, there are many dietary and lifestyle factors, such as those discussed above, that are supportive starting points for treating menopause before resulting to any form of HRT.