Menopause is a natural biological process that marks the end of a woman's reproductive years. It is a significant milestone that occurs in every woman's life, usually around 50 years old. Menopause comes with a variety of physical and emotional changes that can be both challenging and confusing for many women. Despite being a natural process, menopause is a topic that still lacks research, leaving women feeling confused and unsupported during this transition. Let’s explore the science behind menopause, its symptoms, and how women can navigate this new stage to live healthy and fulfilling lives.
What happens during menopause?
Menopause is a specific time in womens’ lives when the transition from their reproductive years to the end of their menstrual cycle is completed. It’s a normal part of the aging process but can come with some frustrating side effects like weight gain, mood swings, and hot flashes.
The 3 stages of menopause
- Perimenopause: A phase that typically occurs in the mid 40’s (but can show up as early as late 30’s) when both estrogen production and ovarian function may decrease leading to cycles without ovulation. Perimenopause is marked by irregular menstrual cycles and can last up to two years until a woman has transitioned into menopause. Women can start to experience symptoms of menopause during this stage.
- Menopause: Defined as the absence of a menstrual cycle for 12 consecutive months that typically occurs between the ages of 50 to 55 years old. During this phase, the ovaries stop releasing eggs and estrogen production further declines. Women experience classic symptoms of menopause (listed below).
- Post-menopause: The phase after a woman has gone a year without a menstrual cycle. During this phase, symptoms of menopause often subside, but the risk of diseases such as osteoporosis increases due to lack of estrogen.
Symptoms of menopause:
- Irregular periods
- Mood changes
- Brain fog
- Hot flashes
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight gain
- Joint pain
Why does weight gain happen?
We often hear women describe this time in their life as being the most challenging to lose unwanted weight or even maintain their current weight, but why is that?
During menopause, levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body decrease. These hormones play a role in weight loss and weight gain. Their decline can lead to a potential extra storage of weight (specifically around the waist).
Another reason weight gain is often seen during this time period is the natural decline in lean mass—including bone and muscle— that occurs. Due to the decrease in estrogen and a shift in where nutrients are stored in the body, visceral fat (the fat around our abdominal organs) becomes the preferred storage place. Estrogen is a hormone that regulates bone metabolism. During menopause, the decrease in estrogen leads to a decrease in bone density. Later on, we will discuss important nutrients that will help preserve bone and muscle mass.
A factor that is often overlooked, but equally important, is sleep disruption. Changes in sleep can play a part in weight changes because poor sleep can cause disruption in the hormones that regulate our satiety and hunger causing us to have an increased appetite and more cravings. For a detailed look at the impact of sleep on appetite, weight, and overall health, check out this blog post.
Important nutrients during menopause
This essential macronutrient is important for maintaining optimal lean mass which includes the weight of our bones and muscle, as well as other tissues, organs, and water. Protein is required for bone formation, maintenance, and regeneration. Dietary protein intake is positively associated with bone mineral density, a determinant of a person’s bone strength. Those with a decreased protein intake are at an increased risk of falls and fractures.
Adequate protein intake also promotes muscle preservation and growth, which can increase our energy expenditure—meaning the more lean mass we have, the more energy we burn at rest throughout the day.
Muscle is required to maintain blood sugar levels as it helps to bring glucose out of the bloodstream and into muscle cells where it can be used for fuel. Having more muscle mass has been associated with increased insulin sensitivity and decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, beans, and legumes. It is recommended that adults receive 1-1.2g of protein per kilogram of their body weight.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is found in certain foods and supplements, and can be produced with exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption and helps facilitate normal bone mineralization. In our bodies, the skeletal structure is constantly changing. As we age, the rate at which bone is broken down increases, and this process is accelerated in the menopausal stage. This breakdown of bone can lead to osteoporosis, which is defined as low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue. This increases bone fragility and increases risk of fractures and falls. To maintain adequate vitamin D levels, include things like fatty fish (salmon, tuna, or trout), beef liver, eggs, cheese, milk, and mushrooms in your diet and get some sunlight. It may be necessary to take a vitamin D supplement in the winter months with less exposure to the sun. As always, discuss with your doctor prior to adding any supplements.
The most abundant mineral in the body! Calcium is responsible for the structure of our bones and teeth. Maintaining adequate calcium intake is important for all life cycles but particularly for those in the menopausal stage. Food sources of calcium include dairy products like yogurt, cheese, and milk. Non-dairy sources include kale, broccoli, fortified cereals and canned sardines (with the bones!).
Vitamin K is another fat-soluble vitamin that is important for bone health. There are different forms of vitamin K that are critical for bone health including vitamin K1 and vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 specifically focuses on the activation of osteocalcin, a protein secreted by osteoblasts (cells that build up bone). This vitamin plays an important role in preventing calcium from accumulating in our blood vessels which can increase heart disease risk. Sources of these vitamins are found in leafy greens, some fortified foods, cheese, yogurt, meat, eggs and natto, a traditional Japanese dish that is primarily made from fermented soybeans.
Magnesium has important roles in many body systems including protein synthesis, nerve function, and blood pressure regulation. It also plays a large part in the body’s energy production. In terms of bone health, magnesium helps shuttle calcium to our bones and teeth. Food sources with adequate amounts of magnesium include green leafy vegetables including spinach and kale, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and my personal favorite, dark chocolate!
Ways to reduce menopause symptoms:
- Eat a balanced diet: A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fat sources can help manage menopause symptoms by providing your body with adequate nutrients and promoting balanced blood sugar. A balanced diet can also reduce the risk of bone fractures that result from menopausal osteoporosis.
- Exercise regularly: Engaging in regular physical activity can help alleviate menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, improve sleep hygiene, increase muscle mass, and improve bone health. Strength training in particular plays an important role in maintaining and mitigating the loss of bone mineral density. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week, including both aerobic and strength training activities.
- Increase sleep quality: Menopause can cause disturbances in sleep which can lead to other unpleasant symptoms like fatigue and mood shifts. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Learn more about how sleep can be impacting your health and ways to improve sleep here!
- Manage stress: Stress may worsen menopause symptoms like mood shifts for example. Engaging in stress-reducing activities like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can help with stress reduction and promote a more relaxed state of mind. Read more information on tips for reducing stress here.
Menopause can bring a range of physical and emotional changes that can make diet and exercise difficult to achieve. Here at Sequence, we want to be with you every step of the way! For more guidance on what optimal nutrition for menopause looks like for you, make an appointment with one of our Registered Dietitians! We would love to help you!
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