Menopause got you down? Following are some approachable nutrition tips to help alleviate some of those bothersome symptoms. (Is it hot in here or is it just me?)
Hot flashes, weight gain, constipation – oh my! If these telltale signs (and there are more) of the inevitable menopause keep you from living your best life, you are not alone. Most women experience some sort of symptoms as estrogen levels drop.
For those who choose not to take medications or hormones for management, food is often a place to look for answers. And there’s plenty of advice out there to follow.
So what nutritional strategy actually works?
Given the highly individualized nature of menopause – meaning everyone’s experience is different – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all playbook. The most effective tool we have is to pay attention to how our bodies are responding to our usual diets and apply some general nutrition tactics in response.
I’m not claiming that dietary changes will eliminate all symptoms (unfortunately, far from it), but some of these suggestions may help to get a handle on a few.
Food for hot flashes
When estrogen levels decrease during menopause, our internal temperature gauge (the hypothalamus) can have an abnormally intense reaction to very minor changes in body temperature. About 75% of all women in menopause experience this.
So even though there are no foods that will specifically prevent or cure hot flashes, it’s helpful to be aware that some foods may trigger minor increases in body temperature.
Spicy food can induce sweat or flushing in some people. This may not be as big a deal at a casual outdoor family barbecue (as opposed to when dressed up for a more formal event!), but you may want to avoid dishes with hot peppers and spicy sauces. If you’re the chef, try making favorite recipes without the added spice, or offer a spicy condiment on the side. I make Ann’s Buffalo Chicken Wings without the chili and serve the sauce on the side. They taste just as delicious!
Coffee and tea can induce sweating in two ways. One, caffeine activates the central nervous system (including sweat glands). Two, if consumed hot, these beverages can make your body feel warmer. Try Homemade Iced Coffees or Peach Iced Tea to see if that makes a difference before taking away caffeine completely.
Drinking alcohol causes vasodilation (or widening of the blood vessels), which can cause skin to feel warm or flushed and make some people sweat. Some find that limiting alcohol can help minimize hot flashes. If you haven’t yet dabbled in the non-alcoholic beer category, you may find they are equally refreshing and fun to sip at gatherings.
What about metabolism and weight gain?
Genetics is strong. We will likely follow a path similar to that of our mothers, and their mothers before them, as estrogen levels decline during menopause.
Expect changes in body composition, such as more fat stores in the abdomen and less in the thighs. There’s also typically an overall drop in muscle mass, and possibly metabolic rates (interestingly though a 2021 study indicated this actually may occur in our 60’s instead of middle age – 40s and 50s – as we had once thought).
This shift is compounded by a natural change in lifestyle. Kids grow up and leave the house. We may retire from our jobs. Body aches and pains sometimes prevent us from moving around as we once did. Tack on more time to socialize, which means more time to eat and drink. This time of life is a recipe for change.
And while our instincts tell us to try to regain control and compensate for these changes by calorie-cutting, this can actually make things worse. Depriving ourselves of food during the day, or dieting, makes us much more likely to binge in the evening and will slow metabolism even more in the long run.
Also, avoiding whole categories of foods like dairy, limiting macronutrients like protein or carbohydrates, or not eating when hungry can also have a serious impact on our bone and muscle health, especially if calcium or Vitamin D levels are not being monitored and supplemented properly.
And while we may not like what we see because of pressure and expectations to look a certain way, some weight gain is completely natural and normal. Do I dare suggest we consider embracing the moment?!
My advice is to focus on adding in, not taking away. Incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into daily diets, including calcium-rich foods. Try Overnight No-Cook Oatmeal Yogurt Cups or a Slow-Baked Roasted Broccoli Frittata for a hearty and nutritious breakfast. Tamari Almonds are perfect for snacking and can prevent “hangry” feelings later in the evening.
Foods for trouble sleeping
Waking up too early? Is it hard to fall asleep? Menopause can put a wrench in catching those zzz’s, which can be stressful…or annoying at best and anxiety-producing at worst. How can nutrition play a role in improving sleep?
If stomach discomfort or reflux is dampening your bedtime routine, consider what or how you are eating beforehand. Avoid larger meals, which can lead to discomfort from longer digestion times when lying down afterwards.
Also take note if acidic foods, such as tomato sauce or citrus, before bed lead to reflux pains. Reflux can also be exacerbated by foods that relax the esophageal sphincter such as mint, chocolate, caffeine or alcohol.
Even more discomfort may result from introducing air into the gastrointestinal tract from bubbly drinks, gum chewing, the use of straws.
Caffeine, particularly when consumed in the afternoon or later, may keep you up more than you realize. Foods such as chocolate, anything coffee-flavored, energy drinks, and caffeinated sodas and teas should be enjoyed earlier in the day. Looking for a fun alternative drink? Try Meadow Tea!
Alcohol can sometimes make us feel sleepier, but it can also cause a more fitful night sleep and disrupt sleep patterns. This may make us feel sleepier the next day, even if we get to bed earlier. Cutting back on alcohol consumption could help – so why not try this Summer Shandy Mocktail for a change?
What about soy?
There’s always a buzz about soy! The reason it’s so interesting is because of its high levels of phytoestrogens – an estrogen-like compound derived from plants. Because of that, some swear it reduces menopausal symptoms. However, research indicates that phytoestrogens don’t act exactly like estrogen, and so this has not been proven.
The good news is, incorporating soy into your diet is not harmful (link to nutrition article), even for those who have had or are at high risk for estrogen-dependent breast cancer (unless there is a specific reason otherwise to avoid it that you and your physician have discussed, such as limiting phosphorus for kidney disease). It also happens to be a nutrient-dense source of complete protein and very easy to incorporate into meals and snacks. So, perhaps it’s worth a try?
Food for Constipation & Diarrhea
Changes in digestion are not uncommon in menopause. Ride the wave with a few key nutrition tips and tricks.
For diarrhea, try foods that are higher in soluble fiber . This helps bind stool, hopefully decreasing trips to the bathroom. BRATT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) is commonly suggested due to the high content of soluble fibers in those foods. Use Ann’s Perfectly Cooked Rice. My kids and I add a dash of soy sauce for extra flavor. Of note, tea is often used as the second ‘T’ in the acronym as an example of a clear liquid that’s comforting and easy to tolerate when recovering from gastrointestinal distress.
For constipation, increase bulk by trying foods higher in the insoluble fiber found in vegetables, such as those in Garden Skillet with Sausage and Eggs. Along with a glass of water, this can help move things along. Even this crowd-pleasing Cauliflower Soup is a great way to pack in a smoother insoluble fiber.
Simple exercise, even something as straightforward as walking or stretching, may also stimulate intestinal movements.
What about nutrition supplements?
Before starting anything, it’s helpful to meet with your physician and review any pertinent blood tests.
Even for seemingly harmless supplements like calcium and Vitamin D, it’s important to do a review of diet and other medical history to assess risks versus benefits of taking. Supplement labels that promise menopause symptom relief are often not backed by science and may contain extra ingredients you don’t need or want.
There is no magic nutrition formula for easing menopause symptoms. Listening to your body and making some simple changes based on your own needs can be helpful. Don’t take any supplements without first discussing with your physician.
🥴Tell me, what’s your least favorite menopause symptom?