This month we speak with Nutritionist Catherine Richards, founder of Zest Natural Health. Catherine has a special interest in women’s health, particularly menopause, digestion and weight loss. Here Catherine shares expert advice on how nutritional therapy can help support menopause.
As women go through peri-menopause, into menopause and post menopause there are many changes that our body needs to adjust to, including a need to increase certain nutrients. When working with clients I ensure I take a holistic approach at supporting different systems in the body to minimise menopause symptoms as much as possible.
Firstly, let’s have a look at how the different systems in the body play a role, and then a few key nutrients that are important during these menopause stages.
How important is digestion?
Your liver and kidneys both filter your blood to remove excess or ‘used’ hormones from your body. Those removed by the liver are dumped into the digestive tract through bile and then excreted when you have a bowel movement. If you are constipated or have infrequent bowel movements, more of these waste hormones will be reabsorbed back into your circulation, exacerbating menopause symptoms. It’s important to have at least one good, easy, formed bowel movement a day. If you are not, then think about increasing your fibre intake through eating more fruits and vegetables, and depending on your individual tolerances, whole grains, beans and legumes. Drinking plenty of water can help, as can having enough healthy fats in your diet. Supporting your liver by not putting too much pressure on it by limiting caffeine, alcohol and processed foods, along with including bitter foods such as rocket & watercress, cruciferous vegetables and Sulphur foods such as eggs, onions and garlic.
The impact of stress and sleep
Stress and sleep play a key role in helping balance hormones. When we get stressed it triggers the release of hormones such as cortisol, having an effect on hormones. When you are asleep, this is when your body is restoring and repairing and trying to get back to homeostasis or a balanced level, clearing waste and releasing hormones. If you’re not getting enough sleep or enough quality sleep, the pathways in your body can become disrupted. Lack of sleep has also been shown to increase a hormone called Ghrelin that can increase hunger and cravings, which again can lead to an imbalance of blood sugar levels, leading to weight gain and disrupting hormones.
What’s the deal with cortisol?
Cortisol is an extremely important hormone released by your adrenal glands. It’s actually a protective hormone released during acute infections and part of your ‘fight or flight’ response, giving energy to your muscles, making you more alert and assisting with cognitive function. The problem occurs when cortisol is consistently raised and becomes dysregulated. Long term dysregulation or ‘imbalance’ can reduce insulin sensitivity, cause fatigue, inflammation, anxiety, brain fog and disrupt hormones, contributing to menopausal symptoms. Cortisol is also directly correlated to Melatonin (your sleep hormone), therefore if cortisol becomes disrupted, so can your sleep pattern.
Causes of cortisol imbalance can be long term stress, insomnia, caffeine, alcohol and also processed foods including those high in omega 6, which I’ll discuss later.
Have a think about how you can reduce your own stress levels, you might find a yoga class, meditation or a relaxation app could help.
Why keep hydrated?
Water helps the body to get rid of excess hormones, waste products from our cells and is also needed to transport nutrients into our cells and keep our tissues and organs hydrated, especially the brain. We should aim to drink between 1.5 and 2 litres of water per day (more if you’re exercising). Herbal teas count towards your intake but coffee and tea don’t count as they’re diuretics which means that it increases urine excretion and causes dehydration.
Caffeine can also contribute to blood sugar imbalances, leading to weight gain, peaks and dips in energy, irritability and anxiety. It can also trigger or worsen hot flushes in menopause.
Some of the key nutrients that can be beneficial in these stages are
- Magnesium – This mineral can be found in green leafy vegetables, nuts & seeds, wholegrains such as brown rice, chia seeds, lentils, legumes, quinoa and avocado. Magnesium is important for the nervous system including your mood, hope may help you cope with stress, sleep, your energy levels and supporting your adrenals. It’s also been found to help with restless legs, hot flushes, lowering blood pressure and helps to remove calcium out of soft tissue and into the bone to name a few.
- Calcium – as most of us know is important going through the menopause as levels decrease as you get older. One of the main functions of calcium in conjunction with other minerals is to prevent osteoporosis. Calcium can be found in dark green leafy vegetables, organic non- GMO, organic soy products or fermented soy products such as Tempeh, Miso and Tamari, almonds, sesame & chia seeds and seafood, particularly sardines.
- Vitamin D – Not only helps with the absorption of calcium but is also involved with cardiovascular health, insulin regulation which would in turn help with weight and it also helps with mood. Sunlight on the bare skin is the best way to obtain Vitamin D but as unfortunately we don’t get too much sunlight in the UK, foods including fish, mushrooms and egg yolks may help.
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and bok choy contain Indole‐3‐ Carbinol, a compound that promotes the breakdown of excess used estrogen.
- Omega-3 fats are also important. Not getting enough omega-3 and consuming too many poor-quality omega-6 fats (which are found in margarines, vegetable cooking oils, and processed foods) can increase inflammation in your body. This could contribute to problems associated with aging through and after menopause, such as arthritis, cardiovascular health and have an effect on cortisol balance. The best sources of omega-3s are oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds or their oils.
- Good quality Green tea – Can reduce weight as it reduces a hormone called leptin which is made by your adipose or fat cells and reduces insulin.
What are Phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are plant nutrients that act like an oestrogen. Good sources are ground flaxseeds, beans and pulses including chickpeas and lentils. Soya products (preferably organic or fermented). Vegetables, fruits and seeds also contain phytoestrogens. In menopause they act by having an oestrogenic effect and replacing what your body is lacking, reducing menopausal symptoms. Think about making stews, soups or curries with beans and lentils, and having a tablespoon of ground flaxseed every day, sprinkled on porridge, yoghurt or soups. Basing your diet on whole foods rather than refined or processed foods gives you the foundation for good hormone balance.
It may seem like an impossible task but just making small manageable changes that fit in to your daily life and building on these can make a big difference to menopause symptoms.
Catherine Richards has a bachelor degree in Nutritional Medicine, which she completed in 2011 at The Australian College of Natural Medicine in Queensland Australia. She worked as a Nutritionist in Australia for 2 years before returning to the UK in 2013, and now lives in Cardiff and continues to work in the nutrition industry.
In 2016 Catherine started her Nutrition consultation business, Zest Natural Health. Catherine has a special interest in women’s health and regularly conducts consultations with clients face to face or via online. She works with her clients to find changes that are manageable and realistic. When seeing clients she particularly enjoys putting the puzzle pieces together to understand the underlying cause and helping them on their journey to health.
Catherine also regularly gives talks on women’s health issues and conducts online healthy living programmes.