Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be a close association between perimenopause and diet. Limiting sugars and carbohydrates while ensuring an adequate intake of quality proteins and friendly fats can mitigate many perimenopause symptoms. Lifestyle changes are the first step in easing the transition to menopause, as they are the least invasive options.
In the previous installment of this series, we discussed the actual physiological process that occurs during perimenopause and why this can create so many varying symptoms. This process is a life changing one and can be an opportunity for us to take stock of our lives and prepare for the coming years.
While not everyone has uncomfortable symptoms during perimenopause and menopause, for many of us the symptoms creep up on us until we notice that we just do not feel right.
One of my favorite books on the topic is by Ann Louise Gittleman, Before the Change: Taking Charge of Your Perimenopause. Gittleman’s underlying philosophy in this book, first do no harm, is probably the most important idea when managing perimenopausal symptoms.
Perimenopause is a natural process not a disease, so although we may experience discomfort we are not seeking to eradicate something. The objective in treating the symptoms must be focused on optimizing our experience of the process. We are really seeking to create a balance physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Successful management requires a holistic approach, in which we make nuanced adjustments to find what works. Gittleman’s recommended protocol begins with lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, sleep and stress management) all the way to the more invasive option of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and many steps in between.
It is difficult to tell which hormones are at play with perimenopausal symptoms. Gittleman highlights the three different hormonal systems: the blood sugar, stress (adrenal) and sex (ovarian) hormones. Imbalances in all three of these systems can cause similar symptoms and diagnosis is further complicated by the fact that these systems all interact with each other in multiple ways.
The First Line of Defense
Because diet and other lifestyle changes can have such a significant impact and are the least invasive strategies, it make sense to start with those. The focus is on finding a strategy for eating that helps you to balance your hormones. The good news is that there are some overarching ideas that will apply to most people. The not so good news is that at the end of the day each individual has to through trial and error find what works for them. There are no magic pills that work for everyone.
First it is important to eat a diet that helps to maintain optimal blood sugar levels. We all know that sugary foods can create wild swings in glucose levels but other more complex carbohydrates can have a similar effect on the body. This is where the looking at the glycemic index (GI) of different foods can help. Gittleman recommends focusing the diet on low-glycemic carbs.
She also recommends consuming adequate amounts of high quality fats and proteins. The important thing to remember is that the fats and protein help to minimize the glycemic effect of the sugars we consume and are critical to balancing blood sugar levels. I have already written about the importance of friendly fats and my experience in another blog post, so we will focus on proteins here.
When considering protein sources it is important to focus on clean proteins as much as possible. Whether you are eating plant or animal proteins you will want to minimize the contaminants you are consuming.
Did you know that proteins form the basis of many of our tissues and organs and even our neurotransmitters? Of the 22 amino acids in the body there are 8 essential amino acids that we can only get from our diet. This is why a low protein diet can be problematic. Gittleman recommends a 40/30/30 ratio of carbohydrates/proteins/fats in her hormone balancing diet. For me, personally, this has proven to be a ratio that is helpful.
I have also found that focusing my diet on raw whole foods has made the biggest difference. Gittleman does not particularly recommend a raw vegan diet but she does offer advice for those who do not consume animal proteins. She does have a number of supplements that she recommends to balance hormones. I used to take many of those supplements, but I have always found that for whatever reason I stop taking them after a while. For me, supplements have always been more of a short-term option. However, I have noticed since I have been focused on getting nutrients from my diet, particularly increasing my healthy fat intake, that I am not missing the supplements. It is not easy to get all of the daily nutritional requirement from our diet but I know that trying to do so makes a big difference.
General dietary recommendations
- Eat a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Get adequate protein in the form of high quality animal or vegetable proteins.
- Eat low-GI (glycemic index), fiber dense foods.
- Include monounsaturated (olives and avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (fatty fish, flax seed, vegetable, grains and nuts) but avoid bad fats.
- Eat foods rich in phyto-estrogens (soy and flax seed) to help support the body’s natural estrogen production.
In the next post, we will look at other lifestyle changes that can help manage your perimenopause symptoms.
Frequently asked questions about perimenopause and diet.
There are a number of foods that are rich in phytoestrogens, which can help rebalance hormones and stabilize the metabolism. They include:
- Sesame seeds
- Flax seeds
- Soy and soy products
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Dried Fruits
- Red Wine
Ann Louise Gittleman
Sep 5 2017
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
A Natural Approach to Menopause