Menopause is a natural part of ageing, but it can also trigger a rollercoaster of emotional and physical changes.
The reason? It’s down to a reduction in the hormone oestrogen, which usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55.
As your levels drop, symptoms such as hot flushes and mood changes are common – along with a whole host of other surprising symptoms.
How can diet help menopause symptoms?
Focus on eating a healthy diet for a natural way to take control of your menopause symptoms.
Phytoestrogens and how they can help you
Phytoestrogens are plant-based sources of oestrogen found in seeds, pulses and beans, soya, vegetables and cereals. Phytoestrogens are thought to be very similar to naturally occurring oestrogen.
Include enough of them in your diet and they can start to have similar effects to oestrogen on your changing body. The effect is milder, but they can help to keep energy levels and mood high, and to improve heart health.
This means that phytoestrogens can potentially reduce the impact of some menopause symptoms. Evidence is still very limited on their effectiveness – some studies have shown no effect on hot flushes, while others show some improvement in people who have many hot flushes a day.
Phytoestrogens occur naturally in many foods, but they can also be taken as a dietary supplement.
Some foods that contain phytoestrogens are low in calories but high in nutrients – that’s a win-win as it means they can also help with menopause symptoms such as weight gain.
Seeds – especially flaxseeds – are great sources of phytoestrogens. They’re also packed with fibre and healthy fats. Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, linseeds and poppy seeds also contain phytoestrogens and are ideal for vegans or vegetarians looking for healthy sources of protein.
Menopause health bonus: Seeds are great for heart health. Declining oestrogen levels during and after menopause can result in a higher risk of heart disease. This is because oestrogen works to prevent a build-up of plaque in the artery walls. Less oestrogen means less cardiovascular protection.
How to up your intake: Sprinkle seeds on your cereal, add them smoothies, porridge, fruit and yogurt, or just grab a handful for a quick and easy snack.
Pulses and beans
For vegetarians and vegans – and the health-conscious – these are another great plant-based source of protein, as well as being packed with phytoestrogens.
How to up your intake: Add chickpeas, baked beans, kidney beans and green split peas to soups, casseroles and curries.
Soya is one of the best sources of phytoestrogens. Look out for all soya-based products, including tofu, soya milk and soya yogurts.
Japanese and other Asian diets are high in soya – evidence suggests that hot flushes appear to be less common among the Japanese during menopause than among people from some other countries. Even so, it’s unclear whether a diet high in soya is the main or only reason, and if it would apply to people in other countries.
Menopause health bonus: Japanese diets are high in soya and this is often cited as a reason for low levels of heart disease and obesity in Japan.
How to up your intake: Switch from dairy to soya milk in coffee, give soya yogurts a go as an alternative to dairy, or enjoy a stir-fry that uses tofu instead of chicken. You’ll still get your calcium quota, but with added health benefits.
Fruit and vegetables
Menopause health bonus: As with lots of foods that are filled with phytoestrogens, fruit and vegetables also have heart-healthy antioxidants.
How to up your intake: Garlic, red onions, celery, sweet peppers, tomatoes, bean sprouts, broccoli, red apples and pomegranates are all great sources of phytoestrogens. Get your 5 a day by trying them fresh, frozen, dried, canned or juiced – they all count. Try a morning smoothie that mixes fruit and vegetables (try to avoid just having fruit as it can tip over into an unhealthy amount of sugar) and pile veggies high on your plate at mealtimes.
Opt for phytoestrogen-rich cereals like oats, rye, barley, brown rice, bulgar wheat and couscous, which are easy to fit into your diet. And no, we’re not talking about processed cornflakes and cocoa pops – avoid the added salt or sugar found in processed cereals.
Menopause health bonus: Naturally low in sugar, fats and salt, but high in fibre, cereals are heart-healthy. They can also help you manage your weight during menopause.
How to up your intake: Start your day by adding flaxseed or dark berries to oats and soy milk. Not only will you be kicking off the day with phytoestrogens, you’ll feel fuller for longer, avoid blood sugar spikes and that familiar mid-morning urge to snack.
Boosting your phytoestrogen intake with supplements
Phytoestrogens can be taken as supplements if you’re not getting enough through diet alone. However, supplements and herbal remedies are not regulated in the same way as medications. This means their quality, safety and side effects may be unknown, and they may interact with your regular medication. It’s best to speak with your doctor before taking them.
Your questions answered
Can I eat phytoestrogens or take supplements if I have breast cancer?
A healthy balanced diet will naturally contain phytoestrogens. However, the safety and side effects of a high oestrogen diet – or a diet that concentrates on specifically boosting oestrogen intake through food or supplements – have not been studied in detail. There are some concerns about an increased risk of breast cancer. So far, studies haven't found any conclusive evidence to support an increase in breast cancer risk. Even so, at the moment it's still advised not to take supplements or eat high levels of phytoestrogen if you have breast cancer.
- phytoestrogens are plant-based sources of oestrogen
- they may help manage some menopause symptoms like hot flushes
- they’re found in foods such as tofu and flax seeds, vegetables and cereals
- phytoestrogens can also be taken as a supplement, however, more research is needed into their effectiveness
- eating high levels of phytoestrogens or taking a supplement is not advised if you have breast cancer