Cara Shaw talks nutrition & menopause
Understanding how to orchestrate your hormonal symphony - written by Registered Women's Health Nutritional Therapist: Cara Shaw
It’s time to face the music. Women are fundamentally different to men and it’s important to understand the intricate symphony of hormones that vary across a cycle and in a lifetime. Whilst men have a single hormone superhero (testosterone) to manage most of their hormone-related duties, women have a whole team of hormone superhero’s working together to keep the body running smoothly. Each female superhero takes turn to be the starring role in each part of the cycle. The role that each plays, changes over a female lifetime; increasing in amounts during puberty and then decreasing in the perimenopausal years.
A women’s cognition, playfulness, mental and physical wellbeing varies in each phase of the cycle. It’s time to start understanding how we can best support ourselves, our partner’s, our daughter’s, our sisters, our mothers, and our grandmother’s.
Whether you’re just starting puberty, you’re mid-way through your reproductive years or you’re in the depths of perimenopause, there are key nutritional foundations to support your hormones.
1. Balance your blood sugar
Stabilising blood sugar and preventing sharp spikes and big lows will help to keep energy levels up, cravings at bay and hormones happy. At mealtimes, aim for a palm-sized portion of protein, a small handful of carbohydrates, 1-2 tbsp healthy fats and one large fistful of veggies.
2. Opt for complex carbohydrates
When sourcing your carbohydrates, opt for complex ones that release glucose slowly into the bloodstream due to wonderful fibrous layers. These include sources such as root vegetables like parsnips, butternut squash, cassava, potatoes and beetroot, oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, millet and amaranth. During the latter half of a cycle, these are focus foods to support progesterone.
3. Aim for 30g fibre a day
Fibre is essential for the healthy elimination of hormones, via regular bowel movements. Elimination of used hormones is vital to ensure they don’t recirculate and cause havoc. Vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, pulses, nuts, and seeds are all wrapped in wonderful fibres that you can include in your diet.
4. Plate up the protein
Proteins are important for so many biological processes in the body, including making hormones. Aim for one palm-sized piece with each meal or 1x serving of a wholefood protein powder like Purition.
5. Load up on healthy fats
Healthy fats are essential. Our sex hormones are quite literally made from fats. Imagine building a house with no materials – it would be impossible. Focus on oily fish, olive oil, olives, avocado, avocado oil, nuts, and seeds.
6. Limit alcohol
Alcohol can increase oestrogen levels, which can throw off the balance with progesterone. Limiting alcohol during the early reproductive years and perimenopause is especially important as oestrogen is already in a dominant state.
"Women are fundamentally different to men and it’s important to understand the intricate symphony of hormones that vary across a cycle and in a lifetime."
Registered Women's Health Nutritional Therapist
The female journey
Puberty begins via the brain instructing the hypothalamus to produce a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which acts as the conductor of the female hormone orchestra. It can take up to 12 years to mature a menstrual cycle; for hormones to balance out and have regular cycles. At the start of puberty, its common to be more oestrogen dominant which can lead to heavier periods, bloating and more pronounced PMS.
Female adolescent brains are still developing at this time and can be sensitive to sex hormones and adrenaline, which can lead to challenges in regulating emotions. There is also decreased capacity to tolerate stress. Patience and support as a partner or family member is key. Additionally, nutrients during adolescence are prioritised for growth purposes, so a surplus is needed to support mental health and hormones.
Extra sleep is imperative for this life stage. For teens, melatonin takes longer to rise in the evening and is slower to shut down in the mornings; hence why teens tend to have later nights and need more lie-ins. Sleep hygiene is incredibly important for this stage of life to support hormones and recalibrate the body.
Once the menstrual cycle has been established, the hormones work together in an orderly ebb and flow, to keep everything from cognition to emotional and physical wellbeing in check; and allow for pregnancy to occur. This hormone pattern continues until the perimenopause years, typically in your 40s.
What people think of as menopause is perimenopause; characterised by changes such as menstrual patterns, hot flashes, and night sweats. Menopause is in fact only one day, after having no periods for 12 months; and starts on average around 51.
During the perimenopausal years, egg quality begins to diminish, and the reserve starts to run low; follicular development declines and cycles can appear as irregular. Irregular cycles can mean the absence of ovulation and lack of progesterone, which can lead us back to where we started in puberty, with oestrogen dominance. If oestrogen is running riot, one may experience heavier and longer periods, bloating, PMS, headaches, and tender breasts. Without enough progesterone, mood changes such feelings of anxiety and agitation can present; along with disruptions to sleep.
This can feel like a vicious cycle of low mood, poor sleep, and a lack of energy. Much-like in puberty, perimenopause is an important time to get some extra sleep. Whilst the process of hormonal changes during perimenopause can seem linear, it can feel like a rollercoaster journey, with hormones fluctuating wildly.
This hormonal change often be compounded with the fact that familial and career responsibilities peak at this time, often leaving women feeling completely overwhelmed. It is a key time to focus on nourishment and work on self-care. Family members – this is the time to take extra care with your loved ones.
As women enter the perimenopause phase to menopause, the ovaries produce less oestrogen and progesterone. The sharp decline in oestrogen can increase the risk of urogenital conditions and osteoporosis. Prioritising bone health and the vaginal microbiome is imperative; and can be supported via nutrition and lifestyle.
Prioritising nutrition and making lifestyle changes can be an effective way at managing the transition into menopause. Don’t underestimate the importance of diet during this time.
3 reasons Cara recommends Purition
Adding Purition to your diet is an excellent start to balancing you hormones
1. It's a convenient way of balancing blood sugar first thing in the morning
2. It's packed with naturally ocurring hormone-loving vitamins and minerals
3. It's a perfect way to increase plant-based diversity and support gut health
The menstrual cycle involves a sophisticated conversation between the ovaries and the brain. High levels of stress, inflammation, lots of sugary foods and alcohol, along with endocrine disrupting chemicals can all disrupt this delicate cycle and cause hormones to go awry.
Taking time to track and being consciously aware of your cycle requires very little effort and yet can be the most profound form of self-care. You can consider your emotional and physical symptoms, alongside any additional needs you may have, e.g., craving more alone time, the need for more starchy food or the need to be more social.
The simple practice of noticing how you feel (emotionally and physically) and jotting it down on paper or in your phone or making a mental note, can take as little as 1 minute of your time.
Being cycle aware can provide you with a manual on how to care for yourself and maximise each phase of your cycle.
Jotting down your feelings and cycle patterns can help make you aware of what’s regular for you, so that you can notice when things become out of sync.
When noticing irregularities in a cycle, stop to reflect on the following:
- Am I eating enough?
- Am I sleeping well?
- Is stress taking over?
- Do my meals contain enough protein?
- Am I consuming lots of alcohol?
- Do I need more self-care and support from loved ones?
If in doubt about whether a symptom is normal, always consult with a medical professional or a registered nutritional therapist. Red flags to watch out for include bleeding for more than 7 days, extremely heavy periods, debilitating period pains, mid-cycle bleeding, missing cycles, cycles shorter than 21 days or longer than 35 days.
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