Nutrition and Menopause

Menopause is the natural part of a women's lifecycle when the menstrual period stops. It is sometimes called "the change of life," and is a unique and personal experience for every woman.

Menopause is a natural life event that marks the end of the child-bearing years for women. In technical terms, menopause occurs when the ovaries run out of eggs and decrease the production of the sex hormone estrogen, progesterone, and androgen. Women experience menopause at various ages, but most go through it around age fifty. It is considered an early menopause at any age younger than forty to forty-five.

Are there other factors that will affect the age at which I hit menopause? Genetics is definitely a key factor, so knowing your family history may give you a clue. Also, cigarette smoking can cause menopause to occur two years earlier for women who smoke than for nonsmoking women.

Changes and signs of menopause include the following:

  • Hot flashes (sudden warm feeling, sometimes with blushing)
  • Night sweats (hot flashes that occur usually at night and can often disrupt sleep)
  • Fatigue (probably from disrupted sleep patterns)
  • Mood swings
  • Early-morning awakening
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Fluctuations in sexual desire or response
  • Difficulty sleeping
Many of the symptoms as well as health problems of menopause are due to the decreasing levels of estrogen. Treatment with estrogen (estrogen replacement therapy or ERT) or with estrogen and progestin (hormone replacement therapy, HRT) has been used to help relieve some of these symptoms and supposedly decrease the risk for certain health problems such as heart disease and stroke. Approximately 25 percent or 8 million American menopausal women currently take ERT or HRT. Taking ERT or HRT may help to reduce symptoms of menopause, but it is now uncertain whether the risks outweigh the benefits. There is doubt as to whether they really do decrease the risks of certain health problems and there are contraindications in taking HRT for women who have a history of cancer. Taking HRT and ERT is an extremely complicated issue, with many pros and cons. Every woman should assess her own personal needs and discuss her options with her doctor. If you're taking these replacements, it is important to have regular medical check-ups.

Current research is now examining soy foods as an alternative treatment for the symptoms of menopause. These soy foods contain phytoestrogen (also called isoflavones), a plant hormone similar to estrogen. Research is still in its beginning stages, and much more needs to be established before any conclusions can be made.

Health Issues and Menopause
At least two major health problems can develop in women in the years after menopause: heart disease and osteoporosis. A decrease in hormone production is most likely the cause of these conditions at that stage in life. The years following menopause can be healthy years, depending on how you take care of yourself. Not all women will develop heart disease or osteoporosis after menopause. Many lifestyle factors that have nothing to do with estrogen levels can affect your heart and your bones. The key to helping prevent heart disease and osteoporosis is lifestyle change, with nutrition and physical activity as major components.

Weight Gain in Menopause
Perimenopause, which leads to menopause, marks the beginning of the end of the menstrual cycle. In this stage, which spans from five to ten years, estrogen levels begin to decline, ovulation becomes less regular and weight gain tends to become a problem. Some women who have struggled with just a few extra pounds often find themselves struggling harder against weight gain during perimenopause. Even women who have generally stayed in a healthy weight range for many years suddenly find themselves having to work a lot harder to stay there. Some experts believe that the reason for the weight problem is the fluctuation in hormone levels, while others suggest it is an age-related decline in muscle mass that ultimately decreases metabolism. As with weight loss at any stage of life, dieting isn't the only answer. The key is lifestyle change and exercise combined. Experts feel that if you have not been exercising throughout life, perimenopause is the time when you should really begin. At this point in your life you need to develop more muscle mass through exercise to achieve a higher, fat-burning metabolic rate that can help you lose extra pounds and help you to stay at a healthy weight.

Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

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