Menopause is a natural and significant stage in a woman's life, marking the end of her reproductive years. However, this transition is often accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms, including hot flashes, mood swings, and weight gain. Many women are taking a holistic approach to support their well-being during this transformative phase. Integrative nutrition recognizes the profound impact of food and lifestyle choices on hormonal balance and overall health. This article will explore using food as medicine and other complementary strategies to alleviate menopausal symptoms and help women navigate this transition.
Menopause is a natural biological process that signifies the end of a woman's menstrual cycles and fertility. In the United States, an estimated 1.3 million women enter menopause. The menopausal transition occurs in most women between ages 45 and 55 and usually lasts seven years. (1)
Menopause is generally recognized to have three stages: perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. Perimenopause, the earliest stage, can start several years before menopause and is marked by irregular periods and hormonal fluctuations. Menopause is the absence of menstruation for 12 consecutive months, signaling the permanent cessation of ovulation and fertility. Postmenopause refers to the years following menopause, where most menopausal symptoms tend to diminish, although hormonal changes and symptoms can still impact overall health and well-being. (2)
Common Symptoms and Challenges Associated With Menopause
Symptoms of menopause typically begin during perimenopause, related to the natural decline in estrogen (3). The most common symptom of menopause is hot flashes, periodic increases in body temperature experienced by 75% of all menopausal women. Hot flashes that occur at night are called night sweats.
Mood disorders, encompassing emotional changes and mood swings, are also more likely for women at the onset of perimenopause than at any other point in their life. Fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone and the effects this has on neurotransmitter synthesis, memory, and brain structure account for irritability, rage, anxiety, and depression.
The average woman gains 5-8 pounds during the menopausal transition. Studies suggest that fluctuations in reproductive hormones cause dysregulation in ghrelin, leptin, and neuropeptide Y, hormones that control appetite and satiety signals, contributing to slowed metabolism and weight gain during this life phase. (4)
Other common symptoms associated with menopausal hormonal imbalances include vaginal atrophy, low libido, sleep disturbances, urinary incontinence, and hair loss (2, 5). Postmenopausal women are also more vulnerable to heart disease and osteoporosis as estrogen diminishes, losing its cardiovascular and bone-protective effects (6, 7).
What Are the Principles of Integrative Nutrition?
Integrative and functional nutrition operates on principles that prioritize a holistic approach to nutrition, understanding that a healthy diet is foundational for all aspects of health. Adopting a holistic approach, integrative nutrition emphasizes that nutrition is not just about isolated nutrients. Instead, it encompasses the complex interactions between an individual's unique circumstances (i.e., lifestyle, genetics, environmental factors) and the foods they eat.
Placing a strong emphasis on nutrient-dense, whole foods that provide essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that support the body's physiologic processes and nourish the body, nutrition can be a cornerstone to achieving optimal wellness. Functional nutrition embraces the concept of bio-individuality, meaning that each patient has specific needs when it comes to nutrition, and what works for one person may not work for another. A tailored, individualized nutritional approach ensures that dietary plans are enjoyable, sustainable, and effective in meeting health goals and supporting wellness.
Common Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Individualize Integrative Nutrition Options for Menopause Patients
Functional medicine labs play a crucial role in tailoring integrative nutrition approaches for menopause patients by providing valuable insights into individual biochemistry, hormone levels, nutrient deficiencies, and overall health markers.
Comprehensive Hormone Panel
A comprehensive female hormone panel is one of the first go-to labs for a baseline hormone assessment to gauge the menopausal transition. The DUTCH Complete is a popular lab amongst functional providers because it assesses the balance of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their metabolites to determine how the body makes and processes sex hormones. In addition, it also measures cortisol, melatonin, and various organic acids, which provide additional insight into the reason behind the physical and emotional symptoms of menopause.
The Metabolomix+ is an advanced panel that combines a variety of tests to analyze essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids, organic acids, and oxidative stress markers. This evaluation goes beyond simply screening for nutrient deficiencies and provides in-depth insight into total-body nutritional status, helping to stratify disease risk for preventive healthcare. Using this information to guide dietary recommendations greatly supports a holistic treatment plan that promotes overall wellness.
Comprehensive Stool Test
Specific bacteria within the intestinal microbiome, called the estrobolome, play an important role in metabolizing and modulating the body's circulating estrogen. Additionally, studies show a reduction in gut microbiota diversity and increased potential for gut permeability ("leaky gut") in menopausal women (3). Given this, a comprehensive stool analysis helps assess gut health and function by measuring intestinal biomarkers related to the abundance and diversity of the microbiome, the integrity of the gut barrier, and digestive efficiency.
Food Sensitivity Testing
Sometimes, food sensitivity testing is appropriate to identify foods that may be problematic for an individual, contributing to leaky gut and digestive symptoms. These test results can be used to create a personalized, therapeutic elimination diet to help heal the gut.
Integrative Nutrition Strategies for Menopause Symptom Management
The fundamental goals of an integrative nutrition strategy include providing relief from common menopausal symptoms and including foods rich in nutrients that prevent the development of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and intestinal dysbiosis. In general, women going through menopause should adopt anti-inflammatory dietary practices, such as those emphasized by the Mediterranean diet guidelines. Research has suggested that a Mediterranean diet supports bone health, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, and reduces metabolic aging.
Any meal pattern constructed around whole fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fats, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, herbs, and spices is considered anti-inflammatory. By incorporating these nutrient-dense foods into the diet and simultaneously limiting ultra-processed foods high in saturated and trans fats and sugars, we can observe general shifts in health associated with improved clinical outcomes. Balancing macro- and micronutrients through healthy eating patterns results in balanced blood sugar, enhanced gut health, and reduced systemic inflammation - translating to improved hormone metabolism and resolution in menopausal symptoms. (8)
Key Nutrients and Foods for Menopause Support
Beginning with perimenopause, nutrient requirements change for women to support hormonal changes, bone health, and cardiovascular function. Vitamins and minerals of significant importance for women aged 40 and older include vitamin D and Bs, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. A perimenopausal diet helps prepare the body to cope with hormonal fluctuations, prevent nutrient deficiencies, and support overall wellness.
According to research, adequate protein intake is associated with improved weight management, prevention of muscle loss, and better physical performance in perimenopausal, menopausal, and postmenopausal women. Guidelines recommend eating 0.8-1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily to maintain muscle function. High-protein foods include meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, soy, beans, nuts, and seeds. (9, 10)
Phytoestrogens are plant-derived substances that hold the potential to activate estrogen receptors. They exert weak estrogenic effects in some parts of the body while having antiestrogenic effects in others. Isoflavones are the most common phytoestrogenic compounds. Isoflavones express estrogenic effects in the central nervous system, blood vessels, bone, and skin without stimulating breast or uterine tissues. Phytoestrogen-rich foods include soy, beans, flaxseeds, and whole grains. (11, 12)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential anti-inflammatory polyunsaturated fats found in high concentrations in fatty fish. Adequate intake of these essential fatty acids is important for modulating systemic inflammation and preventing many diseases, including bone loss, heart disease, dementia, and depression. (9)
Ensuring adequate fiber intake, at least 25 grams daily, by eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes is important for regulating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, maintaining a healthy weight, normalizing bowel habits, and balancing the intestinal microbiome.
Supplements and Herbs Commonly Used for Menopause Support
The following supplements are commonly used to treat menopause symptoms with diet and lifestyle modifications.
Black cohosh is a highly researched and clinically utilized botanical supplement for managing menopausal symptoms, predominantly hot flashes and night sweats, due to its phytoestrogenic effects. Additionally, black cohosh can partially bind and activate serotonin receptors, making it effective in treating the psychoemotional symptoms of menopause. (13, 14)
Maca root is an adaptogenic herb that supports a healthy stress response by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Adaptogens have been found to improve the subjective experience of psychophysical stress, manifesting as enhancement in energy levels, sleep quality, cognitive function, and emotional stability. Clinical research supports using maca as an effective botanical product to treat hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and low libido.
St. John's Wort
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of antidepressant medication commonly prescribed for managing hot flashes and mood disorders related to the menopausal transition. St. John's wort is a safer alternative to SSRIs in treating mild-to-moderate depression. Clinical trials have also concluded that menopausal women supplementing with St. John's wort experience improvements in hot flashes, fatigue, and sleep.
Integrative Nutrition and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Integrative nutrition and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are complementary approaches to addressing menopausal symptoms and promoting overall well-being. Producing (or administering) hormones is just one part of the equation when considering hormonal imbalances; integrating diet therapy into a menopausal treatment protocol can address other essential aspects required to achieve hormonal homeostasis. While administering HRT, using food to support thyroid, adrenal, liver, and gut health can optimize the interconnected workings of the body's endocrine and detoxification systems, enhancing symptom relief, often with lower hormonal doses.
Menopause is a transformative phase of a woman's life. Unfortunately, menopause is often associated with undesirable symptoms related to the decline in ovarian function and reproductive hormones; however, this transition doesn't need to be miserable. Women can easily navigate this life transition by utilizing an integrative approach to supporting women's health and hormonal balance. Integrative nutrition is an essential aspect of supporting women through menopause. An individualized dietary strategy is effective in supporting the body's endocrine system, reducing menopausal symptoms, and setting a solid stage for graceful aging.
Lab Tests in This Article
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10. Cloyd, J. (2023, April 14). A Functional Medicine Clinical Protocol To Support Patients With Sarcopenia. Rupa Health. https://www.rupahealth.com/post/a-functional-medicine-clinical-protocol-to-support-patients-with-sarcopenia
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