This is a summary of our podcast interview with Jackie Lynch, registered nutritional therapist and author of The Happy Menopause, on how diet and lifestyle can help you manage menopause without HRT. This is a long post full of great information. But if you’d like to go straight to our Happy Menopause Without HRT checklist, you’ll find that at the end of this post.
Menopause is not a terrible and awful thing to be endured! It’s so much more than that.
Menopause is when all those reproductive hormones that have been driving us, our emotions, our motivations, everything since puberty because we are hardwired to nurture essentially. They start to drop and with that comes headspace, so you’ve suddenly got time to start thinking about what you really want to do with your life.
What happens with a lot of women is they start to question things – whether they’re in the right job or the right relationship and perhaps where they’re going with their life.
I like to think of menopause not as something where the door is closing, and the start of a downhill slope, but actually, the door opening to this whole new you. You can go and do amazing things because you’ve got the time, the space, and the energy, both mental and physical to do that.
Estrogen as the nurturing hormone
The whole nurturing thing is really a big deal. I don’t just mean in relation to children because not every woman has children. I don’t have children, but nonetheless, throughout the years, I’ve found myself looking after this person, reaching out, supporting friends, really caring for my job, and caring for my parents.
You’re doing all these things because that’s what women do and although I never felt driven in any particular direction, it was almost instinct. When you’d think in those terms, it’s actually probably the hormones doing it because women are very nurturing.
How some women suffer badly in menopause and others don’t
It’s really important to recognize that most women don’t suffer badly. It’s probably only about 20% and that’s one of the reasons I called my book, “The Happy Menopause”. I was starting to get a bit tired of the horror headlines about celebrities going through doom and gloom.
These poor women are going to be thinking that’s what’s waiting for them and for the most part, it really genuinely isn’t. There’s about 20% who sail through it and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Most of us in the middle, the remaining percentage, have issues some of the time but not all the time in varying degrees of symptoms and severity. Some of that will be hereditary too so it pays to talk to your older female relatives about their experience.
The massive importance of diet and lifestyle in midlife and beyond
As a nutritional therapist, I see the huge impact diet and lifestyle have. The reason I really wanted to put the book out there was to show women there are ways of managing things naturally. During your early forties, you’re laying the groundwork for your health through menopause and beyond, and it can make a material difference to the severity and the length of your symptoms.
The degree of severity of our menopause experience can also be dictated by how we’ve lived our life in the past. Past health can catch up with us. All those things that we could do in our past, the body just doesn’t want to do it anymore.
In our twenties, we’re relatively indestructible and suddenly around age 29, it’s like a switch has flipped and you can’t quite be as fresh as a daisy after an all-nighter and all those other things.
The impact of stress and the myth of having it all
The biggest thing for women is the impact of stress. We’re the sandwich generation, aren’t we? Beyond being sandwiched, between looking after elderly parents and looking after children, there’s also the sense that we’re the first to really come through and try and shine in the workplace while “having it all”.
Looking back, most women would probably think they couldn’t have it all. They might have tried to and it might have looked like they did, but at what cost? The cost is going to be themselves.
I work with women in my clinic and they are just ground down. They’ve driven themselves so hard to be the perfect executive woman, the perfect mother running around, trying to get the cupcakes ready for school while they’ve got a workshop or presentation to get ready for the board, or whatever they’re doing.
While we’re hardwired to nurture, the one person we don’t nurture is ourselves and that’s where it really needs to come in for menopause. Stuff can catch up with you.
If you’ve been driving yourself incredibly hard, then it’s going to drag you down and it’s particularly going to affect your body’s ability to manage stress, your resilience. If you’ve got a lack of resilience, by the time you come into menopause, then the body’s backup plan for estrogen just simply can’t kick in.
How Rachel used dietary changes to reverse her early menopause diagnosis
“I’m convinced stress caused my diagnosis of early menopause at 41. I’d crossed countries, got divorced, was a single parent, an executive. I had an au pair, thank goodness. But I had to earn the money to have the au pair and pay the mortgage because it was just me. The early menopause happened when I actually left work and went freelance. I was in a new relationship, but then it was like going on holiday, my body just went, boom, can’t do this anymore.
I went to see a nutritionist and was advised to work on getting my blood sugar levels consistent during the day. I knew nothing about this. I was also given a tincture with things like agnus castus, but the main thing was getting my diet sorted, stripping out anything bad, and being consistent with the blood sugar levels. And then I got my periods back! That was incredible!
I got them back for about nine months. It didn’t carry on. And it may well have been because I didn’t keep up the regime. My body went back to what it was planning to do, I suppose. But if I had been consistent, who knows, I might have carried on having periods for more years.
That’s, that really showed me how much control we actually have over our hormonal balance.”
The importance of maintaining stable blood sugar levels
As the ovaries stop producing estrogen, our adrenal glands take over that job, so we‘re not just left hanging. The body’s a really high-performance machine and it has a plan for us post-menopause.
The problem is, the adrenal glands also produce our stress response. Because the stress hormones are our fight or flight response, generating cortisol and adrenaline is essentially lifesaving, so the body will prioritize that.
If you’re in a constant state of chronic stress, instead of producing the small amounts of estrogen post-menopause to keep things on track, your body’s just too busy producing the stress hormones.
What we need to do then is look at how nutrition can make a big difference to that. The nutrition 101 when it comes to stress management, is blood sugar, because basically every time your blood sugar crashes, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline. It’s dangerous for us not to have enough sugar in the blood because it’s our primary source of energy.
When your blood sugar crashes, outcome the stress hormones. They want to redress the balance. They will then drive cravings for sugary food, refined carbohydrate, also some form of stimulant, like a cup of coffee or a glass of wine depending on the time of day.
The end result will be that you’ll stuff something in, and then instead of going back to where your blood sugar should be, in that nice level band, it’ll spike.
We’ve got another mechanism to deal with that. Insulin comes out and will then scoop up all that excess sugar and send it off to the liver to be stored. If there’s too much of it, it’ll store the rest as fat cells.
Every time your blood sugar goes up, you’re encouraging your body to lay down fat stores. Weight management is an issue for an awful lot of women in midlife.
I throw that in there as an extra tip, but that’s why blood sugar balance is so important because essentially if you can keep the blood sugar nice and stable, you’re not going to be producing more stress hormones.
You can’t remove stress from your life completely. But you can at least make your body stronger, more resilient and make sure you’re not producing stress hormones needlessly.
How menopause may not be to blame for what’s happening to us
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to managing everything. Taking a more natural approach to managing menopause is more complicated basically because no two women have the same menopause.
It might also be headaches, fatigue, or weight management. There’s lots of stuff that can happen and the symptoms are many and varied. I always think getting blood sugar balance right is absolutely the first thing to do because that is the sort of underlying thing that will then at least make sure you’re not producing excess stress hormones.
If there are other external factors out there affecting you, then blood sugar balance is only one part of the picture. You would need to start looking at how you’re managing your time, what the principal sources of stress in your life are and what you can actually do about stepping back from them and perhaps not putting yourself under so much pressure.
With all these different symptoms, there are different things you can do because addressing issues like aching joints or headaches are going to be a different pathway in the body compared to addressing something like anxiety or hot flushes.
It’s worth remembering, we blame a lot on menopause, but maybe you’re getting a headache for a different reason. For example, headaches, fatigue, constipation, dry skin, confusion, loss of concentration, they’re all classic symptoms of dehydration. Are you drinking enough?
You need to look at some of those other basics just to make sure you’ve dealt with those, because a lot of the time, there’s other stuff going on.
With weight management, one of the things I see is that loss of confidence plays a part. Perhaps you used to be much more body confident and you’d go to the gym and do your thing. But now, suddenly, you don’t want to look at yourself in the light because you feel more self-conscious.
You probably look exactly the same as you did two years ago, but not to you and that’s the thing that can drive this. Then you stop going to the gym and you think, “Oh, well, I can’t go anymore because they’re all young and they look much better than me.“ It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How our thoughts and beliefs can impact our experience of menopause
The beliefs we have about menopause, our expectations about what it’s going to be like can also affect our experience of it. If you expect the worst, you often get lost.
It’s just having that positive outlook. You can talk yourself into all of these negative things but maybe it’s also the time for you to try something new and take up a new hobby or learn a new skill.
In the nicest possible way, sometimes it’s about taking yourself in hand a bit and just thinking, what you can do to make this better for yourself, rather than just feeling passive that it’s going to be rubbish because you’ve read all these articles about how awful menopause is. It doesn’t have to be that way.
You see all these gray-haired, fat men in suits on TV and they have no trouble getting jobs whether it be acting jobs, presenting jobs, and yet the minute a woman has a gray hair or wrinkle, suddenly a newer version is wheeled in for the presenter of that particular program.
It becomes slightly ingrained. If you think of it from another perspective and think about ancient tribes, the older women were the wise women of the village. We knew stuff, everyone came to us, looked up to us and that’s how it should still be now. It’s important for us to realize what value we can bring.
It’s all about us stepping into that possibility of transformation and this is a natural third stage in our lives where we can have a different role in society in life and everything else. It’s time for more new and exciting things.
The importance of eating more protein with every meal and snack
I recommend women include more protein in their diets because most women are terrible at eating enough. We need protein for lots of different things because it balances blood sugar.
It slows down the release of carbohydrates into the body which keeps you going for longer. When you read some of these weird crash diets, a lot of protein is included because it can help to reduce sugar cravings.
It also has masses of other roles and we’re literally made of protein. Every cell in the body is made of protein. When you start to worry about your skin, your hair, your nails, if you’re having enough protein, it’s going to keep those strong and you’ll not have hair or nails splitting and thinning.
We need protein for strong bones. Most women need to think about their bone health once they are through and beyond menopause. We also need the amino acids found in protein for the production of neurotransmitters that govern things like mood, memory, concentration, and motivation.
Issues in those areas are very common for women in mid-life. One of the things I say is to eat protein with every meal and snack.
When I say protein, it doesn’t have to be meat and fish. Your nuts and seeds are a great source of protein that can be from your breakfast. You’ve got things like soya, quinoa, all the pulses, beans and lentils, hummus and chickpeas.
There are lots of ways of factoring those into your diet much more regularly. Men are great at getting enough protein. We have every right to be as strong as men.
Getting magnesium, calcium and iron from leafy green vegetables
Leafy green vegetables are a massive one-stop shop for menopause-friendly nutrients. By leafy greens, I’m thinking of things like spinach, rocket, watercress, and cabbage.
At a push, though not very leafy, broccoli is brilliant too. The reason for that is it’s a fabulous source of magnesium, which is my all-around favorite mineral.
Magnesium calms the nervous system which makes you more resilient, regulates the body’s response to stress so that you’re better equipped to deal with the challenges of daily life.
It manages and supports the adrenals and also helps with tired aching muscles and that twitchy eyelid which is a classic sign of magnesium deficiency. You need magnesium for the absorption of calcium, which we need for strong bones.
Leafy greens are also a surprisingly good source of calcium, probably about twice as much per hundred grams as milk. They contain iron which is great for any perimenopausal women who perhaps are starting to have iron depletion.
A couple of handfuls of leafy greens every day and lots of protein would be a great way to start.
How phytoestrogens mimic the actions of estrogen in the body
Phytoestrogens are great too. They’re plant compounds essentially that mimic the action of estrogen in the body. There are two main sources. First is the isoflavones which you’ll find in soy. I’m a particular fan of the original fermented form of soy or the whole bean-like edamame.
Studies have shown that women in Asian countries tend to have much fewer incidences of hot flashes in particular. It is felt that it’s associated with the higher levels of the isoflavones naturally in their diet.
The biggest source of lignans, which is the other big phytoestrogen in the Western diet is flaxseed.
Flaxseed is a quadruple whammy. Flaxseed is protein, fiber and it’s packed with omega-3. We all know we need that, even if we’re not quite sure why.
We need omega-3 for a ton of things. It’s great for hormone balance, heart health, brain health, skin, hair, and all of those things. It’s a real all-rounder and then of course you’ve got the phytoestrogens in there, that’s four great reasons to be adding flaxseed to your breakfast.
The physiological stress we can put on our bodies through diet and lifestyle
We’ve allowed ourselves to get suckered into having quite a processed diet. The combination of processed foods, lots of stress, alcohol, and caffeine, all come together to put the body under a lot of physiological stress – so it comes back to stress again.
Stress comes in many guises. It’s not just having a rubbish day at work. It can affect your psychological stress, emotional stress, and then the physiological stress within the body.
Understanding whether HRT is right for you and how to balance that with diet and lifestyle
It’s very important that women actually understand what hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is. It is important that they understand the associated risks and benefits because it’s about weighing that up.
You need to look at your medical history, your family history, the severity of your symptoms, and then decide if it’s actually going to be right for you. I feel really strongly that women shouldn’t be entrenched in either one camp or the other and think, “it’s HRT or nothing or it’s nutrition or nothing. “
You should look at everything, understand everything, ask questions about everything and then decide, what’s right for you.
Some women who have particularly severe symptoms, like depression and severe anxiety may well find they’d benefit from some extra progesterone.
HRT is not a quick solution and still needs a good diet for the best support
It’s all about knowing what the right thing is. What’s super important to realize is that HRT is not the quick fix. You still have to have the right diet and lifestyle for it to work effectively.
It is important to realize that you need to find a way of being the best version of yourself as you move through midlife and beyond because we don’t just want to live longer, we want to live healthier and better because there’s no point in living long and not being able to do anything you want to do.
Considering diet and lifestyle and how it can support you is really important. HRT on its own, plus a bad diet can help a bit, but I can guarantee you, you’ll feel way better if you do HRT and a really good diet or you just do a really good diet depending on where your decisions lie. HRT plus a bad diet, doesn’t make you feel great.
How Rachel weaned herself off HRT at 51
“I went on HRT for the early menopause and I was told I needed to be on it until ‘normal’ menopause age of 51. I didn’t want to do it at the beginning. But everybody said, early menopause, you’ve got to go on HRT to protect the bones and heart. I’m not sure I’m convinced of that now, but I know that is still very much the advice. But I always saw an endpoint. I’d been told, stay on it until 51. Then see how you are then.
I got to 51 and I was alright. But I had put in place a much better diet. I had incorporated the natural phytoestrogens. I was working to keep my blood sugar as balanced as possible because I had that experience from before. I was able to wean myself off and I had no negative side effects whatsoever by weaning myself off because of it.
I was my own Guinea pig, I could see what my body was doing. It was very powerful. We have so much more control than I think we think we do.“
How just small nutritional changes can make a huge difference
I am constantly blown away by the power of nutrition. I studied it for four years. I’ve been practicing as a clinician for 10 years, but I’m still blown away sometimes by how a very small change can make the most enormous difference to someone.
Be kind to yourself
My absolute top best advice is “be kind to yourself” because menopause is an enormous time of hormonal turmoil. If you have children or nieces and nephews or godchildren, you’ll be looking at them and supporting them through puberty and making sure they eat well, sleep well, and that they’re getting fresh air and they’re not overdoing it.
You do all these things because adolescence is a big transition. You’ll survive menopause if you take a bit of time for yourself. Start to think about how you can eat better. Don’t just always think about what others like. Start to think about what will be the right food for you.
If that’s the leafy greens, it won’t do the family any harm to have a few leafy greens as well. Taking time for yourself, managing your schedule so you’re not overpromising at work or trying to fit in everything while you’re driving everybody to wherever they need to go and doing all those things.
Take time for exercise at the weekends. Take an hour a day for me time, whether that’s lying on the bed, reading a magazine or going for a country walk or playing the piano.
By being kind to yourself, nutrition will become a part of that. Start to think about how you can genuinely nurture yourself. If it doesn’t come naturally, because you’re so used to doing it for everyone else, think of it this way, if you collapse, then everything else is going to fall apart.
If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the rest of them, because if you’re not able to look after them, then it’s all going to collapse anyway, isn’t it?
Your happy menopause without HRT checklist
- Don’t expect the worst – only 20% of women have a bad menopause experience
- Do your best to reduce the level of stress in your life or find healthy ways to manage it
- Balance your blood sugar levels
- Balance your blood sugar levels
- Balance – just kidding!
- Eat plenty of protein and have it with every meal
- Nuts, seeds, beans and pulses are all great sources of plant protein
- Get magnesium, calcium and iron from leafy green vegetables
- Consume natural phytoestrogens in the form of soya and flaxseed etc.
- Avoid processed foods, added sugar and too much alcohol and caffeine
- Take time for exercise and relaxation
- Be kind to yourself
Find out more about Jackie:
Listen to The Happy Menopause Podcast
You may also like: When Exactly Do You Reach Menopause Age? and Natural Remedies For Menopause – All You Need To Know
Jackie Lynch is a registered nutritional therapist, menopause specialist and author who helps professional women achieve optimum health, wellbeing and performance through nutritional advice and coaching. She is also the host of The Happy Menopause podcast and the author of The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish (Watkins, October 2020), Va Va Voom: the 10-Day Energy Diet (Headline, 2017) and The Right Bite: Smart Food Choices for Eating on the Go (Nourish, 2016).