How Diet Can Impact Hormones and Menopause
By: Susan J Hewlings PhD, RD
Do you remember when you hit puberty and started menstruating? For many of us, this was a confusing, uncomfortable and maybe even an embarrassing phase in life. Luckily, things got easier with time. Our hormones leveled out. And while periods, mood swings and PMS were never a walk in the park, many of us eventually found ways to manage whatever hormonal fluctuations and related symptoms we were experiencing.
Menopause holds some similarities to those pubescent years. Our hormone levels are changing dramatically, which may result in symptoms we’ve never dealt with before, like hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness. Similar to when you were a tween or teen, you may feel confused about what’s happening, embarrassed by your symptoms, or unsure of how to manage them.
But just like puberty, this too shall pass. And while some of the changes we experience during menopause are inevitable and permanent—like lower hormones and the end of periods—there are things you can do to manage your hormones and symptoms, just as you had been doing for years with your menstrual cycle. One great place to start is by looking at your overall diet.
Foods That Can Help with Menopause, Naturally
There are certain foods we can add to our daily diet plan that may help manage menopause symptoms.
Try the Mediterranean Diet Plan
It’s a fairly popular belief that menopause is related to weight gain, but the truth is, it doesn’t have to be. While hormonal changes during menopause may affect where you gain weight—shifting fat storage more towards your midsection—overall weight gain is typically caused by a combination of aging, genetics and lifestyle. Regardless of the reason behind the gain, the Mediterranean diet is a great plan to pick up. Best known for its role in decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, this diet has many other health benefits as well. Research suggests that following a Mediterranean diet plan can help improve weight management, bone density, and mood or depressive symptoms. It has also been shown to improve symptoms that are often associated with hormone changes and menopause, including night sweats, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness.1
There is not one exact form of the Mediterranean diet. It usually includes a higher intake of olive oil, nuts, fresh vegetables, fruits, and cereals: in addition to moderate consumption of fish and poultry. Smaller amounts of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets are recommended. Wine should be consumed in moderation, preferably with meals. 2,3 One aspect of this diet plan that’s hard to argue with is the recommendation to eat more “real food,” meaning fresh whole vegetables, fruits and grains, and plenty of protein.
Maintain Muscle Mass
Speaking of protein, as we age, we start to lose muscle mass, and part of the reason is that our muscles just don’t respond to the protein we eat as effectively as they did when we were younger. It has also been shown in clinical studies that during menopause, due to the natural decline in estrogen experienced, women become more prone to decreases in their muscle mass and muscle density. Additionally, lower levels of physical activity, as well as the consumption of inadequate amounts of protein, can simultaneously contribute to the loss of both muscle mass and strength in postmenopausal women.4
To offset that we need to consider two important things:
- Incorporating more exercise, especially strength training, can make a huge difference. Physical activity improves muscle mass and bone density and maintains metabolism. It’s also been shown to improve sleep and reduce menopause symptoms such as vaginal dryness, sexual problems and joint discomfort.5,6
- Eating more protein is important, (aim for 1.0-1.2g/kg of body weight per day or 25-30g per meal) but try to spread consumption out evenly throughout the day, rather than eating most or all your daily serving in one sitting.7,8
Drink Your Water (and Your OJ)
There are other healthy additions you can make to your menopause diet plan that may seem more obvious:
- Drink enough water throughout the day. Try to drink 64 ounces, which can keep your body hydrated, assist in maintaining moisture in the skin, and help reduce belly bloat, a symptom often experienced during menopause.
- Eat foods high in calcium. Calcium is also important during menopause, since the reduction in estrogen can leave you more prone to fractures or bone breaks. Incorporating dairy products that are high in calcium can help support this common nutritional gap. If you’re lactose intolerant, look for options fortified with calcium (such as certain orange juices) or consider eating more leafy greens like kale or broccoli.9
Eating for Hormone Balance
In addition to considering a few of the above-mentioned healthy additions to your diet, some women look to specific foods in the hopes of balancing their hormones. There are a handful of foods that contain phytoestrogens, which are dietary, estrogen-like compounds that have been shown to have mild estrogenic effects in the body. Some of the most common foods containing phytoestrogens are soy (such as tofu or tempeh, which contain isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen), flaxseeds, or wheat bran.10
Despite the common belief that phytoestrogens are effective at curbing menopausal symptoms, there is no conclusive agreement in scientific literature as to whether or not they actually do. A recent review of 15 studies reported that foods containing phytoestrogens improved hot flashes, but not other menopausal symptoms.11
It should be noted that there’s been controversy about consuming foods containing high levels of phytoestrogens because of the potential risk to women who have had estrogen sensitive breast cancer. It’s still not certain whether exposure to these phytoestrogens reduces or increases breast cancer risks.12 It’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor before deciding to increase your phytoestrogen intake, so that you can discuss any potential risks or side effects.
Foods to Avoid During Menopause
When looking to reduce some of the less helpful foods for your menopause diet plan, it’s a good idea to avoid “junk foods,” such as highly processed, fast foods, or those high in fat. A high-fat, high-sugar diet has been associated with increased night sweats and hot flashes.1
Limiting or avoiding alcoholic beverages may also help to curb menopausal hot flashes, although this hasn’t yet been scientifically validated. Additionally, according to the North American Menopause Society, staying away from heavy alcohol consumption, defined as more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks on any single day, can help to reduce the risk of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. This doesn’t mean you have to stop drinking altogether: while alcohol may have the potential to exacerbate hot flashes in some menopausal women, along with other health issues, everyone is different. If moderation works for you, then simply consume with caution.
As you navigate the menopausal transition know that there are potential solutions to most of the symptoms you might encounter. Many of the dietary changes outlined above will help to improve aspects of your health and life outside of menopause, so incorporating these changes can be a win-win! Consider menopause the perfect opportunity to evolve your diet and exercise plan for overall better health.
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- Soleymani M, Siassi F, Qorbani M, et al. Dietary patterns and their association with menopausal symptoms: a cross-sectional study. Menopause (New York, NY). 2019;26(4):365-372.
- Maltais, Mathieu & Desroches, J & Dionne, Isabelle. (2009). Changes in muscle mass and strength after menopause. Journal of musculoskeletal & neuronal interactions. 9. 186-97.
- Tan MN, Kartal M, Guldal D. The effect of physical activity and body mass index on menopausal symptoms in Turkish women: a cross-sectional study in primary care. BMC women's health. 2014;14(1):38.
- Daley A, Macarthur C, Stokes-Lampard H, McManus R, Wilson S, Mutrie N. Exercise participation, body mass index, and health-related quality of life in women of menopausal age. The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners. 2007;57(535):130-135.
- Deutz NE, Bauer JM, Barazzoni R, et al. Protein intake and exercise for optimal muscle function with aging: recommendations from the ESPEN Expert Group. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland). 2014;33(6):929-936.
- Paddon-Jones D, Rasmussen BB. Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care. 2009;12(1):86-90.
- Hodges, Joanna K., et al. "Lactose intolerance and bone health: the challenge of ensuring adequate calcium intake." Nutrients4 (2019): 718.
- Patisaul HB, Jefferson W. The pros and cons of phytoestrogens. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2010 Oct;31(4):400-19. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2010.03.003. Epub 2010 Mar 27.
- Chen MN, Lin CC, Liu CF. Efficacy of phytoestrogens for menopausal symptoms: a meta-analysis and systematic review. Climacteric : the journal of the International Menopause Society. 2015;18(2):260-269.
- Messina M. Conclusion that isoflavones exert estrogenic effects on breast tissue and may raise breast cancer risk unfounded. Molecular nutrition & food research. 2008;52(2):299-300.