In her column this week, nutritionist Nonie De Long offers some holistic resources to ease some of the effects of menopause
Hi Nonie, I eat the same diet I’ve followed my whole life and I even eat less now than prior. But I’ve gained 27 lbs this year and about 18 last year, and I’m still active. I’m turning 37 this year. I had a hysterectomy when I was 35 and have early menopause as a result and wonder if it’s the hormones. My doctor says this is normal because of that and I could try synthetic hormones but I have read they cause cancer. Do you know if this is true? Do you have any ideas or suggestions? I don’t feel good at this weight. I’m quite depressed about it, with problems sleeping and some anxiety, too. I’d like to know if there’s anything natural that can help! Thank you!— Shawna
I’m sorry you’ve been experiencing this at such an early age. I think these health issues are something a lot of women struggle with around menopause — no matter if it came on naturally or was surgically induced. So yes, the weight gain almost certainly has to do with hormones. And so do the depression, the anxiety, and the sleeplessness. So let’s get you some answers and explore what you can do to feel better naturally.
As I’m sure everyone knows, when a woman enters menopause her fertility hormones shift — usually incrementally over a number of years — until her menstrual cycles stop completely. Several things change as a result. Some common uncomfortable symptoms include heavy and irregular periods, extreme mood swings, hot flashes, night sweats, carb cravings, fatigue, weight gain, bloating, reduced libido, vaginal dryness, increased urination and UTIs, difficulty focusing, migraines and headaches, anxiety, irritability flashes, difficulty sleeping, joint pains, muscle aches, bowel changes, vision changes, seasonal allergies, skin problems, and difficulty losing weight.
Basically a woman turns into the seven dwarves during menopause. All seven. All at once. We become Grumpy, Sleepy, Moody, Chubby, Dopey, Hungry, and Snappy. And hot flashes are like someone turned a heater up inside our torso, which is suddenly cooking us from the inside, often accompanied by an equally strong flash of anger or irritability. As such, it’s easy to see why we most certainly don’t feel like a little romance and put on a sweater, dammit, the thermostat is just fine.
When a woman has premature menopause — usually from the removal of her ovaries or hysterectomy — she doesn’t have a chance to prepare for the shift in hormones the way she does when her body makes the shift naturally over time. Or when she’s of an appropriate age. She may not have peers to share the changes with. And she has to face the end of something that can be a big part of a woman’s identity — her ability to have children. This is a very abrupt shift in hormones and can be difficult to manage emotionally. It also can put a lot of strain on the body and on relationships.
As we all know, historically speaking, when a woman is unwell it’s more likely to be dismissed or minimized as being all in her head. This, unfortunately, applies to women even more as they age, as our society is incredibly ageist.
We don’t have time today to get into all the ways that disservices us, but suffice to say, it plays out every day in the way women are treated when they enter menopause. Aging is a dirty word for everyone, but nobody more so than women whose worth is so often wrapped up in beauty and sexuality. Ask little girls who their female hero is today and you will likely get the name of an artificially beautiful pop or movie star, not a woman who has accomplished something with her life or done something as worthless as raise a happy and healthy family.
This devaluation can be seen in menopause because, despite the fact that this hormonal change happens in 100 per cent of women, it’s rarely something that’s understood by medical general practitioners. As such, women suffer needlessly. When women get their menstrual cycle for the first time, they get abundant education and support from family, doctors, and society. But when they enter menopause they get sleeping or anxiety pills to manage the symptoms, and otherwise are often dismissed.
I had a partial hysterectomy a few years ago due to tumour and was aghast to realize there was zero discussion by my gynecologist or MD about what I could expect in terms of changes to my hormones or health as a result. This was a prominent hospital in Toronto and there was zero aftercare, other than checking the incision. I went online to see information from other women about what to do only to find this is sadly the norm.
It turns out, some medical professionals have also noticed and been disturbed by the lack of information and support for women during menopause. As such, there are doctors who now specialize in menopause. And these specialists put out a lot of information to help educate doctors and the public around how to better manage menopause.
Some of these use the symptom-based approach of mainstream medicine by addressing specific symptoms with drugs to ‘manage’ them, like antidepressants or anti-anxiety or sleep medications. Readers know I don’t think this is the best approach. A friend going through menopause experienced this firsthand. She went in for anxiety (following an extreme family trauma) and was given anxiety medication. She was never told the side effects include insomnia.
She was then given sleep medication and lost a year of her life trying to cope with the side effects of that. She had no idea the anxiety medication was well known to cause insomnia or that anxiety is a natural part of menopause and PTSD and that natural treatments exist. Once she decided to come off the anxiety medication she had to do it very incrementally because her body was dependent on it to function. It took most of a year and she wasn’t taking a large dose. She now is exploring natural solutions for menopause and finally sleeping and getting her life back again.
Holistic menopause resources can be difficult to find. Some to explore are:
I encourage women to first educate themselves when they start menopause, to better understand their symptoms and find healthier alternatives than just a piecemeal symptom whack-a-mole approach. What you will find as you learn is that even when it’s not premature or medically induced, many menopause specialists suggest bioidentical hormone replacement therapy for women in menopause.
These specialists suggest this helps women maintain vibrant health and longevity and ease the transition. MDs, on the other hand, have got away from standardized hormone replacement therapy because of concerns that synthetic estrogen increased the risk of certain cancers (they have been shown to) and most have not gone the way of bioidentical hormones yet. This is something you are going to need a specialist or the above reading to help you explore.
Specialists who manage these therapies may do testing to determine your hormone levels (over a period of time to map them is best) and determine which hormones need to be taken in what amount to bring about balance. Some do not do testing because hormones fluctuate so dramatically that it’s difficult to map them, and instead they go on symptom checklists to help guide therapy.
Unfortunately, I can’t advise you regarding hormone therapy because this is not my area of specialty and it requires that level of knowledge to manage it properly. I urge women to seek a menopause or bioidentical HRT specialist or information from such specialists when addressing their hormonal health.
I can, however, tell you which supplements clients and I have tried and found to have worked. There are holistic products on the market many women use to help balance hormones on their own. I advise undertaking this only if you are willing to carefully monitor your symptoms and do the reading necessary to better understand natural therapies for menopause. Otherwise, it’s best to see a specialist. And anyone with a complex health history is best to see a specialist.
Some products I and clients have found to help with menopause include:
- Natural estrogen supplements: a mix of herbs and nutrients to help balance the estrogen in the body (this is an example of one I like)
- Chaste Tree Berry: a herbal supplement known to help balance female hormones
- Dong Quai: a Chinese herb known to help balance female hormones
- DIM (diindolylmethane): an extract from cruciferous vegetables that many swear by
- Progesterone cream: a herbal based cream to help increase progesterone in the body
Additionally, there are some very simple dietary hacks that will help you better manage menopause without so many symptoms because they lower inflammation and increase nutrients. Try these simple changes:
The best way to ensure you won’t lose weight is to consume sugary foods — even those we consider natural like fruit and honey. These are going to spike blood sugar and raise insulin levels. Insulin is the hormone that makes us store fat and locks fat in the cells so we can’t break it down. To lose weight we have to lower insulin levels. If you’re constantly craving carbs you also need to add in nutrients, get enough sleep, and attend my Stop the Sugar webinar.
Keep carbs below 50g/day:
Carbs also spike blood sugar, even whole grains and sweet potatoes. Many women find a ketogenic or low carb diet helps them lose this stubborn weight and feel much better. To learn how to do this, attend my Crash Course Keto webinar.
Eat More Protein:
Protein is necessary for so many things in the body, including neurotransmitters, enzymes, and all muscle tissue and as we age our requirements go up as our ability to digest it goes down! Some great sources of protein are:
- Hemp protein powder (sugar-free)
- Vegan blend protein powder (sugar-free). I like vega and progressive.
- Nut butter
- Chia seeds
- Cricket meal (you need a very small amount of this -maybe 1-2 tbsp)
Dairy (I recommend fermented or whole fat)
Fasting intermittently can increase insulin sensitivity, which means it helps your body start to better regulate cravings and fat storage. It helps your body start to break down stored fat for energy. To better understand this, I recommend consulting the work of Cynthia Turlow. You can see a short video of her here.
Add a superfood to ensure you’re getting all your nutrients and enough antioxidants
Green Powders: Green leafy veggies can make your smoothie bitter unless you’re light with them, but you can also get veggie powders to add to smoothies to give them an antioxidant boost without the bitter flavour. This one has a pleasant flavour and adds 6-8 servings of veggies to your smoothie for every little scoop (Costco also has it).
Collagen is another superfood to add to a smoothie. It’s technically a complex protein, so it’s listed as a protein source also, but it can be added to smoothies in addition to other proteins for added benefit. It comes as a whitish powder and doesn’t change the flavour of the shake much.
Maca root is a superfood that helps the body adapt to stressors. It’s a particular type of herb called an adaptogen. Medicinal mushrooms and herbs like schizandra and ashwagandha also fit in this category. You can get maca and medicinal mushrooms in powder form that make them easy to add to smoothies or you can try mushroom coffees. You don’t need very much!
Triphala powder is a blend of herbs from Ayurvedic medicine that has particular esteem as balancing to the entire body. It can help with inflammation, immunity, and especially digestive problems. You only need a little!
Fermented foods are natural foods that have been fermented to have beneficial bacteria in them that help us down-regulate inflammation. You can learn how to make many of these in my Fun with Fermenting webinar.
It may seem that I recommend these hacks a lot and it’s true, I do. That’s because they are potent at reducing inflammation in the body and helping us address the most common conditions we suffer from — an excess of insulin and toxins and a deficiency in micronutrients that help regulate our bodies.
As always, if you have health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email. And if you’re looking for more specific health information, check out my website at nonienutritionista.com. I provide 1:1 health coaching online and several interactive webinars to help people better manage their health holistically.