Manage Menopause Symptoms with Diet and Exercise

There was a time when the word was never spoken, not even between a mother and a daughter. Menopause, still referred to as “the change” in some circles, has now come out in to the open. In fact, September is recognized as National Menopause Awareness Month. It is about time. After all, a woman can expect to live one-third to one-half of her life past menopause, and these can be among the most satisfying years of her life.

Menopause, in simplest terms, is the end to menstruation, medically defined as that point when a woman’s periods stop permanently. It does not happen overnight, but is part of a transitional time, which can span some ten to fifteen years. During this time, levels of key hormones change. The time approximately two years before and two years after the final menstrual period is clinically defined as perimenopause, which means around or near menopause.

Part of the reason for the emergence of menopause as a hot health topic is likely due to the increasing body of information on how to manage it. Another reason is the summer of 2002, when the United States government-sponsored Women’s Health Initiative study was stopped three years earlier than expected. A study on estrogen-containing products unveiled potentially serious side effects for postmenopausal women. Since then an estimated 6.5 million women have stopped taking hormones. There are many more just entering into the fray who are at a loss of how to deal with their symptoms.

The constant change of hormone levels during perimenopause can have a troubling effect on emotions, reports the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Most of the hormonal changes are well under way by the age of forty. If a woman is experiencing any one of the following, she should ask her gynecologist if she may be in perimenopause:

  • Hot flashes and /or night sweats
  • Bladder and reproductive tract infections
  • Sleep disturbances, insomnia and fatigue
  • Migraine headaches
  • Mood swings, irritability, and/or paranoia
  • Heart palpitations
  • Fuzzy thinking or inability to concentrate
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dry, itchy, irritated skin
  • Dry, dull, or thinning hair
  • Brittle nails
  • Weight gain, especially around the middle
  • Frequent urination or stress incontinence
  • Achy joints
  • Indigestion, burping and gas
  • Increased irritable bowel syndrome
  • Other hormonal problems, such as thyroid issues

The good news is that a regular program of physical activity can help manage many of the uncomfortable symptoms of perimenopause, as well as the related health concerns postmenopause, such as heart disease and osteoporosis. Keep in mind, though, that good nutrition works hand in hand with a physically active lifestyle. Since these two things seem to be a panacea for everything, the rest of this article will address how diet and exercise helps with some of the more common symptoms.

Women in perimenopause complain most often about hot flashes. Those who do not sweat easily are impacted more extremely with hot flashes. Exercise is particularly helpful in prompting the body into becoming a more consistent cooling mechanism. Exercising vigorously enough to work up a sweat trains the body into cooling efficiently. In addition, eating patterns that fuel wide blood sugar swings, like long hours without eating, chemical stimulants from caffeine, sugar, or alcohol and stressful situations, are all culprits. Keeping blood sugars stable is critical for controlling hot flashes. Eat several balanced meals throughout the day that include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and carbohydrates and lean sources of protein, since blood sugars crest and fall every three to four hours. Stay hydrated by drinking at least a quart of water daily. In addition, a glass of cool water at the onset of a hot flash may keep it at bay.

Glucose is the brain’s only source of fuel and triggers the release of a mood-enhancing chemical called serotonin. When blood sugars are up and even, but not too high, the brain is being fueled to make serotonin. This can take away the blues and soothe irritability, and perk up memory and concentration. Choose complex carbohydrates to allow for a gradual rise in blood sugar. Exercise does its own good job of elevating mood, relieving tension, and reducing depression by activating the release of endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals.

Through research, we are learning more about managing the symptoms during the stages prior to and after menopause. One source notes that, following menopause, women arrive at a new status of “wise woman.” So let it be.

If you are interested in more information about managing the symptoms of perimenopause with exercise and proper nutrition, contact Debbie Melvin at (985) 446-1316.

Debbie Melvin
Extension Agent (Nutrition)
Lafourche Parish

8/4/2006 9:58:24 PM
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