I remember when my mother hit menopause, she started sporting a button that said, “I’m out of estrogen and I have a gun.” She was, needless to say, joking, but our entire family tiptoed on eggshells until the button came off. While women across the globe know that “The Change” lies somewhere in their future, replete with varying degrees of physical and emotional shifts, most women are shocked to learn that there’s actually another stage many of us hit before then: perimenopause.
If menopause is defined by a single event (a woman’s last period), perimenopause is a bit less “pinpoint -able” as it refers instead to the time before menopause (anywhere from 2 to 10 years) during which the ovaries begin reducing hormone production. The result is fluctuating levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which can set off emotional changes ranging from mild to mentally unhinged. This latter symptom in particular, which Dr. Oz recently talked about as “perimenopausal rage,” is described by many women as a propensity toward unexpected, heightened anger or a vulnerability to more volatile emotional outbursts, even when the moment before you were cool as a cucumber.
While your health-care provider is your best ally to help you manage your hormones, here are a few dietary strategies that may help keep you from feeling the need to reach for a button of your own.
Eliminate Key “Hot Spot” Triggers
Think of Hippocrate’s advice: “First, do no harm.” Sugar, caffeine and alcohol are three compounds in the diet that can exaggerate any hormonal symptoms, igniting a cocktail of emotions when stress is added. If your blood sugar is sky high after a donut, or your body’s “fight or flight” stress response is over-activated from a mega-jolt of caffeine, you may be creating a perfect storm for that emotional rollercoaster. And while alcohol may seem to settle your nerves in the moment, overdoing it can have lingering effects on your edginess the next day. Eliminate these three things in your diet and you can often see a difference almost immediately.
Happy brain chemistry is dependent on getting adequate amounts of omega-3s in the diet, as research has linked adequate omega-3s in the diet with better moods and lower rates of depression. The brain particularly loves DHA, a key omega-3 fat in the brain which comprises 50% by weight of some brain cells. Enjoy at least two servings of fatty fish each week like salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, barramundi or bluefish weekly to naturally include some of nature’s richest sources of omega-3s. Snack on one ounce of walnuts, which packs a day’s worth of omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. Or drizzle two tablespoons of ground flaxseed or one tablespoon cold pressed flax oil on your morning bowl of oatmeal for an added boost. If you absolutely don’t like fish, consider taking a USP certified fish oil supplement (the USP certification will ensure good manufacturing practices). Of course, be sure to check with your health-care provider before adding any new supplements to your regimen.
Load Up on Legumes
Beans and lentils are superfoods which offer several benefits to women going through either perimenopause or menopause. Why? The combo of high fiber and protein help to keep blood sugar stable longer after meals and snacks, providing a nice buffer against those “mood swings within minutes” that many perimenopausal women describe. They also score high points for being low in calories, which helps women in their 40s and 50s maintain a healthy body weight during what is typically a time of creeping weight gain (metabolism can slow as women lose lean muscle mass if they are not involved in strength training). Legumes are also rich in B-complex vitamins, including folate and B6, which serve as cofactors for enzymes involved with estrogen metabolism. Aim to include at least one cup per day (a half-cup provides about 7 grams of protein): Enjoy a cup of pasta fagioli or lentil soup with a green salad for lunch, simmer a pot of three-bean chili this weekend, or savor French, green or red lentils (they’re tinier and more delicate) as your next side dish along grilled fish or chicken.
Think About Adding Some Soy
Should you start stocking up on soy products to help you stay cool as things heat up? Possibly, depending on your personal family history. Some evidence suggests that soy might help thanks to the phytoestrogens that soybeans contain. Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant compounds that can mimic the body’s own estrogen by binding to certain estrogen receptors, potentially helping your body ease through the loss of your own source of estrogen. Though they are about 1000 times weaker than regular estrogen, there is some evidence to suggests that including 2-3 servings of soy food daily may help reduce the severity of hot flashes, protect against bone loss and heart disease, and reduce your risk of breast cancer (a half-cup of roasted soy nuts or edamame as a snack, or a half-cup of tofu in your stir fry all count as one serving). For that, it may be worth a try to see if you start feeling better after a month or two of adding soy to your diet. However, there have also been some studies which have found no added benefit, and adding soy may be contraindicated if you have a personal or family history of estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast cancer, so be sure to talk with your doctor first.