Eating for Your Hormones
Angie Mercurio, 50, from Parsippany, N.J., thought she was going to go insane. "I was having 10 hot flashes a night. A night," she says. "That doesn't even count the ones I had during the day. I also was having dizzy spells, my brain seemed like it had turned to mush and I was putting on weight – and with good reason – it seemed like I was always hungry."
Mercurio knew she was going through menopause, but couldn't envision living like that for the next however many years it might last. Her doctor recommended hormone replacement therapy, which she assured Mercurio was completely safe given her age and what the medical profession had learned about hormone replacement therapy since the abrupt end of the Women's Health Initiative. Still, Mercurio was nervous about taking hormones and decided to explore some other ideas.
Mercurio began reading "tons" of books and ended up changing her diet, taking some natural supplements and adding exercise and meditation to her life. After a few weeks, she began to see results. Her hot flashes decreased and she began sleeping better and feeling like she had more energy. Her dizzy spells disappeared completely and, although she still suffers some symptoms, their overall severity has been reduced enough that she no longer feels like she's losing her mind.
What's Eating You?
Dr. Susan Lark says that hormone imbalances are responsible for many of the menstrual-related symptoms some women experience throughout their life, such as PMS, heavy periods, cramps and a host of other symptoms. Subsequent hormonal imbalances later in life – during perimenopause, premenopause and menopause – then cause many of the unpleasant menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, insomnia, anxiety, etc. Women who are in what Dr. Lark calls the mid-range generally do not suffer from these types of problems and not only have trouble-free periods, but sail through menopause with few unpleasant side effects.
"Ideally younger women are pretty balanced," Dr. Lark says. "But as women get into their 40s and early 50s a lot of women deviate from that perfect balance and may show an estrogen dominance type pattern. Then, as they get closer to menopause, they move into a stage of estrogen deficiency, which creates those symptoms of menopause."
Dr. Lark's most recent book deals with all three phases of a woman's hormonal life. Dr. Susan Lark's Hormone Revolution (Portola Press, 2007) has guidelines for eating and supplements at every stage of a woman's life depending upon her unique hormonal needs, with a particular focus on the problems of menopause.
What she's found in her many years of practice is that most women going through menopause fall into one of two categories with the listed symptoms being most prominent:
Estrogen Deficiency Fast Processor
- More anxious
- Thin and dry skin, hair and vaginal tissues
- Hot Flashes
- Night Sweats
Estrogen Deficiency Slow Processor
- Excess weight/weight gain
- Fluid retention
- Beautiful skin and hair
- Placid temperament
- Low libido
- Poor mental acuity
- Lack of zest for life
These are just partial lists, and Dr. Lark notes that women can find they have symptoms from both categories. However, she says that most women, once they get beyond the transitional phase of menopause, will fall fairly solidly into one category or another.
Eating Your Hormones
Changing your diet to ease menopause symptoms is not a new idea. One of the books that Mercurio read was The Menopause Diet by Dr. Larrian Gillespie (Healthy Life Publications, 2003). Dr. Gillespie has long advocated a low-glycemic diet with an emphasis on lean sources of protein such as fish, poultry and tofu. Carbohydrates should come primarily from whole-wheat bread products, vegetables and fruit. Avoid refined carbohydrates such as rice, white bread and pasta, Dr. Gillespie says.
Interestingly, Dr. Gillespie's approach is one that's getting a great deal of attention as an ideal diet for the population as a whole, thanks to an increasing push by obesity experts on the low-glycemic approach to eating.
"I didn't discover this idea; the research has been around for some time, " Dr. Gillespie says. "Basically the low-glycemic diet is what is needed by the majority of people for optimum health."
Following a low-glycemic diet helps to stabilize both insulin and hormone levels, thus bringing a woman's body closer to the hormonal balance that Dr. Lark is trying to achieve.
However, Dr. Lark's diet suggestions are much more specific as to the estrogen deficiency types listed above, and are based upon the pH levels in foods. The other lifestyle changes she recommends trying also incorporate other holistic medical models such as ancient traditions of Chinese medicine.
On the dietary side, she suggests that slow processors focus on more acidic foods such as hot and spicy foods, soy, nuts, high-fiber foods and nuts. Fast processors need cooling foods such as cooked grains, beans salads and lightly cooked vegetables.
Eating with Your Family
There are women entering the menopausal years whose children are grown and gone or are off to college or otherwise independent. For them, following a diet based upon pH, or any diet at all, can be a lot easier as they have the freedom to stock their cupboards only with their foods and eat pretty much however they want. But many women at this age still have children at home – sometimes even fairly young children – as well as a husband or other partner. This can make eating for menopause fairly challenging as the food placed on the table needs to please everyone.
To strictly follow a plan like Dr. Lark's, she suggests one main course that can be adapted by adding or subtracting dressings or spices or side dishes. Failing that, she notes that even small changes may help ease menopause symptoms.
"Eating as a family is an interpersonal and emotional issue, and I've heard from women who face grumpy husbands who don't want to eat healthfully, or children who reject healthy foods," Dr. Lark says. "Women need to find a way to present food as a part of living a healthy life and emphasize that it's done with love. Women are innately very wise and when we're tuned in to this issue our creativity will come forth."
For those who may find it difficult to follow a strict plan, Dr. Lark recommends just trying to eat as close to nature as possible:
- Choose high-quality protein, such as tofu, fish, seafood and legumes.
- Eat carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
- Avoid refined or processed foods, sugar and alcohol.
- Purchase organic poultry and other meats, free of hormones and antibiotics.
In other words, these choices are very similar to the low-glycemic diet that Dr. Gillespie, among so many others, is recommending. And, beyond that, investigate other options as well. Some supplements have been shown to help ease symptoms of menopause, as have meditation, light therapy and exercise. Also, discuss estriol supplements with your doctor.
In addition to dietary changes, Dr. Gillespie says the following lifestyle changes can help balance hormones:
- Quit smoking.
- Exercise. Ten to 20 minutes a day is sufficient; you don't need a lot.
- Get enough sleep.
"These are all logical things our grandparents did; it's only been in the last generation that we've been eating all these fake foods," Dr. Gillespie says. "The more you keep unnatural foods to a minimum, the better."