Sharone is a busy 51-year-old working mother of two teenage boys who lives in the Boston area. When she turned 48 years old, she began experiencing night sweats, which woke her and prevented her from getting a sound slumber nightly.
Lying in bed, she ruminated about her life stresses and tossed and turned until the sun came up. She was constantly tired during the day and often missed routine appointments due to forgetfulness. She gained 30 pounds in three years. A trip to her doctor provided her with a diagnosis. Sharone, along with millions of other women, was experiencing the menopausal transition.
Menopause is the time period when a woman begins the journey of ceasing her monthly menstrual period. Menopause typically starts somewhere in the middle to late 40s to mid-50s for a woman. Leading up to this time, a woman begins to produce less estrogen and other hormones in her ovaries, which can cause some of the symptoms that Sharone is experiencing, including sleep disruption and night sweats.
Her memory problems and anxiety levels are also classic during this transition. When a woman has gone 12 consecutive months without experiencing her period, she’s considered to have gone through menopause and is considered postmenopausal.
Is there anything that a woman can do to reduce these unpleasantries of menopause?
I dug deep into the science and reached out to Elizabeth Ward and Hillary Wright, both registered dietitian nutritionists and the authors of the new book, The Menopause Diet Plan: A Natural Guide to Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness (Rodale Books, 2020), for their advice.
Here’s some good news for combating the issues of sleep, weight gain and memory loss during this transition:
[READ: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep.]
According to Ward, “Women may experience more trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and sleeping deeply during the transition to menopause.” To improve a woman’s sleep, Ward recommends avoiding caffeine-containing beverages, such as coffee, tea, energy drinks and some soft drinks, later in the day, as well as downsizing the size of the dinner meal.
Also, people wrongly think that an alcoholic drink before bed will improve their sleep, when in fact it has the opposite effect. Although an alcoholic drink within an hour before bed may help you to fall asleep sooner, it will disrupt your sleep and you will find yourself potentially awakening in the middle of night.
On the flip side, adding a bout of moderate or vigorous exercise during the day can reduce the time it takes to get to sleep at night and help you to sleep both more deeply and for longer, says Ward.
Unfortunately, being chronically sleep deprived can also be a problem for your waist. “Research has linked inadequate sleep with higher body weight, possibly due to effects on the hormones that control hunger. The less you sleep, the hungrier you will be and the more you may eat,” says Ward. If sweats and hot flashes awaken you at night, try reducing the temperature in the bedroom, turning on a fan and layering your clothing so that you can remove some when you feel hot and put some back on should you get cold.
Mother Nature is not very nice to aging adults, and Sharone experienced this firsthand. As you age, your metabolism slows down, reducing the number of calories you need to maintain your weight. If you don’t make an adjustment in your intake or activity level, weight gain is inevitable.
“The declining estrogen levels in a woman’s body also makes it easier to lose lean mass and can contribute to the shift of fat storage in the body,” claims Wright. “Lower estrogen levels redirect body fat to our middle, producing the dreaded belly bulge accumulation that even lean women report experiencing as they near menopause.”
When you eat during the day may also give you additional ammunition to fight the battle of the bulge. Emerging research is shedding light on how eating most of your daily calories later in the day and evening may not be good for your waist. At play are the body’s circadian rhythms, which are the 24-hour rhythms in your body that are in lockstep with the everyday light and dark cycle. Eating too many calories later in the day fouls up the circadian rhythms in your body and can influence the activity of enzymes and hormones that regulate your metabolism and weight.
“One of the ways that our circadian rhythms can affect body weight is by influencing the way we use the hormone insulin,” says Wright. “Research supports that most people use insulin more effectively during the sun-up time of the day versus the night.” So, eating a large carbohydrate-rich dinner and tons of evening snacks will trigger the release of insulin, prompting the body to store fat. According to Wright, “a better bet would be to start off eating a good breakfast and eating regularly over the day, with a goal of winding down our eating as we enter the evening.”
While there aren’t any hard and fast rules about when to stop eating in the evening, Wright believes that a benefit appears to kick in with 12 to 13 hours of fasting. Given the importance of eating breakfast, trying to keep eating to a 12 hour window from breakfast time is reasonable. So if breakfast is at 8 a.m., try to wrap up eating before 8 p.m.
” Brain fog is real,” says Ward, referring to the fact that women can become moody, more tired, and experience memory lapses, starting in their 40s. “Declining estrogen levels, and aging in general, increase the incidence of conditions that affect the brain, including anxiety and depression. It’s important to note that stress can mess with memory and other cognitive skills,” she says. “The years leading up to menopause often coincide with a stage of life that’s full of other stressful transitions too.”
While stress management is key, she also recommends eating a brain-nourishing, plant-based diet that’s low in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars, and rich in high fiber foods such fruits and veggies.
Her list of nutrients that the brain loves includes:
— Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon.
— Choline, which is robustly found in eggs.
— Vitamin B12, which is abundant in animal foods and fortified soy milk.
— The carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in brightly and deeply colored fruits and vegetables.
Ward and Wright give women hope during this time in their lives. I just ordered a copy of their book for Sharone.
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