Ugh, menopause. Even though female ovaries don’t stop releasing eggs until our early 50s, the symptoms of menopause can occur for six to 10 years before this.
These include everything from hot flushes and more urgent urination, to irritability, mild depression, and loss of interest in sex. More serious symptoms like osteoporosis and increased risk of heart disease and cancer can also be experienced.
The orthodox approach is to take HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), which is basically a low dose of synthetic oestrogen (and sometimes progesterone). The idea is simple: if the oestrogen levels are kept on the high side, then all the symptoms associated with falling oestrogen should disappear.
However, it’s not really the cure-all that pharmaceuticals would have us believe. Firstly, HRT is only effective while it is being taken, so symptoms return when you stop. HRT also has a number of side effects, the most disconcerting of which is the fact that is that it can double the risk of breast cancer. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to reduce the risk of heart disease, as it was initially marketed.
And this is where we have to look at the alternatives and take a pointer from the Japanese, who don’t even have a word for menopause. It’s largely to do with the amount of soya in their diet.
Soya contains phyto-oestrogens, or plant-oestrogens, which basically mimic the action of oestrogen in our bodies. But this doesn’t mean eating lots of soya. In fact, the Japanese only really eat certain types of soya – the kind where the anti-nutrients have been deactivated (e.g. miso, tempeh, tofu). Obviously, these aren’t that easy to come by here, but there are plenty of alternatives that have a similar sort of action in the body: all kinds of beans, seeds and lentils, as well as brown rice, oats, red onions, garlic, tomatoes and broccoli.
Supplements can also be useful, and black cohosh is a real star. Taken for between three and six months, black cohosh is what is known as an adaptogen – it lowers your oestrogen levels if they’re too high, and boosts them if they’re too low.
It helps to control the physical and psychological symptoms (depression, anxiety) of the menopause too. Most importantly, unlike HRT, it may actually prevent breast cancer by keeping the body's own oestrogen away from breast tissue.
And what about those hot flushes? Clinical trials have shown sage to reduce hot flushes by over 50 per cent. The easiest way to get your hit is to drink a strong sage tea. Simmer the sage leaves in the hot water for about 20 minutes, and drink cold. You can have several cups of this tea daily.
The author is a clinical nutritionist. www.nutritionbysona.com