In celebration of World Menopause Day, we wanted share some pearls of wisdom from beloved author and menopause expert, Jackie Lynch. Jackie is the author of The Happy Menopause and The Right Bite, as well as being a Registered Nutritional Therapist (mBANT, CNHC) and founder of the WellWellWell nutrition clinic in Notting Hill where she specialises in health nutrition. She is also the host of The Happy Menopause podcast, a regular contributor to the Mail on Sunday, and a featured guest expert on Channel 4’s Superfoods. The following is an extract from her book The Happy Menopause (Watkins Publishing, 2020).
If You Only Do One Thing…
There are multiple ways in which the right nutrition can help to support a healthy menopause, but there is one area that is absolutely crucial and, if you focus on getting this right, many of your other symptoms will probably settle down as well. So whatever else you decide to do, start by focusing on the information in this chapter, as this could make a huge difference to your overall wellbeing. What is this magic formula? It’s all about blood-sugar balance and can make a huge difference at a number of different levels.
In order to understand why blood-sugar levels are so important, we first need to take a step back to understand what’s actually going on during the menopause and what should be happening, if everything goes according to plan.
Mother Nature’s Plan for the Menopause
First of all, it’s important to remember that the menopause is not a medical condition. It’s a natural transitional phase that women have been experiencing for millennia, so of course Mother Nature has a cunning plan for when our oestrogen levels start to drop. The human body is a truly complex and wonderful thing: when our ovaries stop producing oestrogen, our adrenal glands take over as the back-up system. These small glands, which sit just above the kidneys, are a vital player during the menopause, because they produce a weak form of oestrogen that helps to keep us fit and well through midlife and into old age.
What’s the Catch?
However, there is a catch: the adrenal glands are also responsible for producing our stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, and when they are too busy doing that, oestrogen production doesn’t even get a look in. If you’re struggling with chronic stress, then the chances are that your menopausal symptoms will be significantly worse, because your adrenal glands are distracted, depriving your body of the vital oestrogen it needs.
It’s fairly safe to say that the years around the perimenopause and the menopause are among the most stressful in a woman’s life: juggling the pressures of work with the needs of a growing family, or the clash of the hormones if puberty coincides with menopause in your household. Midlife is also often a time when women are reassessing their relationships, which can be painful; and we’re the sandwich generation, caught between caring for elderly relatives and for our children.
So, there’s plenty of stress going on, which distracts the adrenal glands at the very time when we need them to be focusing on producing oestrogen.
What’s the Solution?
This chapter is all about a nutritional approach to reduce levels of stress hormones in the body, so that your adrenal glands have the time and the space to get on with the job of producing oestrogen. Diet and lifestyle can make a significant difference to your stress levels. Of course, they can’t remove that irritating work colleague or solve your financial problems, but they can make your adrenal glands more resilient, so that you’re better equipped to manage stressful situations. The right diet can also ensure that your body isn’t producing extra stress hormones, which will overburden the adrenals.
To achieve the right balance of hormones, we first need to understand how the stress response works in the body and how diet and lifestyle can influence this.
How Is the Stress Response Designed to Work?
Our stress response is a protective mechanism that is specifically designed to support us in times of physical danger, because we’re still genetically programmed for life about 10,000 years ago, and we have an in-built “fight or flight” response. Whenever we encounter a stressful situation, whether it’s a near miss in the car, running late for an important meeting, or worrying about finances, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline.
This response is supposed to be a short-lived alarm reaction in which the stress hormones rise quickly in the face of physical danger, speeding up the heart rate and sending blood to the muscles to galvanize the body. They should then subside as soon as the perceived danger has passed. However, in our busy modern lives, it’s not quite so simple. We’re faced with multiple sources of stress on a daily basis and these can be emotional, psychological, physiological (that is, illness or injury) or physical stress. The rise of the Smartphone in recent years has only compounded our stress levels, because the persistent notifications and updates keep us in a constant state of red alert.
Chronic stress extends this alarm period, so that the adrenal glands continue to pump out stress hormones. As our exposure to stress continues, blood will be diverted to the muscles, away from perceived nonessential systems, such as the immune, digestive and reproductive systems. In the short-lived alarm phase, there is no need to be fighting infection, digesting food or making a baby, so this is not a problem. However, over time, a prolonged reaction to stress can lead to dysfunction of these key systems, creating a range of unwelcome symptoms.
How Does Constant Stress Impact My Menopause?
Stress really is the enemy of the menopause, because so many of the different symptoms you might experience, from hot flushes or anxiety to fatigue or vaginal dryness, are related to a drop in oestrogen levels.
In the run up to the menopause, a sophisticated communication system made up of the adrenal, hypothalamus and pituitary glands and called the HPA axis, is working hard to keep all your systems in balance, so that everything works well and you don’t experience unpleasant symptoms. However, this can all go wrong if you’re under prolonged stress, because it will overload the adrenal glands so that they can’t produce the oestrogen you need, triggering a whole range of menopausal symptoms.
Another significant result of chronic stress is weight gain. Oestrogen can also be produced by fat cells and if your body senses that the back-up system of the adrenals is not available to produce oestrogen, it will start to store your food as abdominal (visceral) fat, which then becomes incredibly hard to shift because it’s hormonal and not related to overindulgence.
If you can keep stress in check, then this will make a huge difference to your health and wellbeing through the menopause and beyond.
The Stress-Busting, Hormone-Balancing Approach:
Balance your blood sugar:
If you do only one thing, do this! Every time your blood sugar drops, your body releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Most menopausal women don’t need any extra stress, so eating a diet that maintains blood sugar balance is the single most important thing to do during the perimenopause and the menopause to support adrenal function. Call it “nutrition 101” because, as well as reducing stress hormones, balancing your blood sugar offers so many other residual benefits that will significantly improve your wellbeing.
How does the blood sugar mechanism work?
Your body is programmed to keep blood sugar levels within a specific range, and if it goes above or below that, this creates a state of emergency because, either way, it poses a risk to your health. Eating high levels of sugary foods and refined carbohydrates (for example: white bread, white rice or processed breakfast cereals) leads to a spike in blood sugar, which generates the release of the hormone insulin. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can also trigger the insulin response.
The role of insulin is to clear out all this sugar from the blood and send it to the liver to be stored. If your sugar levels are high, the liver may not be able to take it all, so any excess sugar will be stored as fat. Insulin doesn’t carefully calculate how much sugar to remove to restore the balance, it just hoovers up the lot, so that in a short space of time, your blood-sugar levels fall. The higher the spike in insulin, the greater the crash in blood sugar.
When your blood sugar is low, you feel tired, irritable, anxious, shaky, headachy, dizzy and absolutely desperate for a pick-me-up. Sugar is the body’s primary source of energy, so a blood-sugar crash is bad news, which is why the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released to redress the balance. They will send a message to the liver, instructing it to release sugar stores into the blood. Cortisol also generates powerful cravings for sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, or possibly a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, depending on what time of day it is, but it will be something that your body instinctively knows will give you that quick fix.
And so of course, it’s a double whammy – the liver releases the sugar stores; you’ll grab a sugary snack and, instead of settling back within the required range, your blood sugar will spike and the whole process will start all over again. You can see how easy it is for blood sugar levels to rollercoaster over the course of the day, which means that your adrenal glands are continually releasing stress hormones, and that puts oestrogen production very much on the back burner.
If you go to bed with your blood sugar high, insulin will kick in and blood sugar levels will start to drop, so that your stress hormones will be knocking at the door at around 2 or 3am and you’ll wake up for no apparent reason and find it difficult to drop off again. The physiological and psychological stress caused by insomnia just adds to the adrenal overload you’re already experiencing.
Typical symptoms of a blood sugar imbalance include fatigue, low energy, cravings for sugar or carbs, PMS, mood swings, insomnia, irritability, low mood, anxiety, headaches, dizziness, difficulty getting going in the morning, palpitations, reliance on caffeine or alcohol for a quick boost, and weight gain. Over time, this may lead to a pre-diabetic state called insulin resistance, when the body cells no longer respond to insulin.
How do I balance my blood sugar?
You need two key nutrients to balance your blood sugar:
Complex carbohydrates, which are high in fibre and will release more slowly into the body than refined carbohydrates.
Protein, which is hard to digest and which slows down the release of the carbohydrate, keeping you going for longer and maintaining that bloodsugar balance.
The trick is to eat a combination of protein and complex carbohydrate with every meal and snack. In parallel to this you need to avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, such as cakes, cookies and chocolate.
This may seem like a gargantuan task, but if you keep your blood sugar stable, you’ll be far less prone to the sugar cravings that drive you during a blood-sugar crash and this will make things easier fairly quickly. In essence, your brain will determine your food choices and not your hormones. We all know that in a battle with the hormones, they tend to win every time.