Menopause is a tricky time in a woman’s life. Our bodies are very complex and our needs change as we go through different phases. Certain nutrition and lifestyle habits may work for a woman during one time in her life and not in another. As it turns out, what we do during the years just before menopause can make a world of difference in how easy the transition is. With that in mind, we consulted the experts to find out what we can do to best prepare for menopause and the changes that come along with it.
When does menopause start?
There’s no definitive start date for menopause, but the average age of onset in the US is 51. Typically, it will start somewhere in your 40s or 50s. A woman is considered to have entered menopause when she has gone a full year without getting her period.
When should I start to prepare for menopause?
Before menopause, a woman enters a phase called perimenopause, during which your body starts to go through hormonal changes that transition you into the next phase. According to Alisa Vitti, a women’s health expert and author of In the Flo (Buy on Amazon, $17.99), perimenopause is a great time to start making lifestyle adjustments to help ease into “the change.”
“Perimenopause is the process by which the body switches from having an active infradian rhythm (regulating predictable fluctuations in your brain, metabolism, immune, stress, and reproductive systems) to going back to a circadian rhythm,” says Vitti. “It is also the process by which you make more and more FSH so you stop ovulating. This process has to take anywhere from 10 to 20 years so that it is not overwhelming, just like puberty takes a decade, to give the body a chance to adjust.” In other words, you can start preparing for menopause as early as your 30s.
Christiane Northrup, MD, women’s health expert and author of The Wisdom of Menopause (Buy on Amazon, $18.69) agrees that the habits you have during the decades prior will determine how you feel once perimenopause starts. “Accumulated adrenal stressors, dietary stressors, emotional stressors and so on can wreak havoc with hormone balance,” she says. “So depending upon what the prior two decades have been like, you’ll begin to notice maybe skipping periods, or your periods coming closer together or further apart. We typically call that the beginning of perimenopause.”
And once you start to notice the changes, Vitti asserts that you shouldn’t be alarmed and take measures to “reverse” or stop them. “Just like we don’t think to stop the process of puberty, you should be mindful not to fall into the trap of thinking that something is wrong with this process that you would want to ‘stop’ it with medication,” she says. “Instead, [you can] understand what is happening biochemically and ‘biohack’ your perimenopause journey by taking action with diet, supplements, and lifestyle so it is as easy and symptom free as possible — because that is how it is intended to be!”
Understandably, many women are confronted with discomfort once they enter perimenopause and are eager to seek relief. Vitti says that though this time is often regarded as very difficult and arduous, it doesn’t have to be. “It only gets bad when you don’t nurture your endocrine system as a whole,” she explains. “Your symptoms are always in direct proportion to your degree of micronutrient depletion and lack of self care which, of course, easily happens to many women after spending a few decades making and raising babies. However, it’s never too late to start deeply nurturing your endocrine system.”
Below, we share some tips from Vitti and Dr. Northrup on how to prepare for menopause for an easier transition.
How to Prepare for Menopause
Limit sugar — and stress.
By the time we’re in our 40s, many women experience what’s called an estrogen dominance, where you have more estrogen relative to progesterone. This can be caused by stress. An excess of stress in the body can create hormonal disfunction, which will eventually lead to worse menopause symptoms. Eating too much sugar can have the same effect.
Dr. Northrup suggests that too much stress can also cause us to eat more sugar. “[Eating] too much sugar is, by the way, a direct response to the cortisol when you’re under stress,” she says. “You know, we’ve all watched Golden Girls episodes where they get out the ice cream when something bad happens.” We’re all too familiar.
High blood sugar levels as well as excess stress hormones have not only been associated with estrogen dominance, but other hormone-related conditions like breast cancer and uterine fibroids. So, it’s best to limit your consumption of sugary foods and do your best to practice self-care rituals daily that help keep your stress to a minimum.
Eat more fiber and omega-3’s.
Vitti says that there are two key nutrients you should prioritize getting in your diet to keep your hormones happy — fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.
Studies have shown that fiber can help fight-off hormonal conditions like estrogen dominance, probably because it helps slow down the absorption of sugar into the blood stream while also aiding in the elimination of excess estrogen through the digestive tract.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also heavily involved in hormone regulation. Research shows that they may improve blood flow to the uterus and even prevent issues like postpartum depression, menopausal problems, postmenopausal osteoporosis, and breast cancer.
“A groundbreaking study showed incorporating beans (which are full of fiber) and omega-3-rich fish into your diet two times per week delayed the last bleed by two to three years,” says Vitti. “What you eat is incredibly important for you to make enough hormones.”
Get more omega-3’s by adding in foods like chia seeds, flaxseeds, avocados, walnuts, and fatty fish like salmon and mackerel to your diet. Just as well, check out some of our favorite gut-boosting fiber-rich foods, here!
Get more sleep.
Dr. Northrup says that one of the best ways to prepare for menopause is to be sure you’re getting enough sleep. “How many women, if you just said to them, ‘just sleep until you wake up, like you don’t have to wake up early for any reason,’ wouldn’t know what to do with themselves?” she asks. “They would take care of so much because sleep is hands down the most effective way to digest stress hormones. A good, solid eight hours of sleep will heal the body.”
If sleep is generally pretty hard to come by for you, not to worry. You can try some of these relaxation techniques for better sleep, or even try a simple bed yoga routine to wind down before hitting the sheets. It’s not lazy to prioritize catching those z’s — it’s science!
Exercise the right way.
You might already be aware that keeping active can help keep your hormones functioning optimally, but both Vitti and Dr. Northrup agree that exercising the right way is key as we prepare for menopause. High-intensity workouts like long runs can actually trigger the release of stress hormones that can be damaging to your endocrine system in the long term. At the same time, not working out hard enough can deprive you of those hormone-boosting benefits. So what should you do?
Vitti says you should make the shift to functional fitness, which focuses on building the functionality on your muscular and skeletal systems to increase strength, flexibility, and vitality. Specifically, she advises that you should “lift heavy weights. Once you stop ovulating, your bones are at risk, and the only way to keep them strong is to use them.” Just as well, she emphasizes focusing on the muscles surrounding the hips and spine. “Focus on hip flexibility. Keep squatting and add weights!”
Dr. Northrup suggests using functional fitness programs like pilates, and also highlights the importance of spinal health. “Classical pilates have changed my life and that of so many women,” she says. “It makes a huge difference.” She also recommends the Gokhale method and Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back (Buy on Amazon, $22.24). It teaches you how to use your body in a new way to fix your posture while standing and sitting.” Check out this link for an at-home functional fitness routine you can do in just 15 minutes.
Focus on micronutrients.
Both Vitti and Northrup agree that focusing on micronutrients that aren’t always found in a standard Western diet can drastically improve our health and help us prepare for menopause. “All the coffee, wine, stress, and busy day-to-day of your life will deplete you of these micronutrients,” says Vitti. “By the time you notice symptoms with your hormones, you have already gotten well into the hole of micronutrient depletion, so it’s much better to prevent having to dig yourself out of this!”
Vitti says to focus on B-vitamins, magnesium, probiotics, and antioxidants. To get enough of these vitamins in your diet, both experts suggest that you may want to consider adding supplements into your daily routine.
Last but not least, Dr. Northrup suggests that adopting a meditation practice may help to reduce your physical discomfort, as well as any emotional and psychological disruption that could start with perimenopause. She explains that Herbert Benson did a study years ago at his mind-body center at Harvard, which showed that two 20-minute sessions of meditation decreased hot flashes by 90 percent. “He used a ‘relaxation response’ technique, which just involves sitting with your eyes closed and choosing a word like ‘peace’ or another mantra, and saying the mantra over and over,” explains Dr. Northrup. “It doesn’t require anything special, just that you return to your mantra whenever you feel your mind wandering.”
As we start to make the journey into menopause, Dr. Northrup believes there is a spiritual component to it. “Many of us find that we start re-evaluating our entire lives,” she says. “We’ve maybe settled down and have given a few decades, perhaps, to making children, and now we’re in a phase of wondering, ‘what about me?'”
This period of life can bring some emotional upheaval, and meditation is a technique we can use to counteract it. “The thing that happens during perimenopause is that all the unfinished business of the first half of your life comes up,” Northrup claims. “How you gave birth, what your relationships have been like, how you could have done things better — all that stuff comes to the surface. The more you can engage with that without beating yourself up about what you didn’t know (and you can’t know until you know and have had certain experiences), the better able you will be able to transition into the next phase of your life — one of deep wisdom. This is a checkpoint. This is your time to stand on the ground and review it all.”
So there you have it. With these tools, we can better prepare ourselves for what the next period of life will bring, and hopefully, embrace all the changes with a sense of peace and ease.