Paying attention to your gut health in menopause is hugely important.
Not only does the menopause mess around with our weight, our mood and our brain, it can also cause imbalances in our digestive system and affect gut health. It can also increase your risk of developing uncomfortable bloating, constipation and acid reflux. As if we don’t have enough to put up with!
But why does the menopause have such an impact on digestion? Well, one of the reasons is oestrogen. As we transition through menopause, this hormone begins to decline. Oestrogen helps to regulate the stress hormone cortisol – the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, triggered by stress. As such, as oestrogen begins to decline, things get a lot more stressful and we feel as though we are not coping as well as we were. When I was going through the menopause, there were times when I felt as though as I was inhabiting a different body!
Cortisol also has the effect of slowing down the digestion of food. This can lead to numerous digestive and gut imbalances. Before menopause came along, oestrogen assisted in the digestion of food, but now we have to make dietary and lifestyle changes to ensure we don’t go into our 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond with an uncomfortable bloated belly. Who wants to buy elasticated skirts and trousers, not to mention tunics that are really meant for pregnant women?
So how can we regain our digestive and gut balance, from peri-menopause right through to the post-menopause years?
Start with a hormone-balancing diet
- Try to get some balance back into your diet with phyto-oestrogens that help mimic what you’ve lost, i.e. a decrease in oestrogen.Think about eating more soy, such as tofu, tempeh and miso*
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, beans, pulses and legumes
- Make sure your diet includes good quality oils, including olive oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, and sesame oil
- Eat lots of steel cut oats, barley and brown rice. These provide B vitamins to help boost energy, manage stress and keep the digestive system functioning
- Consume plenty of fibre-rich foods, including artichokes that help support liver detoxification. If the liver is not detoxing properly, there is a risk of emotional imbalances as the liver struggles to remove excess circulating hormones. Fibre-rich foods, along with folic acid (from leafy green vegetables such as spinach) can reduce your risk of cardio-vascular disease that can increase after menopause
The role of oestrogen and progesterone
These hormones fuel bacteria in your gut. Therefore, a decline in them can have a detrimental impact on your friendly gut flora and increase your risk of developing constipation. We need billions of friendly gut bacteria as they help to digest food, absorb nutrients, ‘crowd out’ pathogenic, disease-causing bacteria, fungi and yeasts. They also manufacture important vitamins and hormones, and reduce our risk of getting nasty gut infections like C. difficile. Plus they help to positively influence our immune system.
And it’s not just the decline in our ‘sex’ hormones that detrimentally affect our gut flora. As we age, our gut flora age with us, with the disease-causing strains becoming the dominant species in the gut. This must not be allowed to happen, so it’s crucial to keep feeding your beneficial gut bacteria.
How to boost friendly bacteria
- Increase your intake of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. If you find this difficult, consider taking a probiotic supplement like my Just For Tummies ‘For Women’ vegan and gluten-free probiotic capsules. I would add that my probiotic capsules do not contain any artificial fillers, binders or bulking agents, and are made in the UK.
- Stay well hydrated at all times
- Keep alcohol consumption to a minimum
- Don’t smoke
- Get plenty of sleep
I had a relatively easy menopause compared to some women. I had the occasional hot flush and night sweat, moments of confusion and memory loss, and what my husband and I now jokingly refer to as my ‘psychotic episode’. He thought I’d gone absolutely stark raving mad when I fell to the floor and proceeded to bang my fists on the carpet, much like a child having a temper tantrum.
He really did not know what to do with me at the time. I think it scared him. Without a doubt though, alcohol exacerbated my hot flushes and night sweats and made me feel really uncomfortable. I hardly drank through the menopause, but I’m pleased to say I’m now making up for it, in moderation of course. The occasional glass or two of a good Merlot or Malbec never did anyone any harm, did it?
How to reduce menopausal bloating
If you’re getting bloated after meals, then do consider supplementing with a vegan digestive enzymes tablet. Just pop it into your mouth and swallow with a little water before proceeding to eat. Your stomach will thank you for it, and so will your waistline.
Plant-based digestive enzymes ease the passage of food through the digestive system, reducing trapped painful gas, bloating and ensuring that the wastes are disposed of the following day, if you understand my meaning. I’ve always thought it ironic that at a time in our lives when we probably have the time and the disposable income to eat out more, we can’t because of the after-dinner bloating.
It’s good to know that there is a simple, natural solution for this issue. I carry a small supply of my Just For Tummies Digestive Enzymes tablets in my bag, in a small pill-pot, and they go everywhere with me. Certainly if I’m eating late in the evening, eating a larger meal than usual, or having a rich meal with alcohol, I will be taking one, or maybe two, of my enzyme tablets before the meal.
What to drink (and what not to) during menopause
If you get indigestion, heartburn, or acid reflux, don’t drink water with meals. This has the effect of diluting your own stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes. It’s much better to drink water at least an hour before food and half an hour afterwards, or eat lunch or dinner with a small (125ml) glass of red wine. Wine can be digested but water cannot.
And don’t forget to chew! Your stomach does not have teeth. Chew each mouthful of food until it resembles a paste, then swallow it. Think – drink your food and chew your drinks. When you have a drink of something, just swish it around your mouth a few times to collect some saliva (that contains the enzyme amylase) before you swallow it.
Cut down on your caffeine too. I love my one cup of coffee a day, strong with a little hot milk and half teaspoon of brown sugar. But when I was going through the menopause I simply could not tolerate the caffeine. Like alcohol, it would trigger a hot flush. Try drinking herbal teas like ginger, peppermint and chamomile. Ginger helps to stimulate digestive secretions, peppermint helps to get rid of intestinal gases, and chamomile is soothing and calming.
The menopause is a wonderful time of transition from fertile woman to wise old crone, but it can be a challenging time in a woman’s life, with some uncomfortable and embarrassing symptoms. However, with the right advice and support, you simply don’t have to endure.
A happy and healthy gut will go a long way to a happier and healthier menopause.
*Eating soy-based products can be a controversial issue, with some studies indicating that women going through the menopause should eat more soy-based foods and other studies indicating that women with a high risk of breast cancer or who have had breast cancer, avoid soy. This article from The Harvard School of Public Health may make things clearer for you. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/soy/