If you’re a healthy adult woman, by the time you’re in your 40s or 50s, you’ve already spent decades learning how to tackle the ups and downs of your menstruation cycle, mastering the fine art of period management.
The bad news is once menopause hits and your fertility game totally changes, you may have to start learning about your body and food-related needs all over again.
Dr Jillian Forer, GP at Bondi Road Women’s Health Centre, tells SBS that the year leading up to your last period (also known as ‘perimenopause’) can be fraught with physical and often confusing changes.
“Not everyone gets symptoms – some people get to menopause and all that happens is that their period goes away," says Dr Forer. "But a lot of women will experience symptoms in the 12 months approaching menopause. They will get odd periods, mood changes, night sweats, hot flushes and depression and anxiety.
“So to help manage the symptoms of menopause, let your environment keep you healthy. Let the food you eat keep you healthy.”
“These foods contain phytoestrogens, which can act like oestrogen in our body as it goes to the oestrogen receptors in the body and behave like oestrogen."
Why you should eat lots of plant-based foods
Dr Forer, who has specialised in the area of women’s health for over 30 years, explains that during menopause, the female body slowly produces less oestrogen. This is just one reason why many women will experience menopausal symptoms.
She advises females going ‘through the change’ to eat a plant-based diet or – as a minimum – increase their consumption of plant-based foods. This is because phytoestrogens – naturally occurring plant oestrogens – produce a similar chemical structure to our own body's oestrogen, and are able to bind to the same receptors as our body's own oestrogen does.
“Plant-based diets will usually feature a lot of phytoestrogen,” she says. “Traditional Asian-style diets – those that may be eaten in China, Singapore and Japan – are predominately plant-based diets that include a lot of tofu and soy.
“These foods contain phytoestrogens, which can act like oestrogen in our body as it goes to the oestrogen receptors in the body and behave like oestrogen.
“So, for example, it’s thought that people following a traditional Asian diet may suffer less hot flushes than women following a Western diet may suffer.”
"Let the food you eat keep you healthy.”
Jean Hailes For Women’s Health also recommends that perimenopausal or postmenopausal women try to eat more plant-based foods that are rich in phytoestrogens.
A diet high in phytoestrogens – which is typical of a traditional Asian diet that is especially rich in soy foods – could help ease the symptoms of low oestrogen in one third of women.
“This is because about a third of the population has the specific gut bacteria that can metabolise the isoflavones (a type of phytoestrogen) in soy to a more potent phytoestrogen called equol,” the organisation’s website reads.
“The amount of isoflavones needed daily to achieve therapeutic effects is contained in about 200g of tofu, or 100g of tempeh.”
Words of caution
Both Jean Hailes and Dr Forer issue a word of diet caution with this advice.
“If someone has a history of breast cancer or any other cancer that grows via an oestrogen receptor, they may have to be careful when eating a lot of plant- based foods containing phytoestrogens,” says Dr Forer. “This is because they can stimulate the receptors and make a cancer grow.”
Foods to avoid
Dr Forer also recommends that women experiencing hot flushes avoid highly processed foods.
“They have a lot of salt in them. If you retain lot of fluid and your blood pressure goes up, your hot flushes may get worse.”
She also adds that spicy foods could trigger symptoms and cause some women to sweat.
“Caffeine may affect some women because it could give them a higher heart rate. The central nervous system might be a bit off pitch because of hormonal changes happening in the body and that could cause them to have a hot flush.
“The hot temperature of your food could also be a trigger. Something as simple as a cup of tea could turn a gentle non-sweaty day into a day with extreme hot flushes.
“So avoid these triggers and eat the rainbow. Then decorate your rainbow of fruit and vegetables with a bit of protein and good fats.”
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