There are so many wonderful things about being a woman. But of course, womanhood comes with its challenges as well. Our bodies are constantly shifting and changing – over the course of a day, a month, and in our lifetime. While many changes in our bodies are completely natural, they can still be uncomfortable, daunting, and sometimes even a little depressing. But there are many ways we can learn to embrace the changes our bodies experience through our life cycle, including one of the most significant changes: menopause.
What is menopause?
Menopause marks the end of a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. A woman has officially reached menopause when she hasn’t had a period for twelve months.
Menopause usually happens to women between the ages of 45 and 60, although in some rare cases, it can happen much earlier. Menopause is typically associated with a range of symptoms including hot flashes, aches and pains, and mood swings – to name a few.
Menopause versus perimenopause
Menopause is defined as the point one year after a woman’s last period. But several symptoms may occur before then, as the body begins to change. The period of transition leading up to menopause, which is associated with a number of uncomfortable symptoms including hot flushes, is referred to as perimenopause.
How perimenopause and menopause affect the gut
You may have heard of – or perhaps have already experienced – the hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings associated with menopause. But you may not know that menopause can affect many other aspects of women’s health, including having an impact on the gut microbiome.
A significant area of research is dedicated to the role of human sex hormones in our gut health. Studies have identified that the gut microbiome displays sexual dimorphism – as in, the gut microbiome of a male looks different from that of a woman. There is also evidence demonstrating that the gut changes as we grow older. Following on from these findings, scientists have considered the role menopause has to play in the health of a woman’s gut microbiome – in light of the rapid changes in levels of sex hormones that women experience during this time.
Some studies have found that a woman’s gut microbiome diversity is lower during menopause. Given that the composition of someone’s gut microbiome is correlated with inflammatory bowel disease, depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions – understanding these findings are important when it comes to treating the symptoms of menopause.
Self-care tips to nurture your gut health during menopause
Menopause comes with a number of risk factors for women. During perimenopause, or the menopausal transition, the production of reproductive hormones estradiol and progesterone decreases. As the level of female sex hormones declines in the body, a woman’s risk of developing osteoporosis, heart disease, or high blood pressure increases. Changes in the gut microbiome associated with menopause can also have serious implications for our health.
Doctors may prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or medication for the alleviation of menopausal symptoms. But there are a range of natural self-care strategies you can also try for dealing with the symptoms of menopause. Many strategies and lifestyle changes have the potential to improve your quality of life in the lead up to and after menopause, and preserve your physical health. Here are just a few of them:
Eat foods that nourish your gut
The most intuitive way to look after our gut health during menopause is by making sure we feed ourselves a healthy and balanced diet. Our gut is a thriving ecosystem filled with bacteria that help us to digest our food and protect us against pathogens – this is why it is often referred to as the gut microbiome.
It’s important we not only eat foods that contain enough of the right nutrients for us to thrive and grow and produce energy, but we also need to make sure we are feeding ourselves the foods our gut depends on to survive.
The ‘good’ bacteria that live in our gut are called probiotics – and we obtain these from the foods we eat, as well as from probiotic supplements. Foods high in probiotics include sauerkraut, yoghurt, kefir, and kimchi.
Probiotics survive on prebiotics, which are found in foods like onions, artichokes, soybeans, garlic, bananas, and whole grains. It’s important we get a balance of both prebiotics and probiotics to properly nurture our gut microbiome. A healthy gut is important for overall health, and can be particularly beneficial as our gut composition changes during and after menopause.
Your gut health is worth looking after – and so are you. Taking time to cook meals that nourish your gut is an important form of self-care, particularly as you deal with the many symptoms of menopause.
Exercise is great for many aspects of our health – including our gut health. People who exercise regularly have been shown to have more probiotics in their gut microbiome than people who don’t.
It’s important to find the right kind of exercise for you. Pushing yourself to take up a form of exercise you really don’t enjoy can make it hard to maintain the habit. Exercise, like any other form of self-care, should be about looking after your body and feeling good. Swimming can help support our bodies as our risk of osteoporosis increases after menopause. Other gentle exercise such as walking can be a good way to keep fit in our later years.
Participate in your community
As a woman reaching menopause, you not only have to deal with the changes your body is going through, but you also usually have several lifestyle factors that change at this time. As children move out of home, as our work hours reduce, and as our relationships change – so do we. These changes can be a big part of someone’s life after their forties, and can have impacts on our mental state that are both positive and negative. Some of us may feel more free, whereas others may feel a sense of loss or even isolation as the relationships we fostered at work become more difficult to maintain.
Isolation can have implications on not just our mental health, but our gut health as well. This isn’t because our guts are social creatures – it’s better explained by what’s called the gut-brain connection. If we’re feeling low, these negative emotions can register in our gut via signals from the brain, and may negatively impact digestion and our gut microbiome.
That’s why it’s important to find ways to feel a sense of belonging as our lifestyles change after menopause. When we retire or cut down on work, we can keep our social and emotional lives thriving by participating in a sport, volunteering, or joining a club. Doing things for your local community can also give you a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and add richness to this new chapter of your life. And it can have a beneficial impact on the community in your gut, too!
Get enough sleep
Studies have linked gut microbiome diversity with sleep quality. Probiotics are also found to be more abundant in the digestive tracts of people who are not stressed or sleep-deprived. Therefore, it is vital that we find ways to relax and get plenty of sleep to nurture the gut – particularly during and after menopause. Purchasing a quiet or silent fan to put on your bedside can help you to cool down and get a better sleep when dealing with hot flashes and night sweats. Getting plenty of exercise during the day, and avoiding caffeine, are also ways you can look after your sleep health.
Try a probiotic supplement
Taking a regular probiotic supplement is a great way to support your gut health easily. On top of regular exercise, avoiding stress, getting enough sleep, and eating plenty of healthy food, probiotic supplements can help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Studies have shown that probiotics may alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), improve mental health, and enhance digestion. During menopause, taking a probiotic like Alflorex® can be a great way to support your changing gut.