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Smoothing the way to menopause

On average, “the change” takes about three-and-a-half years. For some women, that translates into three-and-a-half years of hot flashes, insomnia and the worst PMS ever. For others, migraines, breast tenderness and weight gain are reminders that they are approaching the end of their reproductive years. Yet for a lucky few, irregular periods may be the only clue that they are in perimenopause, also known as the climacteric.

To maintain optimal health during this natural transition, see your gynecologist as soon as you notice changes in your menstrual patterns. For example, your periods may become irregular or the blood flow may become unusually heavy or light.

At that time, your gynecologist can make sure the irregularities are due to perimenopause and not an underlying condition. You may also discuss whether hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can benefit you in the short term. But regardless of your decision to take hormones, the points described below can help you feel your best through perimenopause.

Eat smart. Caffeine (chocolate and colas included), alcohol, spicy foods, very sugary or very salty foods and hot liquids have been known to trigger hot flashes, so limit your intake of these. On the other hand, adding soy-based foods, such as tofu, to your diet might help. Why? Besides being nutritious, they contain substances called phyto-estrogens—plant versions of estrogen that may ease hot flashes and other symptoms. To give your body the best nutrients at this time, eat lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat, calcium-rich foods.

Think layers. Dress in layers of nonsynthetic fabrics, such as cotton and silk. You can always remove or add layers if you need to. In the bedroom, layer your sheets (choose 100-percent cotton) and blankets, too. When night sweats strike, toss off layers.

Take slow, deep breaths. Studies suggest that consciously reducing your breaths to six or seven a minute and allowing your abdomen rather than your chest to expand can cut the incidence of hot flashes in half. To practice abdominal breathing, lie on your back and place a book on your stomach. If you’re breathing correctly, the book should move up and down.

Exercise (you saw this one coming!). Active women appear to be less prone to hot flashes. That may be because their bodies are more accustomed to adjusting to temperature extremes. In any case, physical activity is a proven mood booster, bone preserver and heart strengthener. It promotes sound sleep and helps keep weight in check—a significant benefit considering that women gain an average of 11 pounds during perimenopause.

Express your love. Sexual intercourse will help counter the vaginal dryness that may occur during perimenopause. If intercourse is painful, water-based lubricants can help ease the discomfort. In addition, practice Kegel exercises to keep pelvic floor muscles strong and prevent incontinence.

Toss the tobacco. Nicotine narrows blood vessels, which can make hot flashes longer and more intense. In addition, smokers tend to experience menopause an average of two years earlier than nonsmokers.

Take calcium supplements to ease PMS symptoms. If your PMS symptoms are getting worse, ask your gynecologist if it’s okay for you to take calcium supplements. Researchers in one study found that women who took 600 mg twice a day reported significant relief within three months.

Control your climate. Air conditioning is a great hot-flash defuser when you’re indoors. But small, battery-operated fans (or even the fold-up paper kind) and a thermos of ice water provide portable relief.

Set goals. Would you like to study a foreign language? Play the piano? Learn to golf? Create a plan that will make it happen. Consider that a 50-year-old woman can now expect to live till age 85. New challenges can help make those years productive and fulfilling.