Most women dread the menopause years. But there’s no need to let it affect your life.

Menopause is natural and should not affect a woman’s enjoyment of life in any way. A healthy diet, adequate exercise and natural therapies can ease menopausal symptoms and lower health risks.

Food

Since weight gain and redistribution of body fat are commonly seen in the menopausal years, diet becomes important. While it is fine to continue with your regular diet, it may be best to slightly decrease the quantity of food consumed.

In addition, special considerations for menopausal women include:

Plenty of calcium: After 50, women need more calcium than those in the 25-50 age group. According to experts, menopausal women may need as much calcium as adolescent girls to maintain bone strength. Include plenty of low fat diary products (milk, cheese and yoghurt), broccoli, cauliflower, tofu and green leafy vegetables in your diet.

Increase phytoestrogen content: Phytoestrogens mimic the human hormone oestrogen and help reduce menopausal symptoms. Try adding foods rich in phytoestrogens such as alfalfa sprouts, soy beans, chickpeas, lentil, tofu, miso, flaxseed or spinach to your diet.

Take supplementary vitamins and minerals: Most experts recommend additional minerals and vitamins during these years. To meet the increased need for calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B-12, it may be best to take supplements under the guidance of a medical expert.

Use herbs cautiously: Many herbs such as black cohosh, dong quai, passion flower have been traditionally used for relief from menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, emotional distress, insomnia and vaginal dryness. But seek the advice of a health practitioner before taking any herbal products for any period of time.

Go easy on salt: Heavy salt intake can cause high blood pressure, a serious risk factor for heart disease. Add moderate salt while cooking; avoid table salt, cut down on processed foods including papads, pickles and chutneys.

Avoid foods that are spicy, contain caffeine (tea, coffee, chocolates, and colas) and alcoholic drinks.

Exercise

Exercise becomes progressively more valuable as a woman gets older. Research shows that weight gain at menopause can be prevented or minimised by regular exercise. Exercise also benefits the heart and contributes to an improvement in mood and a sense of overall well-being. It may also reduce the tendency for hot flashes as a side benefit.

Studies have shown that bone mass lost due to lack of use can be rebuilt with exercise like walking. Brisk walking for 30 to 45 minutes, five days a week is an easy, effective and sustainable way to exercise. In addition, strength-training (lifting weights) exercises may contribute in maintaining muscle mass.

Consult your doctor before starting an exercise program. An exercise programme should start slowly and build up to more strenuous activities.

Symptoms and health risks

Hormonal imbalances in the years preceding menopause lead to characteristic symptoms.

Physical: irregular periods, hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness or itching, headaches, dizziness, palpitations (rapid heartbeat), tingling or itching sensation, dry hair, muscular and joint pain, emotional distress and problems with bladder control, insomnia, tender breasts, increasing facial hair, gastric distress or nausea.

Emotional: Mood swings, nervousness, anxiety, irritability, depression, reduced libido, difficulty in sleeping, tiredness, loss of concentration or motivation, aggressiveness and crying spells.

Weight gain is a common symptom of menopause. There is a general increase in fat stores and movement of fat from thighs and hips to the waistline as well as decrease in lean muscle mass. Reduced physical activity and lowered metabolic rate further lead to weight gain during these years.

Menopause can also pose serious long-term health consequences such as blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis (loss of calcium from bones which leaves them weak and brittle and more prone to fractures), Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer and muscular degeneration.

Fortunately, with a little foresight and correct knowledge, it is easy to tide over menopause easily and effectively.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012