Menopause occurs in women between the ages of 45 and 55 years and is characterized by a 1-year period since the last menstrual cycle. The absence of menses is due to the ovaries halting production of the hormones estrogen and notably?progesterone. Several significant health changes occur during this time an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, and a marked reduction in bone mass.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States. Before menopause, women are largely protected from this disease and have a much lower risk of heart attack than men. However, after menopause, the protective benefits of estrogen are lost and heart disease risk increases dramatically and is similar to that of men of the same age. Total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglycerides tend to rise while high-density lipoproteins decrease.
Menopause itself does not increase cancer risk, although cancer is more common with advancing age. Furthermore, many women take estrogen replacement therapy, which some believe may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. However, estrogen therapy is also associated with increased cancer risk, especially of the breast and ovary.
Women gain bone mass at a rapid rate through childhood and adolescence and attain peak bone mass at the age of 30 years. Thereafter, bone mineral density declines slowly until the menopause. Menopausal women often lose 2-3% of their after which the rate of loss slows again.?bone mass each year for about 5 years These bone mass losses substantially increase fracture risk and can lead to osteoporosis without treatment.
Reducing Menopausal Symptoms with Phytonutrients
Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis are often treated with prescription medication. However, the effectiveness of these treatments varies and side effects are common. The ideal treatment for these conditions should be effective as well as tolerable; enter phytonutrients. While natural products such as whole food vitamins or other supplements may prove helpful, it is always best to derive nutrition from whole food sources.
Phytonutrients are chemicals found in plants that contain compounds known to exert a host of health benefits. The best sources of phytonutrients are fruits and vegetables. Thousands of phytochemicals exist, each with distinct benefits. The common link among the different phytonutrients is that they have antioxidant properties. Because of these properties, many of the adverse effects associated with menopause can be minimized with phytonutrient consumption.
Isoflavones are phytonutrients found in soy products that have been extensively studied in older adults.
Postmenopausal women with high isoflavone intake have low total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein levels and have arteries that are more pliable, thereby lowering the risk of plaque buildup. Isoflavones reduce arterial inflammation, production of free radicals, and platelet aggregation. The Food and Drug Administration has stated that diets containing at least 25 grams of soy protein per day may reduce the risk of heart disease. Phytosterols are phytonutrients that are primarily found in green and yellow vegetables. Phytosterols block the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines and aid the removal of excess cholesterol, thereby lowering heart disease risk as well.
Isoflavones have a dramatic effect on estrogen levels; they can raise low estrogen levels associated with menopause and can reduce high estrogen levels associated with breast and uterine tumors. Isoflavones reduce the risk of cancer caused by estrogen by blocking the enzymes that help estrogen bind to receptors. Breast and uterine cancer rates in Asian countries are remarkably lower than in the United States. These lower rates are related to the remarkably higher intake of isoflavones, with about 200 milligrams per day in Japan and 35 per day through the rest of Asia. The United States consumes only 5 milligrams of isoflavones per day. Phytosterols have specifically been shown to block the development of colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
Postmenopausal bone loss can be reduced with isoflavone consumption. Genistein is found in soybean products, it mimics the effects of estrogen and has a chemical structure similar to estradiol. The effects of genistein on bone loss in osteopenic postmenopausal women were studied in a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical study. After 2 years of treatment, subjects that received genistein increased bone mineral density of the lumbar vertebrae and femoral neck, the primary sites of osteoporotic fracture, while the placebo group lost bone mineral density at these sites. Furthermore, genistein increased urinary markers of bone formation and decreased markers of bone loss. Remarkably, no breast or uterus side effects were noted, something often seen with estrogen replacement therapy.
Vitamin K is another phytonutrient that can positively influence bone metabolism in postmenopausal women. Vitamin K acts to enhance bone formation enzymes. Lower vitamin K intake is associated high risks of osteopenia, osteoporosis and hip fracture. In addition to positive effects on bone, vitamin K also inhibits calcium formation in the arteries, which reduces the risk for atherosclerosis and cardiac disease. Natural aloe vera juice is a rich source of Vitamin K. Natural aloe vera juice is a rich source of Vitamin K
Foods containing phytonutrients can offset some of the adverse effects of menopause. In general, the main health benefit of phytonutrients is their antioxidant properties, which limit free radical production and decrease inflammation and this translates to lower heart disease and cancer risk. Eating a diet with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help postmenopausal women achieve these benefits. Furthermore, women taking estrogen replacement therapy should consult their physician about substituting estrogen with isoflavones. Consuming 50-100 milligrams per day of isoflavones may offer benefits similar to estrogen replacement therapy without the potential for malignancies of the breast or uterus.
Dr. Linda Kennedy MS SLP ND