Is peri-menopause the end of feeling 'normal'? Find out more here
What is well-being? Find out more here
Mood & food connections Find out more here
Nine foods a nutritionist doesn't eat Find out more here
The Hybrid diet - a new approach to gut and brain health? Find out more here
Is peri-menopause the end of feeling 'normal'?
The peri-menopause can be one of the trickiest times for women to get their head around. One minute you’re 30, full of energy to do all the things you want in your life. Yes, there may be challenges but none of them seem unmanageable. Life – especially when you look back – seemed pretty great. All of a sudden it seems life and age have snuck up on you. You’re just not quite the same person you used to be. You notice you get tired more easily, some days you’re literally dragging yourself through the day, you’ve lost your get up and go for no reason, the weight you used to be able to lose in the run-up to an important event stays stubbornly in place no matter what you try, and you can’t seem to shift that foggy feeling in your brain. But it can’t be the menopause, right? You’re too young…
The menopause actually refers to a time when you haven’t had a single period for at least a year. The run-up to it can last for years and it’s called the peri-menopause. Think of it as the menopause transition. It can take eight to ten years! Women typically start to experience it in their 40s – and often the most obvious signs are that your periods go a little crazy - though for some it can even start in their 30s.
In the peri-menopause, levels of one of the main female sex hormones, oestrogen, rises and falls unevenly. The length of time between periods may be longer or shorter, your flow may be light to really heavy and with worse PMS than ever before, and you may even skip some periods – before they come back with a vengeance.
You might also experience some of the symptoms traditionally associated with the menopause, like night sweats, hot flushes, sleep problems, mood swings, more UTIs like cystitis and vaginal dryness. Around this time, you might begin to notice that weight loss becomes trickier and your digestion gets a little shaky.
The way some talk about the perimenopause, you’d think it was a disease. There’s no need to go to your doctor to get an official diagnosis – although it’s definitely worth booking and appointment, if you notice any of these specific symptoms, as they can point to other problems and it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Fibroids are something very common at this time.
If you are really struggling with your energy levels, it’s also worth getting our thyroid checked, if it hasn’t already been because perimenopausal and menopausal women are at greater risk of thyroid dysfunction. Added to this, thyroid symptoms can mimic menopausal symptoms. The ovaries, uterus, adrenal glands and the brain require adequate thyroid hormones to function.
Whatever your specific symptoms are, a tailored nutrition plan can really help. I know you could Google (other search engines are available) ‘diet for perimenopause’, but the truth is – and I know this from working with many clients dealing with symptoms and also because from time to time I like to hang out in menopause online forums – the answer lies not in fixing yourself symptom by symptom. In the human body everything is connected in ways you might not imagine. Looking at the whole of you rather than individual complaints is the way forward.
I work with women who are done with dealing with feeling a shadow of the person they used to know and love. Book a complimentary call with me today and let's see how you can start to feel 'normal' again.
But in the meantime here's some things to help you get started. Maintaining a stable blood sugar level can help.
To do this:
You would be amazed the difference a really good sleep can have on symptoms as it helps managing stress levels. On both counts, Epsom salt baths deliver amazing results. You’ll also want to put in place a proper sleep plan that limits screen time at least one hour before bed, has some wind-down time, involves a dark room (or eye mask) … I know you understand that on an intellectual level. But are you actually doing anything about it?
This is already a lot for you to think about so I will leave you with this. Choose to work on ONE thing only this week. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Don’t take on too much at once. Get really good at getting an early night, winding down with a book and enjoying the benefit of good sleep. Or focus on getting in more veg into your diet. Or eating a good breakfast using the guidelines above. Which will you choose?
What is well-being?
You often hear the phrase well-being, but what actually is it? How do you know when you are ‘being well’ enough? How can you measure it? And does it much matter anyway (because we’re all busy these days)?
The true definition, “not having a diagnosed disease”, is a little vague and simple nowadays. The business of well-being is multi faceted. It's not just what you eat or how you move that has you 'being well'. It's a more complicated picture of also having good mental health, a high level of satisfaction with your life, a sense of meaning or purpose, and the ability to manage your stress levels.
And I’m sorry to tell you that you cannot get this overall sense of wellness by nailing a couple of these elements and hoping your achievements in one area can pick up the slack in other areas where you might be lacking. While it is not necessary to feel that every single one of the elements below is great, you cannot enjoy an overall sense of well-being without having some kind of balance in all of these key elements:
How can you measure how well you are doing?
The experience of ‘well-being’ is very subjective. It is not for others to tell you how well (or otherwise) you are doing at your own wellness. When I’m working with my clients, one of the tools I use most often is something called the Wheel of Life, which offers a 360-degree view of your current life situation. Each segment in the wheel represents a different area of your life that is important for overall health and wellbeing. Of course, my wheel is skewed towards nutrition and lifestyle, but the effect is pretty much the same. You would score yourself based on how you feel about different areas of your life: health, weight, fitness, energy levels, personal achievements, work/career, sense of purpose, happiness, fun, family life, social life and friendships, and (last but not least) ‘me time’.
Try the Wheel of Life for yourself
The great thing about the Wheel of Life is that it allows you to take an honest look at what’s working in your life right now and where else you would like to see improvements, then find ways to link your health goals, so there is a positive impact in other ways too, helping to increase your motivation and commitment.
Consider each area of your life now and rate on a scale of 1-10 how satisfied you feel in the correct area in your wheel. 10 is high, and 1 is low. So if the level is 4, put a cross on the 4th circle from the centre.
It’s completely normal for people to discover they are satisfied with some areas of their lives and very unsatisfied with others. Remember that this is really a helicopter view, allowing you the luxury of evaluating the whole of your life and not piecemeal. It’s also common for some of my clients to get a bit upset if they see they score low in more areas than they’d like. If you try the Wheel of Life Exercise and don’t like what you see, don’t panic. When clients are working with me, they focus on taking actions to improve the specific areas of their life which need a boost - you should too.
Why not try the exercise and see how you fare.
There are a handful of things I always try to be mindful of as I go about my day-to-day life:
Mood & Food connections
We know that the link between physical health and what you eat is well understood, but did you know that what you eat has a huge impact on your mood and how you feel? We are living in unprecedented times and however calm we might think we are, our brains will sense a threat - this is not our 'normal' - and will activate our stress hormone system which puts us in fight, flight or freeze mode. If we've been under stress for a long time, this may be adding to anxiety, stress, depression and other mood disorders.
The connection between mood and food was common knowledge in times gone by. Way back when (think medieval times), people would eat quince, dates and elderflowers if they were feeling a little blue and use lettuce and chicory as nature’s tranquilisers. Modern science has extensively studied the impact on food on mood, and we now understand why food has such a positive (or negative) effect and also which foods we should be eating more (or less) of to support mental health.
The very edited highlight of the research into what you should eat to improve your mood and balance your energy is to follow a Mediterranean-style diet featuring plenty of whole, natural foods. That also means learning to balance your blood sugar levels. Loss of blood sugar balance has a clear link to stress, anxiety and depression. 50% of low mood is down to blood sugar imbalances.
In the same way that eating well can positively influence mood, making poor food choices can have the opposite effect. Research by a team at Binghamton, New York, showed that young adults under 30 who ate fast food more than three times a week scored higher when it came to levels of mental distress. The same researchers found that those who ate meat fewer than three times a week had more mental health problems (potentially as the amino acid tryptophan found in meat is the pre-cursor to the feel-good chemical serotonin).
WHAT TO INCLUDE:
Fish (especially oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, kippers, sardines, tuna)
Free-range eggs or free-range chicken, or turkey.
Nuts, seeds and beans, especially flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and all beans.
All berries, cherries, plums, apples and pears, green vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, peas, artichoke, kale, cabbage, watercress, rocket
WHAT TO LIMIT:
Essential fats – vital for your mood and brain function
Few of us get enough omega-3 fats in our diet, and these are key to our mood and brain function. The dry weight of our brain is literally 60% fat - so not surprising that we depend on a daily intake of essential fats.
EPA, DPA and DHA – certain long-chain omega-3 fats – build and rebuild your brain and are part of the equation for happiness. The higher your blood levels of omega-3 fats, the higher your levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin are likely to be. There have been ten good quality double-blind controlled trials to date giving fish oils rich in omega-3s to depressed people. Five showed significant improvement, greater than that reported for anti-depressant drugs. Most studies on anti-depressant drugs report something like a 15% reduction in depression ratings. Three studies on omega-3s reported an average reduction of 50% - and without side-effects.
Sources of omega-3 fats: oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, cod, tuna, halibut), walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds. If you are vegetarian or vegan, consider taking an omega-3 supplement (e.g. DHA from seaweed). Most plant sources of omega-3 do not contain the long-chain fatty acids mentioned above. Although the body can make those from short-chain omega-3s – like the ones found in nuts and seeds – but conversion is poor and it is difficult to get enough omega-3 that way, especially if you are not in good health or pregnant, when you need some extra.
These are some small steps you can take to support your mood through diet changes. But, if you have tried to make changes on your own in the past, you’ll understand that having the knowledge is only a very small piece of the puzzle. My Mood & Energy programme has been created to help raise your mood, boost your energy and help you get motivated and back to living life to the full, reduce anxiety, and improve your overall wellbeing. To find out more about this programme, contact me or book in for a complimentary call.
Nine Foods a Nutritionist Never Eats
There is an argument that all foods are OK in moderation, and this is largely based on not having ‘being healthy’ become something that feels a chore or that has you missing out on some of the things you really enjoy. But as a nutrition professional, there are a number of things that I NEVER eat.
1 Low fat/ reduced fat foods/ diet foods
These foods are, by definition, very highly processed. Where fat is taken out of a food, what nearly always goes in instead is either sugar or artificial sweeteners. The idea that fat is bad or leads to weight gain has now been acknowledged as being entirely wrong. We now know that sugars (and excess starchy carbs) are what mostly leads to weight gain and keep you craving sweet things. Many artificial sweeteners aren’t great for gut health either. I’d far rather stick to the natural, full fat version.
2 Margarine and butter substitutes
Margarine and vegetable spreads are the nutritionally poorer relations of real butter, coconut oil and other healthy fats like olive oil. Again, they are heavily processed. Often what draws people to them is the thought that they are somehow healthier because of their lower levels of saturated fats. Given that saturated fat is not the enemy to your health – while artificially hardened vegetable oils (think trans-fats) are - it’s far better to stick to unadulterated fats, using ghee (clarified butter) and coconut oil, or olive oil for cooking at lower temperatures.
3 Sugar free fizzy drinks, diet drinks and energy drinks
Sometimes I see clients ‘filling up’ on diet drinks, which (although they contain no actual calories) are doing your body no favours. They’re still conditioning your body to expect more sweet stuff, and the jury is still out on whether artificial sweeteners are not great or seriously detrimental to health. Energy drinks often provide a dual hit of very large amounts of caffeine accompanied by either a lot of sugar or artificial sweeteners. When I’m working with clients who are propping themselves up with these drinks, I like to get to the cause of their fatigue, because what’s in the tin of Red Bull (or similar) will not be helping.
4 Hotdogs and processed meat
It is quite shocking how little actual meat goes into hotdogs, and processed deli-style meats are often pumped with water, sugar (even if it’s not actually called sugar, look out for anything ending in ‘-ose’ – like dextrose) and preservatives. Some of the additives in processed meats have been linked to increased risk of colon cancer. If my family demand ham, it’s pretty easy to pick up a small ham joint and cook it myself.
5 Shop-bought cereals
Most supermarket cereals are filled with sugar and very high in starchy carbs, which will have your energy levels crashing come mid-morning. Better options include home-made granola (like the cinnamon pecan granola from Deliciously Ella), which are easy weekend jobs and last a good while, porridge or overnight oats, omelettes or poached eggs (in fact, any kind of eggs) on wholemeal toast.
6 Rice cakes
These are often a go-to food for anyone counting calories. Unfortunately, they will skyrocket your blood sugar levels. A better choice would be a couple of oat cakes topped with unsweetened nut butter or a little hummus.
7 Agave nectar/ syrup
Agave syrup comes from a cactus, and the syrup is made from the pulp of the leaf. It’s very highly processed and is mainly fructose, which needs to be processed by the liver, causing more stress for an already over-worked organ. Fructose is actually worse for you than glucose (which is effectively what we are talking about when discussing ‘blood sugar’). Agave syrup (or nectar) is very similar to the (deservedly) much-demonised high fructose corn syrup, that has contributed greatly to the obesity epidemic in the US. My advice? Do not use it!
8 Mycoprotein like Quorn
Quorn is a very processed food that comes from a fungus Fusarium venenatum and is fermented. It has a lot of other ingredients added – like flavourings, yeast, starches and colourings, gluten to give it the texture and flavour of meat. Lentils and pulses are a much healthier alternative if you’re after vegetarian choices.
9 Fruit Juice
The easiest way to get lots of sugar into your system in a short space of time is by drinking it. And since it comes in as liquid, the body doesn’t register it as “eaten”, so it cunningly slips past any detectors that might otherwise signal satiety or ‘satisfaction’. Fruit juice – particularly when freshly squeezed – certainly contains lots of lovely vitamins and minerals, but it contains just as much sugar as that can of Coke. So, don’t kid yourself: fruit juice is not healthy. If you want fruit, eat fruit. Don’t drink it.
The Hybrid diet - a new approach to gut and brain health?
I was fascinated to attend a conference on Saturday that examined how the Hybrid Diet (more about that in a minute) could help with brain and gut health. The speaker was Patrick Holford – who founded the Institute of Optimum Nutrition, where I trained, and it was really interesting to hear him speak again. He is also the founder of the Brain Bio Centre that specialises in mental health and nutrition.
Patrick has spent the last 30 years developing and promoting blood sugar balancing through a low carb (GL - glycaemic load) diet as one of the most effective ways of optimising our health. However, research is demonstrating that ketogenic (keto) diets are effective in getting fats to the brain and helping brain health. So he teamed up with Jerome Burne, a keto diet specialist, and they have created the Hybrid Diet. The theory behind it is this: way back when, our bodies were used to alternating between using glucose (from carbohydrates) and fats for fuel. For some months of the year, you could fill your boots with berries, tubers and other plant-based foods (carbohydrates). In the colder months, when plants weren’t available, you would have eaten a protein and fat-based diet besides using your own body fat reserves when food was scarce. Scientists, including nutrition professionals, describe this ability to switch between these two types of fuel as being ‘fat adapted’ or ‘metabolically flexible’. And it is a good thing. The Hybrid Diet combines periods of following a high fat keto diet with longer periods of following a low GL blood sugar balancing diet, making it an approach more aligned to ‘real life’.
The problem is this…
Our bodies are so used to relying on glucose (the energy derived from carbs and sugar) as fuel that they have forgotten how to (or rather, become unaccustomed to) use fat instead.
This is largely because the modern diet has gradually drifted towards being very carb heavy. Bad science in the 1950s and the subsequent anti-fat propaganda pushed diets away from healthy fats and increasingly towards filling up on bread, pasta and rice. And the food industry since then has been encouraging us to snack between meals – and often not on the ‘right’ things.
One of the main issues with eating too many carbs is that this causes blood sugar levels to rise, which increases levels of insulin, and insulin is the fat storage hormone. With prolonged periods of producing too much insulin, our bodies lose their sensitivity to it, so need to produce more, which leads to weight gain and, ultimately, obesity.
So what is a keto diet?
The keto diet is largely based on fat with moderate protein and very low in carbohydrates. It is filling and satisfying. This means no hunger, no cravings and consistent energy levels. This kind of diet forces the body into a state of ketosis, a natural activity that helps you survive when food intake is low. Ketosis triggers a natural metabolic ‘clean up’ and repair process. It can also increase sensitivity to insulin so that, when you do eat carbs, the body metabolises them better.
… is that the ketogenic diet is very strict and not always compatible with the way most of us live our lives. Cutting out carbs means more than just avoiding the bread, pasta, rice and potatoes that we think of as carbohydrates, but also other foods, including many fruits and a number of starchy vegetables and even some nuts, such as cashews.
Patrick argues that it is actually more desirable to teach your body how to alternate between periods of fuelling with glucose (from low GL foods) and fat. He calls this the ‘dual fuel advantage’, where your body learns to grow healthy and repair as well as learning to use carbohydrates more intelligently, and this keeps weight and energy levels balanced.
The Hybrid Diet
His new book, The Hybrid Diet (£16.99, Piatkus) explains the concept and benefits of the ketogenic diet and the ‘slow carb’ low GL diet, and how you can combine them to reap the health benefits of both. He also introduces intermittent fasting (a regime of having extended periods of not eating anything) as an additional tool for weight and health management. His book guides you through an initial two weeks of a ketogenic diet, followed by alternating three weeks on a ‘slow carb’ diet and another week of keto. Sample menus and recipe ideas are provided. This equates to nine months a year with your body running on glucose and three months on fat – a very similar pattern to the one our ancestors would have had.
If you your energy is flagging, your brain feels ‘foggy’, you can’t sleep or you’re worried about your weight, this approach is certainly one to consider. Making substantial changes to your diet can feel tough, particularly if your regular way of eating is very different from the regime you are embarking on. You will have questions and need solutions to have your new plan fit into your lifestyle. As a nutrition practitioner, I work with my clients, so they achieve their health goals and feel supported as they put the changes into practice. If you know your diet needs to change and you’re not sure where – or how – to start, I warmly invite you to book a free no obligation 30-minute nutrition MOT with me. During this time, you’ll have the opportunity to discuss your goals, and I will share my top tips to help you get started.