Menopause is the permanent end of menstruation and fertility, defined as occurring 12 months after your last menstrual period. You can start to transition into menopause as early as your mid-30s, with most women entering menopause in their 40s or 50s (the average age is 51 in the U.S.). For some, menopause comes earlier due to health conditions, including a history of eating disorders, cancer treatment or surgical removal of the ovaries.
Menopause is a completely natural biological process, and therefore not a problem to solve. And although it concludes the time in a woman’s life for fertility, you can stay healthy, vital and sexual through your 50s and well beyond. That being said, there is generally a hormonal shift that occurs in women during menopause that may lead to mood swings, hot flashes, insomnia and other common symptoms.
What types of things can you do to help get find relief from menopause symptoms? First and foremost, it’s important to realize that in most women, symptoms such as night sweats will decrease over time and then often go away completely without any treatment, including hormone replacement drugs. As the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care puts it, “Menopause is not an illness. It is normal for hormone levels to fall in middle age. These hormones do not need to be replaced.” (1)
Natural remedies for menopause symptoms — meaning those that don’t involve taking hormone replacement therapy drugs — are safe and can be helpful during this transition phase to decrease symptom severity and duration. These include eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, taking certain beneficial supplements to balance hormones, and using natural herbal treatments, such as black cohosh and progesterone cream.
The Most Common Menopause Symptoms
Women can experience a variety of symptoms and conditions related to changes in sex hormone levels and aging. Some of the most common menopause symptoms include: (2)
- Irregular periods: As perimenopause begins (the period before menopause technically starts), periods can come and go, plus get heavier or lighter at times. This can sometimes continue for several years during menopause
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Mood swings, irritability, anxiety or depressive symptoms
- Vaginal dryness and decreased sex drive
- Increased abdominal fat and weight gain
- Insomnia and changes in sleep quality
- Thinning hair and dryer skin
- Going to the bathroom more often
- Breast changes (including breasts becoming smaller or losing volume)
- Changes in the uterus, ovaries and cervix
- For some, a higher risk for certain other age-related diseases (including cardiovascular diseases, dementia and osteoporosis)
The Causes of Menopause
Wondering what causes symptoms like hot flashes, or how you can stop insomnia or night sweats?
Menopause is caused by hormonal changes, including altered levels of reproductive hormones including: gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), estrogen (three types including estrone, estridiol and estriol), progesterone and testosterone. (3)
Menopause is a complex biological process, but the most significant changes taking place in a woman body during this time are that there’s increasing loss of ovarian follicles (called follicular astresia) and, therefore, a decreasing amount of estrogen being produced. Estrogen levels start to drop 6–12 months before menopause (during perimenopause, usually in the late 30s and 40s) and continue throughout the menopause process.
Natural Treatment for Menopause
1. Eat Foods that Help Manage Menopause Symptoms
When trying to balance hormones and reduce menopause symptoms, your diet should include plenty of essential minerals and healthy fats. Filling up on the following foods which are “hormone-balancing,” nutrient-dense and unprocessed can help you eliminate your intake of empty calories and manage weight gain.
Keep in mind that you might need to consume less calories overall in order to maintain your weight as you get older. Due to a decrease in muscle mass and slowing of your metabolism, it’s more important than ever to limit processed foods and focus on eating a clean diet.
Foods that can help manage menopause symptoms include:
- Organic fruits and vegetables: These contain dietary fiber to manage your appetite, antioxidants to slow the aging process and phytosterols that can help balance hormones.
- Cruciferous vegetables: Vegetables in the cruciferous family such as broccoli, cabbage and kale contain indole-3-carbinol, which naturally helps to balance estrogen levels. (4) These veggies are also high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K and electrolytes that are important for blood pressure and heart health.
- High-fiber foods: Fiber is important for cardiovascular and digestive health, plus maintaining a healthy weight. Some studies have even found that diets higher in fiber might help to balance production of estrogen. (5) High-fiber diets are associated with less weight gain, healthier cholesterol levels and reduced constipation. Some of the best sources include nuts, seeds, legumes/beans, ancient grains, avocado, veggies and fruit.
- Natto: Fermented soy like natto contains a phytoestrogen that can help balance hormones. However, avoid this if you have had estrogen-positive breast cancer in the past.
- Phytoestrogen foods: Phytoestrogens are plant-based estrogens that can mimic the effects of natural hormones your body produces. Their effects are controversial, so the research on their benefits or risks can seen overwhelming and conflicting. However, a large variety of studies have proved these dietary estrogens actually help some women during menopause by reducing cancer risk, reducing night flashes, protecting the heart and making a decrease in natural estrogen feel less drastic.
- Omega-3 fats: Omega-3 fats from fish and flaxseed can protect the heart, promote smooth skin and help to counteract inflammation from omega-6 fats (found mostly in refined oils and low quality meat). Some of the best sources include wild-caught salmon, halibut, sardines, mackerel and anchovies. Studies show that frequently consuming omega-3s facilitates in hormone production and might help to prevent preeclampsia, postpartum depression, menopausal problems, postmenopausal osteoporosis, heart complications, depression and breast cancer. (6)
- Healthy fats and cold-pressed oils: It’s true that fats have more calories than protein or carbohydrates do, but they are also the building blocks for hormone production, keep inflammation levels low, boost your metabolism and promote satiety that is important for preventing weight gain. Unrefined oils provide essential vitamin E that helps regulate estrogen production. Look for virgin coconut oil, palm oil, extra-virgin olive oil and flaxseed oil. Other sources of healthy fats include avocado, coconut milk, nuts, seeds and wild seafood.
- Probiotic foods: Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can actually improve your production and regulation of key hormones like insulin, ghrelin and leptin. They’re even capable of raising immune function and protecting cognitive functioning. The best sources include yogurt, kefir, cultured veggies such as sauerkraut or kimchi, kombucha and other fermented foods.
- Water: Aim for 8 glasses daily to help replace fluid lost from hot flashes and to decrease bloating.
2. Avoid Foods that Make Menopause Worse
- Packaged foods: The majority of processed/packaged foods contain added sugar, chemical preservatives, high amounts of sodium, toxins and synthetic additives. Many of these foods are typically high in carbohydrates that can cause worsened hormone imbalances, and may contain GMO ingredients that are toxic to the liver.
- Conventional meat: Conventional (farm-raised) neat or poultry may contain added hormones that can cause problems, including increased inflammation. Make sure to choose hormone-free, grass-fed, cage-free or pasture-raised animal proteins whenever possible. Buying organic meat, eggs, dairy and poultry is another layer of protection that ensures that you won’t be consuming antibiotics, GMO-fed meat and added hormones.
- Added sugar: High intake of added sugar can cause weight gain, digestive issues, worsened hormone imbalances and candida, increasing hot flashes and other symptoms.
- Refined oils and fried foods: Foods cooked in highly-processed vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, safflower, soybean or canola oil, for example) are high in omega-6 fats that can contribute to inflammation and other health problems. Fried foods and transfats are also tied to heart problems, weight gain, diabetes and cognitive impairments.
- Carbonated drinks: Carbonated soda or other drinks may be able to deplete the body of calcium and contribute to osteoporosis, bone loss and teeth problems.
- Alcohol: Many women find that drinking more than “moderate” amounts of alcohol can aggravate hot flashes and contribute to weight gain.
3. Take These Supplements for Menopause Relief
- Black Cohosh (80 milligrams 1–2x daily): Can help prevent menopausal symptoms including hot flashes and night sweats. Research shows it might also help improve sleep quality, reduce hormonal imbalances tied to diabetes or fibroids, and even help women with fertility prior to menopause. (7)
- Natural Progesterone Cream (about ¼ teaspoon or 20 milligrams applied to the skin and forearms 2–3x daily): Progesterone cream is a natural way to reduce menopausal symptoms such as loss of bone density, vaginal dryness and fibroids. It has many benefits even for younger women (those going through perimenopause, for example) including offering protection from infertility, endometriosis and PMS. Using progesterone in topical cream form allows you to control and vary the amount of progesterone applied to your body with each use.
- Vitex or Chasteberry (160–240 milligrams daily): Vitex has been clinically proven to relieve hot flashes. It also has many of the same hormone-balancing properties as black cohosh, helping to regulate hormones tied to sleep problems, fibroids, skin changes and irregular periods. Research shows that vitex increases luteinizing hormone, modulates prolactin and aids in the inhibition of the release of follicle-stimulating hormone, which all helps balance out the ratio of progesterone to estrogen, slightly raising the levels of progesterone. (8)
- American Ginseng (600–1200 milligrams daily): For thousands of years, ginseng has been used to increase energy and sexual arousal. Some research suggests it can help relieve hot flashes, fatigue, depression and cognitive impairments, and vaginal dryness. (09)
- Red Clover: Can help prevent loss of bone density and lower risk for heart complications. Red clover contains isoflavones that have positive effects in reducing symptoms related to estrogen loss — such as hot flashes, trouble sleeping, weight gain, bone loss, bone fractures or osteoporosis, cardiovascular problems, and inflammation of the joints.
- St. John’s Wort: This herb has been safely used for over 2,000 years, often to lower anxiety, depression and sleep-related problems. It may be able to help to stabilize your mood, reduce inflammation, improve your sleep and make the emotional/mental transition through menopause a bit easier.
- Maca Root (1000–2000 milligrams daily): As an adaptogen herb, maca has been used for thousands of years to lower the effects of stress and aging on the body by decreasing cortisol levels. It can help reduce hot flashes, low energy/fatigue, restlessness and weight gain while improving libido and energy.
- Adaptogen Herbs: These plants offer protection from a variety of diseases, including those caused by excess stress. Adapotogens include ashwagandha, medicinal mushrooms, rhodiola and holy basil. Research shows they can help improve thyroid function, lower cholesterol, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce brain cell degeneration, and stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels.
Although less commonly used at home on your own, other botanicals/herbs can also help manage symptoms including: evening primrose oil, licorice root, wild yams, red raspberry leaves, chaste tree and sarsaparilla. Each one has a specific symptom (or sometimes symptoms) that they are able to help treat, so it can be very helpful to talk with a trained naturopath doctor to help guide you into using proper dosages and combinations.
4. Reduce & Manage Stress
Many women experience increased anxiety, moodiness and even episodes of depression during the menopause years. Managing stress in your life is one important way to reduce behaviors or symptoms like emotional eating and weight gain, fatigue, getting poor sleep and low libido. Different stress-reducing complimentary and alternative medicines work for different people. Some effective ways to relieve stress include: exercise, meditation, acupuncture, aromatherapy, spending time in nature, fostering close relationships, volunteering and dedicating time to spiritual practices.
5. Use These Essential Oils for Managing Menopause Symptoms
Clary sage oil is the most effective essential oils for balancing hormones. It can help offer relief from menopause symptoms including increased anxiety and hot flashes. In addition, roman chamomile oil reduces stress, peppermint oil can help cool the body from hot flashes, and thyme oil can help naturally balance hormones.
To use these essential oils at home, purchase a therapeutic grade/pure oil in stores or online, then rub 3 drops of the chosen oil on the tops of the feet and back of the neck 1–3 times daily. You can combine any essential oil with a carrier oil like jojoba or coconut oil to dilute its strength and decrease skin sensitivity.
6. Get Regular Exercise
Exercise is important for managing several risk factors associated with menopause complications, including becoming overweight or obese, having high levels of inflammation, getting poor sleep, experiencing bone loss or muscle wasting, and dealing with chronic stress. Certain studies have found that even if you haven’t been very active in the past, starting an exercise routine consisting of aerobic and strength-training exercise training at least three times per week for 12 weeks can result in improvements in sleep quality, insomnia and depression. (10) I recommend engaging in ten to thirty minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week, including in the form of high intensity interval training (HIIT) such as burst training, This will strengthen your bones, help prevent weight gain and preserve lean muscle mass, which can lower the risk for osteoporosis and obesity.
7. Get Enough Sleep
Studies show that both excessive stress and poor sleep are linked with higher levels of morning cortisol, decreased immunity, trouble with work performance, and a higher susceptibility to anxiety, weight gain and depression. To allow your body to recover from stress, control your appetite and improve energy, aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night.
8. Turn to Social Support & Relationships
Comprehensive clinical trials have shown that lifestyle habits including regular exercise, sleep management, optimal nutrition, healthy relationships, social support, and relaxation can be effective as a “whole system approach” to treating menopause symptoms and other effects of aging. (11)