When hormone levels decline during menopause diet and lifestyle adjustments can help protect your heart health.
Heart disease is a life limiting health risk. According to the British Heart Foundation 50% more women are likely to die from coronary heart disease than breast cancer. Women who have been through the menopause have an elevated risk of heart disease. In this article, we’ll look at why that is, what to look out for, and what you can do to keep your heart in good shape.
First of all, what is menopause?
Menopause is the period of a woman’s life in which her periods have stopped, marking the end of her reproductive years. The average age for menopause is 51, but for 5% women of periods can stop before the age of 45 and they experience ‘early menopause’.
In perimenopause – the months or years leading up to menopause – the ovaries' regular production of oestrogen starts to fluctuate and symptoms of a decreased hormone supply symptoms start to kick in.
Symptoms experienced during menopause include, amongst many others, night sweats and hot flashes, heightened anxiety, low mood, bloating, weight gain, and heart palpitations.
What is coronary heart disease?
The NHS describes coronary heart disease as what happens when the blood supply to the heart is blocked or restricted due to a build-up of fat in the coronary arteries. Smoking, eating a poor diet, and drinking too much alcohol can contribute to this. It’s one of the most common causes of death worldwide, but thankfully, it can be prevented by making simple lifestyle changes.
The symptoms of heart blockage in females include chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling sick, feeling faint, and pain all over the body. However, some people might only notice one or two of these things, and many people don’t have any symptoms at all.
Why are menopausal women more at risk?
The average age of heart attack in females is 70 – four years higher than in men. This age disparity is down to several factors, and one of them is the changes in a woman's hormone levels which decrease from her mid forties.
Women who have been through menopause are more likely to develop coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. Interestingly, women who experience early menopause are at even higher risk. It’s all because of the drop in oestrogen levels that starts in perimenopause – the period that leads up to menopause.
Oestrogen (estrogen) has a long list of functions, and many of these involve protecting your heart. This hormone reduces the build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries and contributes towards keeping cholesterol levels in check. So, naturally, as estrogen stores start to run low, stores of fat and cholesterol start to creep up.
This, in turn, increases your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases. Heart palpitations are a common menopause symptom, and they can be really worrying. However, they are usually harmless and are caused by fluctuating hormone levels.
How to protect your heart health in menopause
There isn't much you can do about the natural slowing down of ovarian estrogen production, it's an inevitable part of life for a woman. There are things you can do to protect your heart health through later life.
Hormone replacement therapy(HRT)
Replacing lost hormones is an effective way to lessen your chances of developing serious heart problems. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) will help to combat some menopause symptoms by replacing the estrogen and progesterone that were lost when the ovaries stopped producing as much.
You can choose to take HRT in tablet form, or opt for patches or gels, instead. The latter two come with a reduced risk of developing blood clots, so many women pick these methods. Taking hormone medication can slightly increase your chances of developing breast cancer, so if you’re at risk, or have had cancer in the past, it may not be suitable for you.
Aerobic exercise gets your blood flowing and keeps your heart in good shape. Keeping active is really important if you want to lessen your chances of developing heart problems post-menopause.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to aim for around 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week – for a woman in her fifties walking, cycling, and swimming are excellent choices.Weight bearing exercises can also give your heart a good workout, use your own body weight, kettlebells, hand held weights or barbells. Weight bearing exercises will also help to keep bones strong, which is really important for women during menopause as declining hormone levels means you lose bone faster than it grows which can cause osteoporosis. Weight bearing exercises strengthen bones.
Control your weight
Did you know that being overweight greatly increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke? If you’re menopausal, it’s even more important to keep an eye on the scales and your waistline, especially when it comes to your cardiovascular health.
Losing weight in menopause can be a little more challenging than when you're younger though, thanks to declining estrogen levels which can disrupt sleep patterns, affect your digestive system and metabolism. A natural, age related loss of lean muscle and increase in fat storage can also cause you to pile on the pounds. Comfort eating is also common in menopause, which also doesn’t help.
The most sustainable way to lose weight is to eat a healthy, balanced diet based on a bank of calories built around on your weight loss goals. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, because your body is changing in response to hormone depletion you're going to need to see what works for you in this time of your life.
The tried and tested ways to get your weight under control in your 30's may not be as effective in your 40's and 50's. It's a good idea to check the fat and sugar levels in your diet.
Getting the right nutritional balance can be a little challenging when life is busy. Try using meal replacement shakes to get your weight under control. Nutritionally-complete meal replacement shakes have been proven to help people lose weight short term and maintain weight loss longer term. Eve Biology menopause meal replacement shakes are formulated to help menopausal women target weight gain in 7 days control weight and include a prebiotic fibre which has been proven to help reduce visceral fat.
Cut down on the sweet stuff
Food that’s high in fat or sugar puts you most at risk of serious health conditions. Consuming too much sugar means you’re more likely to develop diabetes, too. And it’s a double-edged sword – if you’re diabetic, you’re more likely to suffer from heart problems. If you want to know more, check out our separate article on menopause and diabetes.
There are some key things you can do to help you fight against heart disease which will also help make your menopause a little easier.
Cutting down on alcohol - regularly drinking too much alcohol can cause high blood pressure and damage to the heart muscle as well as increase weight.During menopause the liver is under pressure to get rid of excess oestrogen which declining progesterone levels can’t balance out as they did before menopause. Adding alcohol detoxification to its 'to do' list can be extra taxing. Alcohol can also make some menopause symptoms like hot flashes and insomnia worse
Watch your cholesterol
Reduce your saturated fat intake.A diet which is high in saturated fat is associated with raised non-HDL (bad) cholesterol which increases the risk of heart disease. During menopause, lower levels of estrogen mean a woman no longer has the same amounts of the hormone helping to keep her cholesterol levels low.
Quitting smoking will help you fight against heart disease and also help to make your menopause easier, too. In fact, around one in 10 cases of cardiovascular disease are linked to smoking. Nicotine patches, inhalers and tablets can be really beneficial if you’re struggling to fight off your cravings for cigarettes.
It’s really important to attend any routine screenings you’re invited to after menopause, whether it be for cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose levels or simply checking your body mass index (BMI). The earlier heart disease is picked up, the easier it is to treat, so don’t be tempted to brush things under the carpet if you’re concerned.
The bottom line
Menopausal women are at higher risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases due to declining estrogen ( oestrogen) levels. Thankfully, diet and lifestyle changes can keep your heart in good shape, and HRT can significantly reduce the chances of you suffering from heart problems.