Women’s health special: How food can help ease your symptoms
Do you get hot sweats, out-of-control hormones or heavy periods? Dietitian Brooke Longfield explains how diet can help manage common health issues.
There are things in life, like periods, pregnancy and menopause, that men will just never understand — and in large part, it’s due to our female hormones. The symptoms that women often experience can be uncomfortable, stressful, and even embarrassing at times. But there is good news — the right food and lifestyle can help to alleviate your symptoms. We show you what you can do.
“I never have any energy”
Possible reason: Iron deficiency
If your answer to ‘how are you?’ is always ‘tired’, ‘busy’ or ‘exhausted’, then the problem may be more than just a bad night’s sleep. Roughly one in three women is iron deficient, which can leave you feeling tired and lethargic. It can also weaken your immune system so you’re more likely to get sick and feel run down. Younger women are at higher risk of iron deficiency, but it can strike at any age.
Another reason you may have low energy levels is an underactive thyroid gland, which also causes a slower metabolism and weight gain. A lack of selenium, a mineral that the body needs to make thyroid hormones, is another a cause of fatigue.
How diet can help
Eat red meat twice a week: Red meat is one of the best sources of iron, so aim to have a 100g (raw) palm-sized piece of beef or lamb 2–3 times a week. Pair meat with vitamin C-rich foods, such as sweet potato or capsicum to maximise iron absorption. Try our delicious Grilled beef, miso sweet potato and asparagus salad recipe.
Snack on Brazil nuts: Just two Brazil nuts provide 100 per cent of your recommended daily intake for selenium. Pop them into your trail mix for an energy-boosting snack, or chop up and add to cereal.
“My periods are irregular and my hormones are crazy!”
Possible reason: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Many women experience irregular periods, but they often accept this is ‘normal’ and don’t think much more of it. What you may not know is the most common cause of irregular periods is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
PCOS affects one in eight women of child-bearing age and, unfortunately, almost 70 per cent of cases go undiagnosed. If your periods are less frequent than every 35 days or you have more than five weeks between periods, then they’re considered irregular and it’s a good idea to speak to your GP.
PCOS is a hormonal imbalance, where the male sex hormone (testosterone) is higher than it should be, and/or insulin (the hormone that helps us use energy from carbohydrates) is also too high. This imbalance results in symptoms including acne, excess facial hair, weight gain (or difficulty losing weight), anxiety, diabetes and infertility.
At least two-thirds of women with PCOS also have insulin resistance, which causes your body to store excess energy as fat, making it difficult to maintain a healthy weight in the long term.
Losing just 5–10 per cent of your weight can provide significant benefits to your health and help manage symptoms of PCOS.
How diet can help
Eat low-GI whole grains: Oats, barley, quinoa, wholemeal pasta and grainy bread require less insulin than high-GI choices such as white bread and croissants. Cutting back on high-carb foods like cakes, biscuits and sugary treats can also help manage insulin resistance.
Snack smarter: Healthy snacks can prevent large rises in your blood sugar levels. Go for a 200g tub of reduced-fat yoghurt, a small handful (30g) of nuts, a piece of fresh fruit or wholegrain crackers with avocado.
Swap to healthy fats: Olive oil, nuts, oily fish (salmon, tuna and sardines) and avocado all contain healthy unsaturated fats that slow the digestion of carbohydrates, hence reducing a sharp rise in insulin.
“I can’t shift that stubborn tummy tyre”
Possible reason: Menopause
Have you noticed extra fat around your tummy that wasn’t there before? Many women find this happens as they get older, and it can be due to hormonal changes that occur during menopause.
Your metabolism slows by around 10 per cent during menopause, so you burn fewer kilojoules. At the same time, excess weight may accumulate around your middle due to falling oestrogen levels, giving you an apple-shape, when you may previously have been more a pear-shape. This kind of belly fat increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, so it’s best to deal with it early.
Hot flushes are another unfortunate side-effect of menopause for some women, and diet can play a role. Drinking coffee and alcohol can bring on hot flushes, so it’s probably a good time to reduce your intake. (Alcohol is also a culprit behind weight gain.)
How diet can help
Watch portion sizes: Even if you’re making healthy choices, big servings mean more kilojoules. Aim to fill half of your plate with vegies so there is less room for meat and carbs, which are higher in energy.
Eat more soy: Soy foods, such as soy milk and tofu, may help reduce hot flushes, which are caused by changing oestrogen levels.
Snack on yoghurt: During menopause, your rate of bone loss increases. Dairy foods maintain healthy bones and prevent osteoporosis. Women over the age of 50 need to boost their calcium intake from 1000 to 1300mg per day, so add an extra tub of calcium-rich yoghurt as a snack.
“I’m having trouble falling pregnant”
Possible reason: Endometriosis
It is often during the investigation to see why you are not falling pregnant that your doctor will discover endometriosis.
Endometriosis affects about one in 10 women. And, about a third of women who are having trouble falling pregnant will find endometriosis is the reason.
It’s a condition where the tissue that normally lines the uterus also grows outside of it. These abnormal tissues respond to a woman’s hormones in the normal way (such as when you get your period), so they bleed, and over time this creates scar tissue. This can cause severe pain, and can also lead to infertility.
Endometriosis can mimic IBS symptoms, such as bloating and abdominal pain, so it’s important not to self-diagnose. Always seek professional advice before making drastic changes to your diet.
The relationship between specific foods and endometriosis risk is not entirely clear, but a balanced diet is likely to have benefits all round and help you cope with the symptoms.
How diet can help
Eat a rainbow of vegies: Some studies show that diets high in vegetables and fibre result in a lower risk of endometriosis.
Limit fried foods: Evidence suggests eating large amounts of trans fats (found in fried foods, biscuits and pastries) increases the risk of endometriosis, so aim to cut back on these foods.
“Why am I so bloated?”
Possible reason: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Feeling bloated is uncomfortable, especially during summer when there are no heavy layers of clothing to hide behind. Roughly 90 per cent of women experience bloating on a regular basis, with nearly half of those saying it affects their everyday life. So, what’s going on here?
Probably the most common cause of bloating is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS affects around one in five Australians, and up to 90 per cent of IBS sufferers report bloating as a symptom. Changes to bowel habits, abdominal pain, and excessive gas are other IBS symptoms.
Two main triggers for IBS symptoms are diet and stress. The most common diet culprits are garlic, onion, lentils, apples, mushrooms, cauliflower, wheat and inulin. These foods are high in FODMAPs — an acronym for a group of carbohydrates that are poorly digested in some people’s intestines.
How diet can help
Limit FODMAPs: The low-FODMAP diet has been scientifically proven to help ease symptoms in around 75 per cent of people with IBS. But before eliminating any foods, see your GP to get a proper diagnosis, and then speak to a dietitian who can help supervise you while on a personalised low-FODMAP diet.
Cut the salt: Salt is a well-known cause of fluid retention, so reducing the salt in your diet can help.
Eat slowly: Sometimes, bloating can be caused by the way you eat, not what you eat. Eating quickly increases the amount of air you swallow, which can cause bloating. Try to put your cutlery down between mouthfuls, and chew your food slowly, with your mouth closed.
Why we all need to stress less
We all suffer from emotional stress, but our frantic, fast-paced lifestyles can wreak havoc on our health.
Research shows that our main stress hormone, cortisol, affects our entire body. Chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain, high blood sugar levels and fertility issues.
Mental tension also affects our gut and can play a role in triggering IBS symptoms. Stress even impacts our food choices (hello, ice cream!).
Regularly getting enough sleep is important to manage stress, as is exercise, such as yoga, walking and swimming, which can help you unwind.
If your stress levels are starting to impact your day-to-day life, it’s important to seek help through a family member, GP or counsellor.