Relieving menopause symptoms
Updated January 2023 | 7 min read
Expert contributors Katherine Maslen, clinical naturopath and nutritionist; Dr Sonia Davison, endocrinologist, Jean Hailes for Women’s Health; Kate Di Prima, accredited practising dietitian
Words by Denby Weller and Bonnie Bayley
If you’re approaching or experiencing menopause, you’re probably aware of how it can affect your mind and body. Here's some tips on what to do, how to get help and manage the symptoms.
Menopause is a normal part of ageing, but it can also be a challenging time. The physical and emotional changes that show themselves as menopause symptoms, think hot flushes and mood swings, can be a lot to cope with.
Most women experience menopause between the ages of 45 and 55. Menopause is the time of life when your menstrual cycle has officially stopped for a year. Perimenopause refers to the natural process leading up to menopause when your ovulation and periods may become irregular or stop.
While growing older and experiencing menopause can be framed in a negative light, it can be helpful to consider it through a more positive lens. “This should be a time when a woman is entering the most potent time of her life – knowing who she is and being unapologetic for it,” says clinical naturopath and nutritionist, Katherine Maslen.
There’s a range of therapies and lifestyle strategies you can draw on to help you navigate the symptoms of menopause, and help you feel better quickly.
Menopause leads to changes in the levels of three important hormones: oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Oestrogen: a group of hormones that regulate the female reproductive system’s development and function. During menopause, oestrogen production drops by 80% or more as egg numbers decrease in the ovaries (the cells around the eggs produce oestrogen).
Progesterone: produced by the ovaries, placenta (during pregnancy) and adrenal glands, progesterone’s main function is to regulate the condition of the inner lining (endometrium) of the uterus.
Testosterone: although only found in small amounts in women, testosterone is responsible for functions like maintaining muscle mass, which is a key factor in reducing health risks like falls in later years. Testosterone levels drop during menopause.
Changes to the above three hormones can bring on a host of symptoms, from hot flashes and sweats, to sleep disturbance, mood swings, lethargy and weight gain.
Menopause symptoms explained
Menopause symptoms typically last for about five years, but some women have symptoms for 10 years, says Dr Sonia Davison, endocrinologist at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health.
Around 85% of women experience some hot flushes (also known as hot flashes) and/or night sweats during menopause, which can be mild through to severe. Other common physical symptoms during this time include problems sleeping, joint pain, tiredness, vaginal dryness, reduced sex drive, an overactive bladder and weight gain. When it comes to changing emotions and mental health, menopause may be associated with brain fog, anxiety, irritability, mood changes and feelings of sadness.
“As we enter through perimenopause, we need to be aware that as women we have increased risk of many conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis,” says Katherine. “We also need to be aware of our bone health and mental health, with increases in anxiety and depression more prevalent at this time.”
It’s a good time to check in with your GP about any risk factors that may affect you during this life stage and your treatment options.
How to help relieve menopause symptoms
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
To ease the symptoms of menopause, around 13% of Aussie women aged between 50 and 69 use hormone replacement therapy (HRT), also known as menopausal hormone therapy (MHT). It comes in various forms, including pills, patches, gels and implants.
HRT or MHT often helps to reduce or eliminate hot flushes and night sweats as well as improve your mood, sleep and sex drive.
Like most medications HRT has some risks, including a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer or thrombosis (blood clots in the legs or lungs), but current international recommendations say it’s effective and safe for many healthy women.
According to Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, the risks of HRT differ, depending on a few factors like the type taken, how long it’s taken for and when it’s started. Your GP can advise whether the treatment is safe for you, and how long it’s safe for you to be on it.
What to eat to help menopause symptoms
Diet can play an important role after menopause. “When oestrogen drops, our ability to maintain calcium in our bones drops,” says Kate.
It’s common to gain weight around this time which can affect menopause symptoms. This can be partly due to body changes as we age, as muscles decrease and metabolism slows. It can also be due to hormone changes.
“Excess weight can act as insulation and make flashes and sweats worse,” says Dr Davidson.
For eligible members looking for support in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, HCF offers free access to the Healthy Weight for Life Essentials program* to help develop healthy habits, increase energy levels, and prevent the onset of chronic conditions later on.
Eating a healthy diet is as important as ever, and the recommendations around this change as we get older. According to the government’s healthy eating guidelines, women aged 51 to 70 should eat four servings of protein and calcium-rich dairy foods per day, compared to just two-and-a-half serves for women under 50. The recommended servings of grains and cereals also drop from six to four for women aged 51 to 70.
Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is important for overall wellbeing and maintaining a healthy weight, but it can also help lessen menopause symptoms. A 2020 study published in the journal Menopause found the greater a woman’s fruit and vegetable intake, the lower her overall menopause symptoms.
“Coffee and alcohol have both been shown to make hot flashes significantly worse, so should be kept to a minimum if you're feeling the heat,” says Katherine.
You can reset your drinking habits by downloading the Daybreak app^, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.
Can alternative therapies help menopause symptoms?
Some women use alternative therapies to aid menopause symptoms, but caution should be taken, and you should speak to your doctor first about any risks.
Some herbal remedies and supplements shouldn’t be used with other medications. The quality and source of herbal medications and supplements can also vary widely.
According to a 2019 review of complementary and alternative medicine for menopause, hypnosis has been shown to result in a clinically significant reduction (i.e. 50% or more) in hot flushes, with some results comparable to pharmaceutical interventions.
Staying strong and fit
Weight-bearing exercise can help to maintain health after menopause, says Kate.
Healthy Bones Australia recommends exercise that encourages bone strength. Activities including tennis, running and brisk walking (brisk means you can still talk and aren’t puffing) are more beneficial for bone strength than cycling or swimming, and are recommended at least three times a week.
Exercise is also crucial for mental wellbeing during menopause: a 2020 study found women who do a high amount of physical activity score higher for positive mood, life satisfaction and lower on depressive symptoms than their more sedentary peers.
Can soy products reduce menopause symptoms?
Soy products have been used to minimise menopause symptoms in some women, due to a natural compound called phytoestrogen.
“It resembles human oestrogen, but at a very, very low dose,” says Kate Di Prima, accredited practising dietitian.
A 2021 study published in the journal Menopause found postmenopausal women suffering from regular hot flushes who were assigned to a vegan diet that included half a cup of cooked soybeans daily experienced an 84% decrease in moderate to severe hot flushes.
However, only about one third of women have the gut bacteria that convert phytoestrogens to the more potent form. So while soy products may have other benefits like being high in fibre and protein, they won’t necessarily help every woman with the symptoms of menopause.
Although soy has been linked to a risk of cancer, other research shows benefits for cancer prevention. Some of the mixed results may be because studies done in people and animals can produce different results. Overall, health benefits of eating soy foods (like tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso and soy milk) appear to outweigh any potential risks.
The power of mindfulness
Mindfulness, or the mental state of paying full attention to what’s happening in the present moment and observing our thoughts and feelings without judgement, may be associated with fewer menopausal symptoms. In a Mayo Clinic study of women aged 40 to 65, those with higher mindfulness scores had lower menopausal symptom scores. What’s more, the higher a woman’s stress levels, the stronger the link between mindfulness and reduced menopausal symptoms. The study also found a link between high mindfulness scores and lower irritability, depression and anxiety.
There are many easy ways to practise mindfulness throughout the day. Try focusing your attention on your breathing during ‘pauses’ like when you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or stopped at traffic lights. Or take a five-minute break during the day to tune into what you’re experiencing through your five senses:
- what noises can you hear?
- what scents do you smell in your environment?
- what colours and shapes can you see around you?
- what are the sensations of your body touching your chair, or your feet on the ground?
- if you’re eating, tune in to the flavours, texture and taste of your food.
Compare how you feel at the end of the five senses mindfulness exercise with how you felt at the beginning.
If you need extra support
Using a combination of hormone replacement therapy, diet, exercise and mind-body therapies can ease menopause symptoms and help you cope with menopausal changes. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your GP for guidance, too.
Our partnership with GP2U, an online video GP service, makes it easier for you to access telehealth services. Through our partnership with GP2U, all HCF members with health cover can access a standard online video GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50. See hcf.com.au/gp2u for more information.
If menopause symptoms are affecting your mental health, we're offering members a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist for eligible members#. Whether you’re looking for support for yourself or your loved ones, our unique range of mental health and wellbeing programs can help you understand and improve mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety and depression.
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* Must have hospital cover, multiple lifestyle risk factors (e.g. smoking, physical inactivity, poor nutrition) and a Body Mass Index of 28 and above. Clinical eligibility applies. See hcf.com.au/hwfl
^ This service is not affiliated or associated with HCF in any way. You should make your own enquiries to determine whether this service is suitable for you. If you decide to use this service, it'll be on the basis that HCF won't be responsible, and you won't hold HCF responsible, for any liability that may arise from that use.
# 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.
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