Menopause is characterised as the absence of a menstrual bleed (period) for twelve consecutive months, which naturally occurs around an average age of fifty years. Perimenopause is the length of time (several years) that precedes menopause, during which symptoms such as hot flushes, brain fog, vaginal dryness and night sweats can occur.
As a digestive health specialist, many of my female clients in their forties seek nutrition advice regarding their gut concerns, and are surprised to learn these issues could be contributing to their difficult perimenopause symptoms that they’ve resigned themselves to as unavoidable when approaching ‘The Change’. The digestive system influences our hormone balance, mood, resilience to stress, sleep, and fat metabolism, all of which can also be areas of concern during perimenopause. I work with male and female clients at any age over 18 years, but for the women experiencing a difficult perimenopausal journey please read on to discover why digestive health is super important during this time.
The gut and female hormones relationship works both ways. Not only can an unhappy digestive system contribute to a trickier perimenopause experience, but the shift in hormones during these years can also contribute to digestive problems. For example, did you know that fluctuating levels of oestrogen may increase the risk of gallstones? The digestive system and reproductive organs are so often thought of as independent processes within the body, but we humans are so much more than just mechanical parts working in isolation. This is where a holistic approach to health comes into its own as it’s no good putting all of our focus on the ovaries alone if multiple parts of the marvel that is your body are also crying out for attention. Picture a champagne tower at a stylish event where the glass at the top of the pyramid is filled to the brim and this spills over to the glasses below, and then the layer of glasses below that. Everything is connected, and an issue that needs addressing in one area of the body can flow into another. This “spillage” can lead to a random collection of symptoms, or a feeling that everything is going wrong at once. Let’s explore how seemingly unrelated parts of the body are actually crucial to the proper functioning of one another.
Responsible for mechanically breaking down the food you eat with powerful muscular contractions and dousing it with hydrochloric acid. Exposure to hydrochloric acid is essential for the absorption of minerals such as magnesium and calcium further along the digestive tract, which contributes to the functioning of the nervous system (think stress levels and sleep quality) and bone health.
This organ performs over five hundred essential tasks within the body, one of them being female hormone metabolism.
This digestive organ can be thought of as the storage, or holding area, for bile which is produced by the liver. Bile is released from the gallbladder into the intestine to emulsify the fats in your meal. This facilitates enzymatic digestion of the fats and eventual absorption into the body along with fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, supporting overall nutrient status. In terms of perimenopause specifically, bile is a significant route via which oestrogen can be excreted from the body.
You’ve no doubt heard the saying “You are what you eat”? Well, this is only part of the story. You are not just what you eat, but what you can absorb. The majority of nutrients in your diet are absorbed along the 20ft length of your small intestine. Any health issues affecting this absorption capability can reduce the volume of vitamins and minerals that make it from the food on your plate, across the wall of the intestine, and into the cells within your body, which is where they are needed for all the chemical reactions that occur every second of every day to keep your body functioning.
The Large Intestine
Home to trillions of bacteria which evidence suggests plays a role in how much energy we absorb from our food. Therefore, too many of one bacterial strain, and not enough of another can ultimately cause an imbalance in our overall gut flora which may have a knock-on effect on how much energy from our food ends up being stored as fat tissue.
The digestive system is not only the route food and nutrients take into the body, but also the route that unwanted products are excreted out of the body. The hormone oestrogen is metabolised in the liver and eventually removed from the body in stool via the bowel. Constipation slows this process down and can lead to some oestrogen which has been earmarked for excretion being reabsorbed from the bowel back into circulation within the body. This additional oestrogen can contribute to an imbalance in the delicate ratio of sex hormones which are in a constant state of flux throughout perimenopause.
Nutrition tips to support the digestive system during perimenopause
Katherine Corsan is a BANT-registered nutritionist who specialises in digestive health. Consultations are available online, or face-to-face at The Practice Rooms in Salisbury.
Tel. 07542 663 840