How do we combat the effects of ageing? There is no easy and clear path but with the right tools, there’s potential to slow the progression. To feel and look your best, proper nutrition as part of an overall healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity will support healthy body weight, bone and muscle strength, and provide protective effects on your body’s key functioning systems. In women over 50 years, menopause is the next stage of life experienced. Menopause is triggered by a natural decrease in the production of the hormone oestrogen. As this hormone decreases, the female body will start to undergo various changes that require appropriate action that may be unknown to the general population.1-2
Nutrition and health in the older woman
Oestrogen plays a vital role in maintaining bone mass, the cell cycle and cardiovascular protection, as well as body fat management. As oestrogen levels drop, this initiates residual effects such as increasing insulin, the hormone responsible for controlling your bodies sugar levels, in addition to decreasing thyroid hormones that control satiety. Metabolic shifts may prompt an unfortunate impact on muscle mass, wherein women will typically lose approximately half a pound every year following the age of 40-45. It’s important to remember that muscle is critical in weight management so women who are experiencing these changes may find it beneficial to either begin or maintain an exercise regimen. Not only will physical activity and adequate nutrient intake counteract muscle loss seen throughout this phase, but it will also help to counteract menopause symptoms and lower the risk of developing diseases like diabetes and osteoporosis.1-3
B vitamins are essential in transitioning to new metabolic shifts as they can ease symptoms by mitigating the effects initiated by the decreased production of oestrogen. The consumption of B vitamins is shown to potentially decrease menopausal symptoms that include insomnia, mood swings and hot flushes. Vitamin B12 is known for its protective effects on the cardiovascular, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems. Vitamin B12 is key in metabolic processes involved in red blood cell production and increased energy levels, whilst reducing mental and physical fatigue.4
Women experiencing these changes are more likely to develop a B12 deficiency, which can be linked to the higher frequency of insomnia. Recent findings in research indicate that B12 deficiencies are associated with both cognitive dysfunction and decline during menopause. The major cause of B12 deficiency seen in women over 50 is due to inadequate intake of the vitamin. While insufficient consumption is a major component, this is tied to the fact that during menopause, women experience issues with malabsorption due to digestive failures, increased risk of disease that require medications that tend to interfere and inhibit B vitamin metabolism.5
Vitamin B12 food sources are typically animal-based; fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, red meat, etc., so consuming sources of vitamin B12 has proven difficult for vegetarians and vegans. However, there are alternatives to supply deficits based on dietary preferences such as fortified cereals and enriched dairy products.
Vitamin D is considered a super-vitamin and acts as a hormone in the body; it’s essential for every person, during every stage of life. Sources state that approximately 75% of the Western population is vitamin D deficient. Although the majority of women understand that they require calcium in order to maintain bone strength, they may not know why it is imperative to sustain adequate intake of vitamin D throughout the entirety of their lives. Vitamin D’s mechanism of action is to function as a hormone that transports calcium and phosphorus throughout the body.6 These two minerals are imperative to maintain bone health and strength. In a state of vitamin D deficiency, the body will start to pull calcium and phosphorus from bones. When this happens, the bones will start to thin and become brittle, this weakening leads to conditions such as osteoporosis, increasing the risk of fractures.7
At the age of 30, women start losing calcium through their bones. At the age of 50, there is a significant deficit of minerals within the body. Because there is such a dramatic drop in hormone levels during menopause, this puts women at a greater risk for bone diseases like osteoporosis. Lucky for us, our bodies have the ability to synthesise vitamin D through the skin as it absorbs light from the sun. Along with bone health, vitamin D also contributes to managing a healthy weight as research indicates a possible link between sufficient vitamin D intake and improving sleep quality and quantity. It also reduces the chance of developing heart disease, as it lowers blood pressure and risk of strokes, allergies, and asthma.
One of the difficulties surrounding vitamin D is knowing how much sunlight it takes to absorb a sufficient amount to retain a normal vitamin D status. For the majority of people, it takes approximately 10 - 30 minutes to absorb enough light to meet the body’s vitamin D requirements. As we age, our vitamin D stores tend to decrease because of our body’s ability to synthesise vitamin D decreases. Therefore, when a woman’s body undergoes a serious physiological change in hormone production, dietary intervention and supplementation is required.7-8
When it comes to the body functioning in the correct fashion, the mineral chromium is important as the body requires small amounts of it to appropriately digest food. Chromium is required as it enhances the bodies efficiency to effectively metabolise fat, carbohydrates and proteins. The mineral is involved in several important biological functions, including transportation of glucose through the bloodstream and into cells where it can be used as energy.9 Research indicates that chromium helps the body to use carbohydrates efficiently, therefore it promotes building muscle and burning fat. It’s effective in improving the response to insulin in the body, which means that it has the ability to reduce hunger cravings or binge eating behaviours. Additionally, chromium levels are linked to bone health as it slows calcium loss, potentially helping women in preventing bone loss during menopause.10
There are many natural sources of chromium that include brewer’s yeast, potatoes, dairy, spices, whole-grain bread and cereals, meats, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.11
According to literature, selenium is a vital nutrient for all health-related functions. There are many benefits of this mineral due to its role in several key processes within the body that include the proper function of the thyroid gland and metabolism. Although only required in small amounts, selenium must be obtained through the diet.12 In order to ward off an excess of harmful byproducts produced through normal metabolic processes, it is important to increase the consumption of important antioxidants – like selenium – to reduce oxidative stress and cell damage in the body. Oxidative stress is linked to chronic conditions like cancer and premature ageing, among many others. Selenium has a unique ability to reduce DNA damage by enhancing the body’s immune system. In addition to potentially inhibiting cellular damage, selenium also protects the heart by decreasing inflammatory markers throughout the body – particularly oxidative stress.13
One of the more appealing benefits to the ageing individual is that adequate selenium intake is linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline. This is because oxidative stress is believed to be involved in the development and progression of neurodegeneration and several studies have found that individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease had lower levels of selenium in their blood. In addition to cognitive health, selenium plays a role in thyroid function. More selenium is found in thyroid tissue than any other tissue in the body. Accordingly, the thyroid’s main function is to regulate metabolism, so protecting the gland against oxidative damage is essential in order to produce thyroid hormone.12-14
Native to the Mediterranean, Sage leaf is part of the mint family with over 900 different types on record. Because of the wide variety, it's common to find this plant in the kitchen but is also accepted as a medicinal remedy for menopause. According to research, sage possesses many health benefits, especially to women during menopause. There are high levels of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities that may help to reduce symptoms like mood swings, hot flushes and night sweats. Sage is also associated with sinus health, enhancing cognitive function, and proper utilisation of the nervous system. Although studies are small, results imply that sage can alleviate symptoms when consumed in the appropriate form based on the needs of the individual.15
There is a distinct connection between its use in menstrual and menopausal symptom relief, therefore a considerable amount of research has gone into discovering the benefits of this plant. Researchers have identified various compounds, including a volatile oil. In low doses, sage appears harmless but within the volatile oil resides a compound known to cause seizures if consumed in high doses, in addition to affecting blood pressure and glucose levels.16
- Curtis, E., Litwic, A., Cooper, C., & Dennison, E. (2015). Determinants of muscle and bone aging. Journal of cellular physiology, 230(11), 2618-2625.
- Casper, R. C. (1995). Nutrition and its relationship to aging. Experimental gerontology, 30(3-4), 299-314.
- Durnin, J. V. G. A. (1992). Energy metabolism in the elderly. In Nestlé Nutrition Workshop Series (Vol. 29).
- Milart, P., Woźniakowska, E., & Wrona, W. (2018). Selected vitamins and quality of life in menopausal women. Przeglad menopauzalny = Menopause review, 17(4), 175–179. doi:10.5114/pm.2018.81742
- Bailey, R. L., & van Wijngaarden, J. P. (2015). The role of B-vitamins in bone health and disease in older adults. Current osteoporosis reports, 13(4), 256-261.
- McKenna, M. J. (1992). Differences in vitamin D status between countries in young adults and the elderly. The American journal of medicine, 93(1), 69-77.
- Lips, P., Wiersinga, A., Van Ginkel, F. C., Jongen, M. J. M., Netelenbos, J. C., Hackeng, W. H. L., ... & Van der Vijgh, W. J. F. (1988). The effect of vitamin D supplementation on vitamin D status and parathyroid function in elderly subjects. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 67(4), 644-650.
- Omdahl, J. L., Garry, P. J., Hunsaker, L. A., Hunt, W. C., & Goodwin, J. S. (1982). Nutritional status in a healthy elderly population: vitamin D. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 36(6), 1225-1233.
- Anton, S. D., Morrison, C. D., Cefalu, W. T., Martin, C. K., Coulon, S., Geiselman, P., ... & Williamson, D. A. (2008). Effects of chromium picolinate on food intake and satiety. Diabetes technology & therapeutics, 10(5), 405-412.
- Roussel, A. M., Bureau, I., Favier, M., Polansky, M. M., Bryden, N. A., & Anderson, R. A. (2002). Beneficial effects of hormonal replacement therapy on chromium status and glucose and lipid metabolism in postmenopausal women. Maturitas, 42(1), 63-69.
- Bureau, I., Anderson, R. A., Arnaud, J., Raysiguier, Y., Favier, A. E., & Roussel, A. M. (2002). Trace mineral status in post-menopausal women: impact of hormonal replacement therapy. Journal of trace elements in medicine and biology, 16(1), 9-13.
- Ventura, M., Melo, M., & Carrilho, F. (2017). Selenium and Thyroid Disease: From Pathophysiology to Treatment. International journal of endocrinology, 2017, 1297658. doi:10.1155/2017/1297658
- Llaneza, P., González, C., Fernandez-Iñarrea, J., Alonso, A., Arnott, I., & Ferrer-Barriendos, J. (2009). Selenium and health-related quality of life in menopausal women. Menopause international, 15(4), 144-149.
- Brough, L., Gunn, C., Weber, J., Coad, J., Jin, Y., Thomson, J., ... & Kruger, M. (2017). Iodine and selenium intakes of postmenopausal women in New Zealand. Nutrients, 9(3), 254.
- Bommer, S., Klein, P., & Suter, A. (2011). First time proof of sage’s tolerability and efficacy in menopausal women with hot flushes. Advances in therapy, 28(6), 490-500.
- Yarnell, E., & Abascal, K. (2003). Herbal medicine for treating menopausal symptoms. Alternative & Complementary Therapies, 9(6), 299-306.