There’s nothing better than a good night’s sleep. And nothing worse than watching the numbers on the digital clock flash 2 a.m., then 3 a.m. and then 4 a.m., as you lie awake wondering how you’re going to get through the coming day.
For many women, restless nights are one of the most dreaded symptoms of early menopause. They’re also among the easiest symptoms to relieve if you eat and drink the right things – and not just before bedtime.
For many women, perimenopause – those years leading up to menopause – are a roller coaster of changing hormonal levels. According to the experts, a woman loses progesterone before her estrogen levels begin to drop. The resulting imbalances wreak havoc with a lot of our systems and routines. Chelsea Fyrberg, a consulting nutritionist for Women’s Wellness Comprehensive Care in Portland, says many of the food choices we make in our fast-paced, youth-driven culture only exacerbate the problem.
Diet drinks, sugary sodas, alcohol and coffee all throw our digestive systems out of sync. Fyrberg says some of her clients drink liquids all day long and are surprised to find that they are dehydrated.
“A lot of women are not drinking enough plain old water,” says Fyrberg. “It doesn’t have to be complicated.”
Constipation is another condition that undermines the well-being needed for a good night’s sleep. That’s why cutting out processed foods and adding more fiber to your diet is so important. The recommended daily intake of fiber is 21 grams, but Fyrberg says the average American only gets 12 grams.
People used to hear “fiber” and think “Metamucil.” But adding fiber to your diet these days means choosing whole grains instead of white breads, and legumes and green leafy vegetables instead of pasta. When you’ve got the urge to graze, nuts and raw veggies are a great substitute for chips and cookies. The added benefit of these fiber enhancers is not just a smooth-running digestive system. Some nuts, almonds especially, and many green leafy vegetables – especially broccoli, kale and spinach – provide some of the calcium needed to prevent bone loss in the menopausal years. According to Fyrberg, the body absorbs 30 percent more calcium from plant-based foods like leafy greens, nuts and beans than it does from dairy-based foods like milk and cheese.
“And if you steam the vegetables, you get the best bioavailability,” Fyrberg says.
What if you are making all the right food choices, drinking plenty of water, and still find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m.? Many women turn to melatonin supplements in an effort to avoid sleeping pills, but Fyrberg warns that melatonin supplements can also cause problems.
Levels of melatonin, a natural hormone produced in the pineal gland in the brain, normally rise in the evening and stay high during the night. As we age, however, melatonin levels drop to the point where the body may not be making any at all. Fyrberg advises against taking melatonin as a supplement because the pills you’ll find at the drug store are actually synthetically made and contain more of the hormone than the body needs.
“If you introduce a synthetic version into the body, it can have a domino effect,” she says. “All your other hormones can be out of whack and not in the proper ratios.”
Instead, Fyrberg recommends taking an herbal substance called valerian root, either as a supplement or in the form of a tea.
“Valerian root is a melatonin precursor,” Fyrberg says. “It’s all natural and allows the body to produce melatonin on its own.”
Melatonin also occurs in small amounts in such foods as orange bell peppers, tomatoes, walnuts and goji berries. But the melatonin producer getting the most attention these days is a fruit we think of as kind of a delicacy. Research has shown that cherries contain lots of melatonin and that eating them – or drinking cherry juice – helps you fall asleep faster and stay asleep 20 minutes longer on average. These are modest results, but enough for MSNBC and Dr. Oz to call cherries the new superfruit. Not just any cherries will do, though. The tart cherries grown in Michigan contain significantly more melatonin than the sweet cherries from the West Coast that you’ll find at the local grocery store in July and August.
As anyone who has eaten a big Thanksgiving dinner and then tried to watch a football game can tell you, tryptophan is another food ingredient that can induce sleep. Fyrberg says tryptophan works as a sleep aid because it helps the brain manufacture seratonin. Not only can you get a better night’s sleep after consuming such tryptophan-loaded foods as turkey, cod, soy and eggs, but you also might get some relief from those pre-menopausal mood swings.
Of course, none of these food remedies will work for all women all the time. The important thing, Fyrberg says, is to approach the onset of menopause with a positive mindset and a willingness to explore natural alternatives to hormone replacement drugs.
“There’s no one size fits all when it comes to menopause,” she says. “A lot of women tend to be driven to the quickest, fastest remedy. They don’t understand how much power they have over their symptoms.”
Ginger, Citrus and Black Sesame Carrots Salad
According to Chelsea Fyrberg, this recipe is high in protein, calcium and fiber. It is also anti-inflammatory, detoxifying and will help to stabilize hormones.
5-6 carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 cup frozen organic shelled edamame, thawed
1?4 cup black sesame seeds
Big handful of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Sea salt and pepper
1?2 ripe avocado, peeled and chopped
Ginger Citrus Dressing
Combine the carrot matchsticks, thawed edamame, sesame seeds and chopped cilantro in a large bowl. Season the whole mixture with salt and pepper and toss lightly with your hands. Set aside.
In a small-medium bowl, combine the orange juice, lime juice, salt and pepper, agave nectar, ginger and sesame oil. Whisk it all together until incorporated. While whisking with one hand, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until you have a homogenous and unified dressing.
Pour the dressing over the carrot and edamame mixture. Toss to combine. Top with the chopped avocado pieces. Garnish the dish with more sesame seeds and cilantro if you like.
Serves 6-8 as a side. If you want to make this more of a main event, you could serve it with some grilled tempeh/tofu and toss a couple handfuls of greens and cooked grains into the mix. Also, this mix would be tasty rolled up into a rice paper wrap or a sheet of nori.