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The natural menopause survival guide

Some lucky women sail through the menopause, and yet for others the ending of their menstrual cycle and the physical and emotional changes brought about by changing hormone levels, can disrupt their sleep and lives, and wreak misery.

Yet women's health expert Maryon Stewart believes that the many negative side effects of the menopause can be overcome by simple changes to diet and lifestyle.

Stewart is well known in both the UK and Australia as a pioneer in the field of non-drug medicine, and almost 20 years ago set up an advisory service specialising in women's health. She has written 25 popular self-help books, many of them aimed specifically at women, and with a special focus on the menopause.

So, whether the symptom is hot flushes, mood swings, headaches or dry skin, Stewart offers a natural and non-drug based solution for easing the pain.

A woman usually begins to feel the effects of the menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, when her ovaries stop releasing an egg a month. Her ovaries will no longer be producing so much of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone, which play a part in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy, and which help maintain bone strength and prevent heart disease.

The change in hormone levels can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as mood swings, and even osteoporosis -- yet Stewart's natural health plan for the menopause aims to alleviate this discomfort and improve a woman's quality of life.

Hollywood star Susan Sarandon is a true believer in natural remedies, and after the menopause hit at age 54 she cut back on carbohydrates after she found she was accumulating more weight around the middle. And she chooses whole-grain products over refined grains such as white bread and pasta.

Meanwhile, British actress Julie Walters, star of the movies Educating Rita and Mamma Mia, credits the menopause for giving her more energy and a new outlook on life. She said: "There's something great about going through the menopause and being in your 50s. You trade in that youthful thing, where everything is brand new, and you swap it hopefully for some kind of wisdom, and all the stuff you've learned."

Symptom> Hot flushes and night sweats

It is thought that a lack of oestrogen to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain which controls body temperature, causes hot flushes and night sweats.

Natural solution: According to women's health expert Maryon Stewart, research has shown that cutting down on alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods can help alleviate both hot flushes and night sweats.

Phytoestrogen-rich foods such as soya, beans and lentils, green and yellow vegetables, nuts and seeds can help keep oestrogen blood levels elevated.

Also, when a hot flush strikes, stop what you are doing, take several slow, deep breaths, and try to relax. If possible, drink a glass of water until it passes.

Symptom> Mood swings

Hormonal and physical changes during the menopause can cause depression, irritability and anxiety. Disturbed sleep caused by night sweats can also trigger depression.

Natural solution: According to Stewart, women should resist alcohol, cigarettes and comfort food, as they will only aggravate the symptoms.

Instead, exercise regularly, as research shows that menopausal women who exercise regularly fare better than those who have psychotherapy to deal with the emotional and physical stresses brought on by their body's hormonal changes.

Yoga and meditation can also help. To aid sleep, the herb valerian promotes natural sleep without the side effects of sleeping pills.

Symptom> Dry skin

Lower oestrogen levels affect collagen, the protein that keeps your skin firm by supporting and binding its connective tissue. This means that the skin becomes drier and wrinkles increase.

Natural solution: Eat plenty of oily fish such as salmon and sardines as these are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to keep skin smooth.

Also, remember to moisturise your skin morning and night, avoid the sun and drink lots of water.

Symptom> Sexual problems

A lack of oestrogen can cause the vagina's lining to become thin and dry. The result is that sex can become uncomfortable and in some cases painful.

Natural solution: According to Stewart, phytoestrogen creams from health food shops can alleviate dryness if used twice a week.

Omega-7 capsules maintain the health and integrity of the mucous membrane lining the vagina -- usually kept moist by fluids from cells on its surface and by secretions from glands in the cervix -- so take two capsules morning and night.

Stewart also believes that pelvic floor exercises can strengthen pelvic muscles, making intercourse more comfortable, and helping prevent urinary incontinence which can become a problem during the menopause.

Symptom> Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis causes bones to become brittle, and leaves them at risk of breaking. From the age of 35 women lose about 1pc of total bone mass each year, yet following the menopause, bone loss accelerates to a further 2-3pc a year.

Natural solution: A calcium-rich diet helps preserve bone mass, so consume plenty of milk, cheese and yoghurt. You should also eat lots of green leafy vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli and kale, as these contain calcium as well as magnesium, which helps the body use and absorb calcium.

Exercise, and get some sun as vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium.