Menopause: the basics
In medical terms, the menopause is the change in a woman’s body when her ovaries stop producing eggs. In reality, this is the point where the monthly periods stop, and a new stage of life begins
As women produce fewer eggs, they also produce less of the hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen is responsible for triggering a number of phases in a woman’s life; it stimulates characteristics during puberty, controls the reproductive cycle and then, eventually, drops away to much lower levels during and after the menopause.
In the UK, the average age for a woman to begin the process of menopause is 51, although menopausal symptoms can occur months or even years before the last period and last years afterwards1. The most common physical symptoms are hot flushes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping and vaginal dryness. But, there are also changes that occur internally. Vital organs such as the brain and heart are also in a stage of transition as they adjust to this new stage of life.
Menopause and the heart
Before we even start to explore the impact of menopause on the heart, it is important to understand that the menopause alone does not cause heart disease. However, certain risk factors associated with heart disease are increased due to the process. Oestrogen plays a significant role throughout a woman’s life, particularly when it comes to reproduction.
However, a lesser known function of oestrogen is that it also works to protect a woman’s heart, primarily in maintaining cholesterol levels. It is believed that when oestrogen levels decline, so do the levels of HDL cholesterol — or ‘good’ cholesterol — in the body. Meanwhile, the levels of LDL cholesterol — ‘bad’ cholesterol — increase. This combination leads to a build-up of fat and cholesterol in the arteries and can contribute to a heart attack or stroke.
Additionally, oestrogen plays an important role in maintaining blood vessels. Lower levels of oestrogen mean plaque is more likely to build-up, forming blockages and blood clots. Oestrogen also helps to maintain healthy blood. Research has found that decreased levels of oestrogen after the menopause have been linked with an increase in fibrinogen, a substance in the blood that causes it to clot. Too much fibrinogen has been connected to heart disease and stroke2.
Supporting your heart during the menopause
While it may seem like there are a number of side-effects associated with menopause, there are some health and lifestyle changes that can support your body through this period. We’ve outlined a few ways that will ensure your heart remains healthy.
One of the best ways to maintain the heart of your heart is to partake in regular exercise. A 2018 study of 100 people in their 60s found that any form of exercise reduces the risk of heart problems3. Not only this, but the study also found that the right amount of exercise at the right time in your life could slow down the ageing of the heart and blood vessels.
Weight loss comes part and parcel with regular exercise and is another way that women can help to support their heart health through menopause. According to the NHS, a healthy BMI (body mass index) can give your heart the best possible chance to stay healthy4.
Follow a balanced diet
Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet should not be underestimated. Throughout life, healthy eating means improved heart function. This becomes even more important during and after the menopause.
One simple way to start is by replacing saturated fats with smaller amounts of monounsaturated fats (olive oil, almonds, unsalted cashews and avocado) and polyunsaturated fats (sunflower oil and vegetable oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds and oily fish). You should ensure that you eat at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day, as studies have shown this can reduce calcium build-up in arteries5.
On top of this, you should try to reduce your salt intake, as consuming too much salt is linked to high blood pressure which in-turn increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Nourish your heart
There are some key essential vitamins that can support your heart through menopause:
L-arginine is an amino acid that is converted in the body to nitric oxide. It’s a vasodilator which means it improves blood flow by dilating and relaxing the arteries, working to reduce blood pressure and reduce some of the strain on your heart. As a premium amino-acid, you can find it in red meat, chicken, fish, nuts and leafy vegetables.
Magnesium plays an important in coordinating the activity of the heart muscle and the nerves that initiate the heartbeat. If your magnesium levels are low, you are more likely to be at risk for arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and heart palpitations. This becomes particularly important when supporting heart health menopause.
One study found that adults with a magnesium deficiency were more at risk of cardiovascular disease6. Leafy greens such as kale, nuts, vegetables, and oily fish such as salmon all contain natural amounts of magnesium, although you might want to consider a high-strength supplement or effervescent tab to ensure a consistent daily dose.
Vitamin D is often investigated when it comes to considering nutrients to support heart health. One study found that regularly taking a vitamin d supplement could indirectly reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension7.
As such, it might be worth considering ways to integrate more vitamin D into your diet throughout menopause. Vitamin D can be found in a range of foods such as beef, eggs, dairy, and fatty fish like tuna, mackerel and salmon. For more on this, see our guide to the benefits of vitamin D in preventing stroke.
Managing your health through menopause can be tricky, but with the right advice, there’s no reason why you can’t maintain a healthy heart. For more information like this, visit the Heart Health Hub where you’ll find a range of articles dedicated to maintaining a healthy heart.
1British Heart Foundation (no date). Menopause and your heart, BHF Org
2Dr Leslie Cho (2018). Estrogen and Hormones, The Cleveland Clinic
3Shigeki Shibata, Naoki Fujimoto, Jeffrey L. Hastings, Graeme Carrick-Ranson, Paul S. Bhella, Christopher M. Hearon Jr., and Benjamin D. Levine (2018). The effect of lifelong exercise frequency on arterial stiffness, Journal of Physiology
4NHS (2018). Physical activity guidelines for adults, NHS Live Well
5Cardio Smart (no date). Fruits and vegetables help reduce future heart risk, American College of Cardiology
6James J DiNicolantonio, Jing Liu, and James H O’Keefe (2018). Magnesium for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, British Medical Journal
7Varshil Mehta and Shivika Agarwal (2017). Does Vitamin D Deficiency Lead to Hypertension?, Cureus