As much as you enjoy surfing the ups and downs of your monthly cycle, you may on occasion think about when this wild monthly ride stops and menopause begins.
On average, women reach menopause–which is considered official once you pass through 12 months without menstruating–around the age of 51. At this point, all the eggs are depleted in your ovaries and your hormone patterns change dramatically, with a different type of estrogen dominating than the one that took center-stage during your menstruating years.
While some women can’t wait for menopause to start (perhaps, due to premenstrual woes, severe menstrual cramps or menstrual-related migraines or simply because it means a more reliable form of birth control), entering menopause too early can bring unwanted health risks.
What’s so bad about early menopause?
About 10% of women enter “early menopause”, which is menopause that’s reached before the age of 45.
The problem with menstrual cycles ceasing years earlier than what’s considered average is that a significant drop in estrogen too soon can raise your likelihood of heart disease, osteoporosis (bone thinning), memory loss and other serious ailments that can impact the quality and/or length of your life.
On top of that, early menopause can shorten your fertility, making it difficult to get pregnant in the 10 years leading up to when your periods stop, which can mean the start of your 30s.
Lower your risk of early menopause with diet tweaks
It’s widely agreed that the age you reach menopause is affected by the genes you inherit. However, researchers believe lifestyle habits also play a key role. That’s why in a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a team from Harvard, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the University of Massachusetts Amherst examined the dietary habits of 86,234 women over 20 years to find a link between food and beverage intake and the age of menopause.
What they discovered: Women who had the highest intake of foods and beverages containing vitamin D had a 17% lower risk of experiencing early menopause. And women who had the highest intake of foods and beverages containing calcium had a 13% lower risk.
This link was especially true in women who got these nutrients mostly from dairy.
The link between diet and menopause
While this kind of study is designed to highlight trends, not prove an actual cause, the researchers have theories about why vitamin D and calcium from foods and beverages may lower a woman’s risk of early menopause: Vitamin D may slow aging in the ovary. And the combination of vitamin D, calcium, other nutrients and hormones in dairy may prompt a higher production of your body’s own estrogen.
Past research by some members of this study’s research team has already shown that a higher intake of vitamin D and calcium from your diet can lower your risk of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). This further suggests that these nutrients play a key role in hormone regulation, even if it’s not yet clearly understood how.
Getting more vitamin D and calcium in your diet
Since dairy appeared to have the greatest beneficial effects on warding off early menopause, look for milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products–especially those that have been fortified with vitamin D and calcium.
If you’re unable to eat dairy, the same study found that other foods containing these nutrients have a protective effect. You can find vitamin D in salmon, tuna and egg yolks. For more good sources, click here. And you can find calcium in sardines, tofu and kale. For more good sources, click here.
If you’re looking for a quick shortcut to get these nutrients without changing your diet, unfortunately, the same study found that vitamin D supplements had no effect on menopause and women who took calcium supplements appeared to have a higher risk of early menopause.
Talk with your healthcare provider
Suspect you might have signs of early menopause? Don’t assume that’s what the issue is. Anytime you notice a change in your cycle–such as skipped periods, longer than normal cycles or heavier bleeding–consult with your healthcare provider. She or he will be able to give you the appropriate tests and assess your medical history to find out what’s going on. If you’re diagnosed with early menopause, you can work with your healthcare provider to reduce the risks that come with it.