The Sneaky Connection Between Menopause & Chronic Inflammation
Progesterone and estrogen are two of the hormones affected during the menopausal transition. These hormones also happen to be anti-inflammatory, so there is evidence that when they get out of balance and eventually go down, their protective effects can go down as well.
This is one reason why perimenopause1 and post-menopause2 are both associated with an increase in general chronic inflammation. Women in these stages have elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and other inflammatory markers, putting them at increased risk for diseases3 such as heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, autoimmune disorders, depression, and more. Chronic inflammation can also be to blame for health challenges such as body aches and pains, skin outbreaks, advanced aging, arthritis, weight gain, and weight loss resistance.
How inflammation manifests during menopause
Chronic inflammation can easily go unnoticed, so let's take a quick look at a few key symptoms of the menopause transition and their connection to inflammation:
- Brain health: Your long-term brain health (which describes everything from your memory4 to your vascular brain health5, or stroke risk) is connected to inflammation, and the female brain is especially susceptible to inflammatory damage starting during perimenopause. One of the common side effects of growing older, brain fog6, is also connected to neuroinflammation.
- Bone health: When the body is in an inflamed state7, bone mineralization and breakdown get dysregulated, which is not supportive of skeletal health.
- Joint health: At first, chronic inflammation loves to present itself as stiff and achy joints. Over time, it can lead to more serious issues like arthritis and inflammatory diseases8. Again, arthritis is more common come perimenopause... Starting to see the connection?
- Weight gain around the belly: Visceral fat is highly inflammatory9, meaning once you start gaining weight around the middle, you fuel inflammation that makes it harder to lose weight. Weight gain plus inflammation can also lead to insulin resistance (see my article on blood sugar in menopause) as well as leptin resistance 10(which means the satiety hormone stops working as it should, fueling the vicious cycle).
So, what do we do?
So, we've established that our hormones will shift during menopause, and that will trigger a pro-inflammatory response. However, there are plenty of ways to fight inflammation using nutrition and lifestyle.
Then, you have nutrient-packed fish (look for MSC certified) including salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel. Olive oil, walnuts, flaxseeds, hempseeds, chia seeds, and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli or kale) can round out your plate. Overall, aim to work plenty of color into every meal to fight inflammation.
In terms of lifestyle tweaks, remember that stress is the enemy. Establishing a mindfulness meditation11 habit as well as a balanced movement routine12 will be highly anti-inflammatory. You can also select a high-quality supplement formulated to help with some of the many side effects of menopause. Keeping your blood sugar balanced is also helpful (as extreme highs and lows trigger inflammation13), as is prioritizing gut health gut (an unhealthy gut is also connected with inflammation14).
Focusing on an anti-inflammatory lifestyle goes a long way in easing many menopause symptoms. In doing so, you'll change your experience of this whirlwind phase, as well as your long-term health, for the better.
Barbara Birke is a Sports Scientist, board-certified Holistic Nutritionist and Mindfulness Coach, and owner of Optimum You. Her coaching and courses are focused on building and sustaining targeted movement, nutrition, and self-care habits that support women to feel powerful and balanced through perimenopause, menopause and beyond. She works in both German and English and hosts a german podcast, “Hallo Wechseljahre!” (English version coming soon!).
Download her top tips to start your strength routine here, including a simple routine to get you started.