What Blue Zones Can Teach Us About Going Through Menopause Healthfully
Here's the thing though: Every single person with a uterus goes through menopause at some point in their life. It doesn't matter who you are or where you live, it will happen to you. When we look to Blue Zones—regions in the world where people regularly live to be over 100 with no chronic health problems—there's a few lessons Americans can learn about healthy aging, especially with regards to menopause. Here, two MDs reveal three truths that may help make it easier.
What Blue Zones can teach us about going through menopause healthfully:
1. People in Blue Zones view aging differently
"Whenever I counsel patients [going through menopause], the first thing I tell them is that it's normal and natural for our bodies to change as we age," says Rebecca Dunsmoor-Su, MD, an OB/GYN and the chief medical officer at Gennev, a medical resource for people going through menopause. "This can be really hard for us to accept because our culture is not one that values aging. But in Blue Zones [communities], getting older is a sign of a well-lived life and a sign of wisdom."
She says it's important to view aging through this lens because some of the changes that menopause brings are normal—and, in fact, healthy—but society may cause you to believe otherwise. For example, some people struggle with unintended weight gain during menopause, but Dr. Dunsmoor-Su says that's not at all a bad thing. "Some of the weight gain is actually somewhat protective," she says. "As your ovaries stop making estrogen, the main source of the estrogen you're left with is your [body] fat. So in that sense, it's somewhat adaptive to put on a little weight as we head into this low-estrogen time."
2. Eating a primarily plant-based diet can help with menopause symptoms
In the U.S., healthy eating is often tied to specific diet plans, often with lots of rules and "do not eat" lists in order to promote optimal health. People going through menopause might feel compelled to follow a specific restrictive diet to better their health or to help them manage their weight. But there's another lesson to be learned here from Blue Zones. "In Blue Zones, they've managed to accomplish [healthy eating habits] just by way of their daily lives," says Sheila Chen, MD, an internal medicine doctor with the Princeton Longevity Center. (No "cleanses" or diet plans required.)
There are a few eating habits from these regions in particular that Dr. Chen says can be beneficial to adopt. One is eating a primarily plant-based diet, a commonality all the Blue Zone regions share. "Often in these regions, people will eat fish and maybe a lean meat once a week." This, she says, is especially beneficial because it's linked to better cardiovascular health thanks to all the antioxidants and fiber from plants and minimal saturated fat from red and processed meats.
Dr. Chen says that specific plant foods can also help with hot flashes. "Foods like tofu, tempeh, flax, legumes, and mung beans have phytoestrogens, which are natural estrogens," she says. So eating more of these foods can help mitigate some of the symptoms that occur when estrogen dips. She also points out that these foods are all high in calcium too—a nutrient especially important to eat during menopause to keep bones strong.
Both doctors also point out that people in Blue Zones tend to eat foods that are lower on the glycemic index, which can help keep energy levels steady because the foods are less likely to cause extreme spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. So if feeling tired is a menopause symptom you're struggling with, minimizing high-glycemic foods high in sugar or starch can help.
3. People in Blue Zones stay active
In the U.S., it's normal to sit all day at the computer and then try to undo all the damage of sitting all day through a super intense workout. But in Blue Zones, postmenopausal people aren't doubling down on HIIT workouts or going for long runs. It's not that those workouts are bad, but another form of exercise may be more effective: walking. "A brisk walk three to five times a week can do a huge amount for the cardiovascular system," Dr. Chen says, connecting this to the fact that as estrogen levels drop, the risk for cardiovascular disease increases. (FWIW, walking is also great for cognitive health.)
Both experts say that they also recommend workouts that build muscle to people who are going through menopause. "When you build muscle, you're actually putting strain on muscular connections to bone, which tells your body to remodel that bone and make it stronger," Dr. Dunsmoor-Su explains. In Blue Zones, there have traditionally been tasks built into women's lives (for better or for worse) that serve as weight-bearing exercise such as carrying laundry or gardening. But lifting light weights in the gym can have the same effect, benefitting your bones and cardiovascular system the same way.
Aging is bound to look different in the States than in Blue Zones—menopause included. In some ways, that can be a good thing. But considering that people living in these regions have healthy aging down to a science (literally), there's still a lot we can take away—especially when it comes to developing a positive attitude toward getting older. That and the fact that they can appreciate a good glass of wine.
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