HEART HEALTH AFTER MENOPAUSE - EAT, MOVE, RELAX, REPEAT
by guest writer Lynette Sheppard RN, Author of Becoming A Menopause Goddess, and the host of the popular Menopause Goddess Blog.
Crushing chest pain. Nausea. Sweating. Shortness of breath. The classic symptoms of heart attack. Except women may not have any of these symptoms. Fatigue, lightheadedness, back, shoulder, or jaw pain may presage heart problems in women.
Great! I have all of those on a daily basis. How do I differentiate symptoms of heart disease from the usual menopause manifestations? How do I nurture a healthy heart?
The first step to heart health is screening. We need to be checked each year when our health care provider performs our physical exam. Blood work should be checked for cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as blood sugar. High cholesterol and diabetes are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Caught early enough, abnormal levels can be normalized with diet and exercise. And if needed, there are medications that can stabilize these all-important blood chemistries.
High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, just like high cholesterol and diabetes. Have your blood pressure checked. If consistently high, you may need medication. Check your bp regularly. Home blood pressure monitoring kits are inexpensive and easy to use.
If you’re over 50, ask your physician to order a baseline 12-lead electrocardiogram. It will come in handy to compare with later EKG’s should you need them.
Prevention, prevention, prevention
That’s the path to heart health now that our protective estrogen is in decline. Luckily, it’s simple. We just need to eat healthy, move/exercise, and practice self-care.
A healthy diet need not be complicated or difficult. A balance of lean protein, lots of fresh, colorful veggies and fruits, as well as healthy grains such as quinoa and brown rice are ideal. Avoid processed foods. Period. And treat yourself to dark chocolate for antioxidants and mood-enhancement. (Like Bossa Bars - yum.) And if you should indulge in your favorite guilty pleasure food eg. cheeseburger and fries one day? No harm, no foul. Just recommit to healthy eating and move on. And speaking of move:
Exercise does not have to be complex either. No need for fancy equipment or a personal trainer (though if you have these, use and enjoy them.)
The best exercise, bar none, is walking. What could be simpler? And you do not need to reach that 10,000 steps per day goal. Turns out, the latest research shows that 4400 steps per day yields a 41% decrease in mortality. And mortality decreases up to 7500 steps - then it levels off. (Fun weird factoid: that 10,000 step number came from the name of a pedometer - it was never backed by research.) Build up to walking fast - or better yet, try interval training which involves walking at different speeds during your workout.
Experts recommend 150 minutes a week of aerobic activity for optimal cardiac conditioning. (30 minutes 5 times a week and you’ve got it.) Literally any activity you enjoy that is aerobic will keep your heart healthy: biking, swimming, dancing, running, paddling. And it has the added advantage of reducing stress. Here’s more about that:
It shouldn’t surprise us that stress is a major risk factor for heart disease - particularly in women. Juggling family, work obligations, and menopause can lead to high levels of stress, even if we feel we are coping. Add to this equation the last couple of years with the pandemic, and I feel confident in saying that we all could use some self-care.
A hot bath, a few uninterrupted minutes with a good book or your favorite music, a walk or sitting in nature. All of these can decrease your stress, even drop your blood pressure and reduce hot flashes. Don’t be hesitant to take me-time - even if it is only a little time each day. It’s all too easy to get caught up in everyone else’s needs and forget our own. It’s a biological hazard of being female, but we can and must retrain ourselves. I remember my grandmother lying on the couch for 15 minutes each afternoon, explaining that she needed to “rest her eyes”. She was smarter than I realized.
So no need to make heart health complicated - just say it with me: Eat, Move, Relax. Most of all, be gentle with yourself. Take this advice in gradual steps. Soften your expectations and you will strengthen your heart.