Helen Siljic is a certified food and nutrition coach, passionate about "making a difference in women’s lives, to help them feel EMPOWERED so they can create a positive change IN their bodies which will impact how they feel and function, especially in the peri and postmenopausal stages of life and even more importantly beyond – to live a strong and disease-free life." Elise had the privilege of interviewing Helen about her knowledge on the perimenopausal stages on life and her mission of empowerment!
I’m a 54 year old woman passionate about living well and healthfully. I’ve had a very keen interest in natural health over the last 15 years, in particular how our diet and lifestyle choices can improve our lives. I’ve qualified in Professional Certificate in Food and Nutrition Coaching and currently completing a Diploma of Holistic Wellness Coaching.
1. Your work particularly focuses on peri and post menopause, what is your mission in relation to having a positive impact and educating those going through these stages?
My purpose is to support women on their health and wellness journey, who have a vision of wanting to turn their health around and those that have a proactive mindset for their well-being before sickness or disease sets in their second part of their lives. Supporting women who are going through this change of life but do not want to accept the status quo with what menopause and beyond may bring (or perhaps what they may be currently experiencing), by helping them with quality, healthy, holistic lifestyle changes, instead of resigning to the aging process which could bring chronic disease and fragility.
To educate women who have a drive to age well, who are seeking vitality, improved nutrition and inner peace in their pre and post menopause years. Women who are wanting to flourish naturally and thrive through this next stage of their life and beyond, by supporting them to create lifestyle habits that will serve them with quality of life and longevity.
I’m very passionate about making a difference in women’s lives, to help them feel EMPOWERED so they can create a positive change IN their bodies which will impact how they feel and function, especially in the peri and postmenopausal stages of life and even more importantly beyond – to live a strong and disease-free life.
Walking alongside a client providing a valuable, supportive wellness coaching experience that results in sustained long term healthy vibrant living, as well as a meaningful, transformative and life enriching journey.
To encourage women to love and nurture themselves with wholesome nutrition and seek revelation that eating from nature’s garden is going to bless their bodies abundantly, above and beyond where their current thinking is and to provide support to develop a positive relationship with food.
The goal is to have a long healthspan (aging well and strong) Vs long life span – not accepting chronic disease as the norm – a product of our current modern society we live in due to processed food being highly consumed, readily available and heavily marketed).
For women during menopause, our goal is not to regain our 25 year old body, but to be the best and healthiest version of ourselves for the rest of our life! How we live the majority of the time, influences our health - 80/20 mindset.
2. Let’s talk embracing age. We live in a society that values youth over anything. What has been your journey in embracing and valuing later ages?
To be very honest, I have always felt young. Even now at 54, turning 55 this year. I’ve always joked turning 40 is the new 30, turning 50 is the new 40. I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to be surrounded by friends that have a similar mindset who enjoy living vibrantly and wanting to make healthy lifestyle choices, which has helped me to continue feeling young.
Being in a group that mirrored my proactive approach to maturing – we support each other in wanting to make changes with our eating (ie minimising sugar and processed foods, eating wholefoods – sharing recipes, inspiring each other with new ideas) and encouraging/challenging each other in regular exercise, to keep moving.
Just loving the inspiration from my friends in their 50s and 60s who embrace life in all aspects.
For example a friend who loves her sunrise swims in the ocean, some with long nature walks, one in competition sailing, another friend building cardiovascular strength with laps in ocean pools. One friend learning to play the harp and how to use it in therapy. Another friend furthering her psychology degree. Friends overcoming adversity with their faith.
All this has shaped me to become the person I am in my 50s. One challenge I did have, was accepting my fine lines in my 40s. They weren’t matching up with how I was feeling on the inside. My fine lines are from mostly a lot of sun as a teenager. These days I focus on natural skin care that nourishes my skin, and enjoy looking after myself with facial and body oils, natural scrubs that my skin just loves.
I’m embracing and valuing how I’m feeling from the inside – maintaining REGULAR fitness for at least 10 years, noticing how good that makes me feel, not just to be able to maintain a healthy weight but also enjoying the pleasure of being able to walk long distances (leading the way with my husband and my young adult kids following on a steep coastal walk for example), amongst lifting weights at the gym, cardio bike and rowing machine, as well as strengthening my core. I feel strong physically which in turns makes me feel strong mentally and has helped me emotionally as well.
Turning 50 for me just ramped up the proactive approach to wanting to continue feeling like this for many years to come – actually seeing it is possible to continue well and with vitality. I love real, wholesome delicious food and the freedom at this age to not have to count calories, by applying the healthful principles. I am starting to accept now at this stage of my life and beyond that eating smaller portions is beneficial.
As much as I love to be active and busy, I’m embracing the stillness in my life now as well.
The spiritual maturity that has taken place over the last 10 years or so has brought peace, joy and wisdom into my life. Being 50 plus is awesome and very fulfilling all round. I’m looking forward to the next 50 to carry on with quality of life.
3. Let’s talk about your knowledge on nutrition and how that relates to aging and nurturing the peri/post-menopausal stages…
As we approach perimenopause, it is very important to understand that our accumulation of inflammation in our bodies from eating processed foods in this modern world we live in impacts the way we can experience menopause. However, it is possible to turn this around and shift the environment in our bodies to minimise symptoms and even more importantly continue with the second part of our life disease free.
Changes that we make to our nutrition and lifestyle habits during menopause, not only will serve us well in this transitional time, but will change the landscape of how we age. In this Western world of processed, convenience food and long days sitting behind a computer - this all impacts our wellness in the second part of our lives.
Even though menopause is a natural biological change that happens in a woman’s body and good health can be maintained/improved, due to the lowering of estrogen levels though, a women’s risk of cardiovascular disease is increased as a finding attributed due to the protective effects of higher estrogen prior to menopause, therefore another very important reason to look after our health and maintain good weight to protect our heart health.
This is all linked in with the biological fact that many of our organs have estrogen receptors, consequently our overall health can be affected long term due to our lowered estrogen levels which all this increases our risk of certain diseases (heart, diabetes cancer, osteoporosis), thus a proactive approach to our diet and lifestyle habits plays a big part of how we age and our health span after menopause.
Another important aspect of eating a highly inflammatory diet (ie processed food) is that it’s a contributor to Alzheimer's and Dementia.
Brain scans tell us that the rate at which brain cells are dying in the brain is faster in women than in men – 2 to 3 times more likely. Women are more likely to live longer than men, however although risk increases with age, dementia is caused by diseases of the brain, not age alone.
Of course proactive approach is best in our earlier years, but it’s never too late before Alzheimer’s/dementia sets in to start to allow the body to heal itself from the inflammation we have caused it over the years, by eating whole foods and limiting processed foods (lets quantify it – one day a week). Putting the odds in our favour is hugely beneficial.
This can be achieved through nutrition as nature is the best physician – the power of phytonutrients – thousands of powerful compounds in plants and even some animal foods that not only support the prevention of chronic disease but also contribute to optimal health, especially when eating a variety of nature’s goodness. For example the phytonutrient/phytochemical found in blue-purple vegetables/fruit like blueberries, eggplants, beetroot, red cabbage and purple potatoes can significantly improve brain function and reduce depressive symptoms. Foods rich in these compounds also contain antioxidants that fight off free radicals that contribute to rapid aging, so delay cellular aging and may even slow the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Another valuable example is green vegetables, especially part of the Brassica family which include broccoli, rocket, bok choy, kale etc are anticarcinogenic and detoxifying for the body. The list goes on for the powerful antioxidants effects within our body when we eat with a focus on variety.
It’s also important to note to look after our bone health - Around 30 years old, our skeleton achieves maximum strength and density – known as peak bone mass. Until that time, our bodies make new bone cells at a relatively rapid pace. After 30 we start to gradually lose bone mass. Declining levels of estrogen during perimenopause and menopause, result in the formation of fewer new bone cells, which ultimately weakens bones.
Women lose the most bone tissue in the first few years of menopause. After that bone loss continues at a slower pace for the rest of our lives. Everyone loses bone with age, but it’s the amount that counts.
Certain conditions are linked to weaker bones – including like diabetes, therefore another very good reason to manage our health with nutrition and exercise.
Years of inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake (limited exposure to the sun) and a sedentary lifestyle can interfere with achieving maximal bone mass. In particular dark or olive skin women, as their skin does not absorb vitamin D as efficiently when we age as fair skinned women. Vitamin D plays an important role in protecting our bones, both by helping our body absorb calcium and by supporting muscles to help avoid falls. Continuing to support our bone health includes a balanced diet with bone building nutrients calcium. Calcium rich foods in addition to dairy, are dark leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach broccoli as well as sardines, canned salmon, soya beans, tofu nuts – in particular almonds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, poppy seeds, celery seeds and the bonus is, seeds also deliver protein and healthy fats, as well as minerals like iron.
Beans and lentils also contain calcium and the bonus is beans are credited with being one of the reasons why plant-rich diets are so healthy. Research also suggests that beans may help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. So we can see we don’t need to focus on just dairy for calcium intake. Including all these other calcium rich foods is a healthier way to balance our nutrients.
Another important aspect to bone health is higher quality protein intakes which are associated with greater muscle mass and more importantly better muscle function with aging.
A critical strategy is to aim to include protein in every meal for optimal bone health as we age. Just as importantly, even in our younger years for balance of hormones and insulin levels.
Vitamin D is also researched as very important for our immune system and our emotional well-being. Researchers believe that because vitamin D is important to healthy brain function, insufficient nutrients levels may play a role in depression and other mental illnesses.
Vitamin D is best absorbed from the sun (safely) 20 minutes a day outside of high UV times, though this is not always possible. Additionally, foods high in vitamin D are salmon, herring, sardines, egg yolks, mushrooms. It’s very important to check your vitamin D levels with your doctor through a blood test, as a lot of women may need a vitamin D supplement after 40 years old, as sun and food may not be enough for healthy vitamin D levels. Vit D deficiency has been observed in nearly 2/3 of Australian women.
Vit C is also important in relation to bone health, as Vit C produces collagen in the body, which is not only beneficial for our skin but collagen is also a vital component in fibrous tissues such as bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, as well as the gut and blood vessels. Of course Vit C supports our overall immune system as well as being a powerful antioxidant.
Perhaps as important as which foods women should eat to prevent hot flashes are those foods they should avoid. These foods can contribute or worsen discomfort from hot flashes – alcohol, caffeine, excess sugar, dairy products, meat products and spicy foods are amongst the top aggravators of severe hot flashes as well as mood swings. It does not mean you have to eliminate these foods altogether, rather, notice the culprits for you and cut down or only have them at certain times. I have switched to preservative free/organic red wine and have noticed a difference. The quantity also helps – 1-2 glasses at one time, usually only 1-2 times a week. Each woman is individual with their responses. It’s very helpful to be aware of your triggers and manage the situation. Generally speaking, applying balanced health principles of eating real food, with plenty of water, and lifestyle changes with regular movement/exercise is part of the overall picture to manage menopausal symptoms and enjoy quality of life and longevity.
During menopause, it is also important for women to get plenty of quality water intake – at least 2 litres is recommended. Drinking water replaces fluids lost to perspiration during hot flashes and can even prevent or minimize the hot flashes themselves.
I like how you have used the word nurturing our menopausal stage of life. It indicates looking after ourselves with good nutrition and nourishing our bodies.
4. Different cultures approach health differently, for example blue zone communities such as Japanese women who out-live western women by 5 years due to lifestyle and how they approach chronic disease etc. How has multicultural knowledge influenced our study on healthy living?
I have found it very interesting looking into these Blue Zone communities (where residents have greater longevity and health than other countries) and the findings from what the research studies show. In particular, our focus being on women who go through menopause with minimal symptoms, if any, and go on to live a long and healthy life – aging in wellness and wholeness, rather than sickness and disease.
Looking at women in these Blue Zones and beyond - ie those that apply traditional principles of living - eating from nature’s garden, daily movement, connection/relationships within their villages/communities, quiet time/deep relaxation, and living with purpose, transpires from their overall lifestyle to symptom free/minimal symptoms during their change of life and living healthily for the rest of their lives.
Some cultures don’t even really have a word for menopause. Part of the reason for this is how they experience this change of life which can be quite different to the Western world. Their diet is mainly plant based wholefood way of eating (a lot of vegetables, leafy greens, beans/legumes, fish, with minimal, if no processed foods, and they don’t over eat. In particular, lighter, earlier dinners – all this contributing to maintaining healthy weight during menopause, in addition to their daily movement.
Multicultural knowledge has influenced our study on healthy living positively, as these traditional cultures’ way of eating (eating REAL WHOLE FOOD) and lifestyle (daily movement) supports and confirms the science of nutrition and health us Westerners have spent years on researching and validating.
Taking a look at Asian women, who live in Asia, who continue to eat a traditional whole foods diet, eat soy foods (eg tofu, tempeh) every day. Soybeans are high phytoestrogens, a compound that naturally occurs in plants and they have a similar chemical structure to our own body’s estrogen, so this is highly beneficial during menopause when our natural estrogen lowers. They also eat a variety of vegetables and fish is also regularly consumed rather than red meat.
The research shows only 7% of menopausal Japanese women suffer from hot flushes, compared to 55% women living in the US. In Japanese there is no word for “hot flushes”.
Research goes on to say that Asian women are also less likely than American women to have heart disease, because phytoestrogens have a protective effect. Foods high in phytoestrogens are fermented soy, tofu, tempeh and edamame, and also important to note other phytoestrogen foods include flax seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, peaches, berries, cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage.
So about 100g of tofu or tempeh daily (seek advice on the best quality) can help with hot flushes in about 1/3 of Western women or more, depending on your gut bacteria, as in these traditional cultures that consume a high amount of vegetables which contributes toward a healthier gut bacteria/microbiome, thus their system is able to benefit from phytoestrogens during menopause. Over time when we look after our overall health and improve gut bacteria, the impact of eating phytoestrogen containing vegetables increases the benefits to improve menopausal symptoms. So benefiting from phytoestrogen foods is also achievable for us Western women, applying a whole real food eating approach, a focus on lots of vegetables, as their fibre content also contributes to a healthier gut microbiome.
Soy supplements are not recommended, which may contain unknown chemicals that could be harmful.
In addition to soy and tofu products, women can help combat hot flashes by eating more calcium-rich foods, magnesium-rich foods and foods rich in Vit E, like cold pressed oils, green leafy vegetables, nuts and almonds, as well as plenty of mineral and fibre rich foods like whole grains and fresh vegetables (as mentioned above). The minerals in these foods replenish necessary electrolytes lost through perspiration. It’s important to note these type of foods benefit overall health as well. Soybeans and most other beans may also reduce the risk of breast cancer and protect age-related diseases such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Also reduce bone loss and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
A large proportion of literature looking at cultural influences on menopausal experience has focused on Japan often comparing it to a Western country. This interest is stimulated by the fact that Japanese women are some of the healthiest in world, outliving women in the west by five years. They have a lower occurrence of osteoporosis, breast cancers, heart disease and reproductive cancers. It is easy to assume that these differences are solely due to genetic factors, however, migration studies have shown that when Japanese women who move to the United States of America their prevalence of these disorders increases to a similar rate of Caucasian American women. This change in disease prevalence suggests the importance of cultural (diet) and environmental factors to the health of women.
Understanding this research is to understand that to reduce symptoms in menopause, get more energy and restore joint health, we need to reduce the decades-long inflammation that menopause hormonal changes have made worse. Adapting the Blue Zones research to women transitioning through menopause also improves sleep, moods, joint health and physical function for a long, healthy life to be enjoyed. For example Ikarian women (another Blue Zone - an island in Greece) eat at least two cups of green, leafy plants a day. Dark greens are a great source of minerals like iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium, as well their consumption of hearty vegetables, beans/legumes, which make up a large portion of these women’s daily diets. Ikarian women lead long and vibrant lives. Today, Ikarians are almost entirely fee of dementia and also from some of the chronic diseases that plague Western countries.
What does the science say? – Mediterranean diet – referred to as a style of wholefood eating (not a diet as such)…..The health benefits linked to the Mediterranean diet are supported by scientific evidence. The Mediterranean diet is associated with lower disease occurrence, and has been linked to numerous health benefits, including a lower risk of cancer, cognitive disease and cardiovascular disease as well as metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Many people find the Mediterranean diet to be an effective strategy to help manage weight and improve health.
Another government report stated the lowest incidence of osteoporosis has been reported in the Mediterranean within Europe. Olive oil (which contains a nutrient that contributes towards replacing the loss of strength in our tendons) is one of the three most important characteristic components of the Mediterranean diet, as well as vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains.
In light of focusing on what and how we eat - women with a higher body mass index often have an increased incidence of vasomotor (hot flushes, night sweats) symptom reporting. In contrast, women who have high levels of physical activity have lower incidence. Lifestyle choices such as smoking and alcohol consumption have also been linked with higher rates of hot flushes. In addition, smoking reduces the age of onset of menopause by approximately three years as well as increasing the incidence of symptom reporting.
Fun fact - Around 68,000 people living in Japan are now aged over 100-years-old.
5. What are some adaptable solutions you can recommend to people who want to practice healthy living? And for those who seek knowledge and understanding in preparation for perimenopause?
Some adaptable solutions is to firstly look at committing to make small incremental changes on a weekly basis.
Taking an honest look at what you are eating and start to replace firstly, one by one, anything that is WHITE in your diet. By white I mean refined, processed carbohydrates. A few suggestions to consider replacing, which is what I did over time and have continued with these changes. You will find not only is food more nutritious but also more delicious.
Replace white/whole meal or even commercial whole grain bread with rye/spelt sourdough and enjoy one big slice or 2 small slices topped with avocado, spinach leaves, cherry tomatoes, boiled egg, sprinkled with seeds – for example, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds (full of calcium) and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil for a breakfast suggestion.
Replace a commercial breakfast cereal (which are full of sugar) with organic rolled oats (porridge) or home made bircher muesli
Replace eating biscuits with bliss/protein balls as they call them these days (make them or purchase - plenty variety available).
Replace a sandwich with a salad, topped with protein (chicken, salmon, chickpeas other legumes of our choice), include a variety of seeds as well for extra nutrition and crunch.
Replace a white pasta meal with spiralised zucchini (it’s even quicker than what it takes to cook pasta – the best $15 I have spent (from Kmart) you don’t need to buy an expensive one.
Replace white pasta with legume pasta (cooks very well)
Replace one red meat meal would choice of legumes. Another with fish, another with chicken. Aim to eat red meat only 1-2 times