We got chatting to Emma Bardwell who is a nutritional therapist and Women’s Health Specialist. We believe in a holistic approach to caring for your pelvic floor and asked her if diet can help?
(Please note, we have paid Emma to write this blog for us. We are as committed to being transparent as we are to talking holistically about pelvic floor treatment).
5 ways you can help your pelvic floor through diet
We all know low oestrogen levels during perimenopause can cause symptoms like hot flushes and mood swings but did you know oestrogen is also responsible for maintaining a healthy pelvic floor? The pelvic floor is a group of muscles that runs from your tailbone right around to your pubic bone. It helps keep your bowel, bladder and womb (uterus) in place and also helps control the passing of urine, wind and bowel movements. So pretty damned important!
Just as importantly, a healthy pelvic floor also increases sensitivity during sex and can intensify orgasms. Waking up the nerve fibres and toning the muscles in this area increases blood supply and helps you to mentally re-connect down there, which is crucial for female sexual pleasure.
Pelvic floor function often deteriorates during perimenopause when hormonal changes weaken the tissues. So how do you know if you’re experiencing perimenopausal related pelvic floor changes? Have you noticed that you need to go to the loo more (5-7 times a day and once at night is ‘normal’)? Are you scared of running? Do you cross your legs when you sneeze? Are you suffering from repeated bouts of thrush or UTIs? All these might be signs that your pelvic floor needs some attention. Pelvic floor muscle exercises where you do the exercises yourself, and innovative new products such as Pelviva, which does the exercise for you, can be life changing in terms of preventing or managing urinary incontinence. There are also a number of ways in which you can take back control through diet and lifestyle. Here’s how:
Don’t push it
One of the worst things you can do for your pelvic floor is to strain, so if you suffer from constipation now’s the time to address it. How? By eating more whole grains and fibre. Make sure you’re getting your recommended 30g of fibre a day by eating lots of fruit and vegetables (keeping the skin on where possible) as well as nuts, seeds, beans, multigrain bread, lentils, oats and wholemeal pasta. You should also be aiming for at least two litres of water daily (more if you’re exercising) to stay well hydrated and help with gut motility.
A small but interesting study recently linked two kiwi fruits a day1 with an improvement in constipation symptoms, but you can also try including ground flax seeds, prunes, psyllium husks or fermented foods (probiotics) such as sauerkraut, kefir, live yoghurt or miso in your diet. Remember to introduce changes over a period of time rather than all at once, that way your gut can adjust slowly.
A non-pharmacological way of potentially increasing oestrogen levels is to eat phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are plant chemicals that mimic oestrogen, albeit in a much weaker form that that you find in the body. The effectiveness of phytoestrogens can vary between women and we can’t say with certainty that they’ll replace your declining oestrogen but they are worth trying, especially if you suffer from vasomotor symptoms like hot flushes and night sweats 2. You’ll find them in plant-based foods like soybeans (edamame beans), soy products like milk and yoghurt, flaxseeds, chickpeas, mung beans, sesame seeds, berries, garlic and tea (green and black). Soy isoflavone supplements provide a more concentrated form of phytoestrogens but are not recommended for women who have breast cancer. If in doubt, talk to your GP or a registered nutrition professional.
Your pelvic floor is a set of muscles that, just like your biceps or abs, need exercise and the right nutrients to function well. As well as adequate amounts of protein, which provides the building blocks of every organ in our body, we should all be looking at our vitamin D intake particularly over the winter if we live in the northern hemisphere. Vitamin D has been shown to affect skeletal muscle strength and a deficiency is linked to loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia). We need sunshine to produce vitamin D but small amounts can be found in things like eggs, oily fish and mushrooms. To ensure you’re getting enough invest in a good supplement (10mcg a day in the UK3)
You’ve been told this numerous times before but I’ll say it again, you should be aiming for at least two litres of water a day to stay well hydrated and help with gut motility. Not only does fluid keep waste moving nicely through your digestive tract, in turn making bowel movements easier, it also ensures your urine is diluted and can help flush out bacteria that irritate the bladder and lead to UTIs such as cystitis. Carry a bottle so you can track your intake and make it more appealing by adding slices of lemon, cucumber and fresh mint. Your body is about seventy percent water and needs to be well hydrated to operate optimally. By topping levels up regularly you’ll probably notice a difference in your skin and brain function too. Bonus!
Coffee, tea, cola and many energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine which is a diuretic (ie. it causes the body to make more urine than usual) and bladder irritant. The same goes for alcohol I’m afraid. Try limiting your intake and see if it has any effect on your symptoms. Incidentally, caffeine and alcohol can both trigger hot flushes, night sweats, poor sleep and anxiety so reducing them may help to dial down these symptoms too. And if you need further motivation to cut back on the booze, it’s worth remembering that by drinking less you’ll also be lowering your risk of liver disease, heart disease and certain types of cancer, including breast.
So, as you can see there are all sorts of ways to help manage urinary incontinence. Whatever you do, do not be tempted to ignore your symptoms. The earlier you act the sooner you will see changes and the more likely you are to avoid the need for more invasive procedures such as surgery. There is help out there, please make sure you get it.
1. Chang, C.C., et al., Kiwifruit improves bowel function in patients with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr, 2010. 19(4): p. 451-7.
2. Rietjens et al. (2017) “The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens” [accessed December 2019 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5429336/1
3. SACN vitamin D and health report https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-vitamin-d-and-health-report