A well-known, innovative chef with a love of flavourful international food, Trinidad-born Sabrina Zeif has over 25 years’ experience working in pharmaceuticals and health education in the USA and the UK.
Now - with her popular nutritional and lifestyle blog The Menopause Chef and many other projects - she is dedicated to ‘empowering women to be the best they can be throughout their menopause journey.’
Here’s our exclusive Q&A with Sabrina...
Can you remember the first menopausal symptom you had - and when?
I cannot honestly say that I remember my first menopausal symptom, simply because I was perimenopausal years before I actually knew. I think headaches would be my first symptom, though I was already prone to having stress-related headaches.
What I hadn't realised was the severity of headaches had changed. I thought headaches were just my body’s way of manifesting stress. In 2014, shortly after redundancy, I experienced six weeks of continuous migraines which pretty much had me couch or bed-bound with my eyes covered and ice packs at the back of my neck.
Eventually I had an MRI scan. This showed things were normal - and yet I still thought that the unrelenting headaches and migraines were purely stress-induced. Later on in my quest to understand menopause I connected the dots about hormone fluctuations and headaches. Needless to say, stress and declining hormones can make headaches worse during perimenopause and menopause.
What have been the most difficult symptoms?
I have had a plethora of symptoms throughout the years - looking back I swear I had almost all of the 34 perimenopause symptoms at one time or another!
Mental and emotional symptoms included lack of focus, fatigue and poor concentration - which was very difficult for me to accept. I was used to being Superwoman: managing family, work and life with clockwork precision, and basically burning the candle at both ends. At 52, I was having trouble focussing and to make matters worse the ‘Duracell battery bunny’ me who was never tired was suddenly exhausted in the afternoons.
Worst of all I could not recall information I had just read five minutes before. How on earth was I supposed to start and run a business? I started doubting my capabilities and my confidence was waning.
Physically headaches, migraines, back pain, cravings, bloating and weight gain were the most difficult symptoms to acknowledge. I felt like I was falling apart. Previously, I was always very fit and never one to gain weight. Suddenly my clothes were tight, and the weight slowly crept up. The start of cravings for chocolate was entirely new to me as I was never a chocolate lover. Suddenly I felt I could devour an entire box of After Eights.
It was supposed to be my glorious 50’s and I was not feeling so glorious!!
Did you find it easy to talk to people about menopause?
Five years ago it was not easy to talk to people about menopause, even among my friends. Several women in their late 60’s and 70’s told me they never had menopause. They wore it like a badge of honour. In their minds, menopause was just about hot flushes and night sweats.
No wonder women found it hard to speak about menopause: it was almost perceived to be a kind of disease.
As my knowledge grew, I started talking to women in my networking groups about perimenopause symptoms. Most people, including women, felt menopause was not a topic for discussion. The taboo surrounding menopause is crazy.
I started looking at why it was so difficult to talk about menopause. I think it's because society has always associated menopause as being an ‘old woman’ thing.
There are so many myths and misconceptions surrounding menopause. My own experience has empowered me to talk about it. My mission is to demystify, explode the myths, and enlighten and prepare women in their 40’s and onwards on what to expect in a light-hearted and entertaining manner.
For me, it’s about raising the awareness of the hormonal changes we go through in midlife and how best to prepare our mind and body for the next third of our lives.
What has (and hasn’t) helped you with symptoms?
I believe knowledge is power and I set about educating myself about menopause. Honestly, I had never heard the word perimenopause until I started my research. If only I had known about this in my mid-40’s!
The education I’ve gained from medical journals, collaborating with menopause specialists, reading countless books, listening to stories from other women, studying nutrition and generally my dogged determination to learn about menopause has helped me to alleviate my symptoms.
Learning about what is happening to our bodies at midlife - the hormonal upheaval - helped me to make the adjustments in my diet. I introduced more phytoestrogen- rich foods (plant foods that can have an oestrogen-like activity and a hormone balancing effect on your body) such as soya, tofu, flax seeds and edamame beans, and upped my vegetable intake in every meal to increase fibre, and complex carbohydrates which kept me feeling full and kept the cravings away.
Understanding the effect stress was having on my body was a real wake up call. Everyone knows that chronic stress is not good for anyone’s health. Our bodies produce the hormone cortisol to cope with stress, but consistently high levels are damaging to our bodies. The hormone oestrogen regulates cortisol, but as we go through perimenopause, our oestrogen levels begin to drop, causing us to experience stress more readily. High cortisol results in high cholesterol, affects thyroid function, reduced adrenal function and decreased insulin sensitivity (the body not being able to use insulin correctly), leading to permanently high cortisol levels and a vicious cycle. Wake up call and message received!
I had to learn how to take time out to relax, and this was not just watching TV. This was doing mindful relaxations. Not doing so much cardio exercise and adding in yoga, deep breathing exercises and incorporating a nighttime relaxation routine.
Some supplements have helped, but this was only after I sought specialist advice. Previously I was over-supplementing without the knowledge. I did a Menopause Boot Camp with Maryon Stewart that was enlightening and the best investment I have made to understand my menopause.
How important is diet for helping women through the menopause?
Diet is essential throughout our lives, but it is crucial during midlife and menopause years when our hormones start declining, and our metabolism starts slowing down. Our nutritional needs in our 40s are very different from those of our 20s and 30s.
In midlife many of the nutrients our body needs to function properly can become low - such as magnesium, calcium, zinc and B vitamins. We need greater fortification from foods which are full of minerals and vitamins, to help guard against loss of muscle mass. We need protein for building hormones, healthy skin, maintain or build muscle and plenty of complex carbohydrates ( found in vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds) and foods high in phytoestrogens such as flax seeds and green leafy vegetables and legumes to ward off the menopausal symptoms and help replenish the declining hormone.
My mantra states: ‘A menopause diet is not about deprivation, it’s one of nourishment’.
Research has shown if you switch to a menopause supporting diet in your 40’s you’ll be doing the best you possibly can to protect yourself against both menopause symptoms and postmenopausal health problems like osteoporosis and heart disease.
How did you come to start The Menopause Chef?
I have 25 years’ experience working in pharmaceuticals and health education, but even with my background, menopause hit me like a ton of bricks! I wasn’t prepared at all and spent the first years floundering.
I felt far too young to be going through such a big life change. The recommended recipes and eating plans felt limiting, and there was a lack of community and professional support. Not to mention the mass of incredibly scary information on the web telling us just how much my life was going to fall apart!
Combined with the fact that society still thinks that we shouldn’t openly talk about menopause left me feeling confused and isolated. It then dawned on me that menopause is still a taboo.
I’ve now made it my mission to help other women by empowering them with the right information to understand that menopause is just a life transition that should be embraced.
Together we can do this!
Do you think there are any myths about menopause that should be busted?
There are countless myths about menopause which is a bit sad. Here are just a few:
- Menopause is mainly hot flushes and night sweats.
- The first sign of menopause are hot flushes.
- Menopause is for old women.
- Weight gain is inevitable.
- Menopause wrecks sex lives.
- Menopause only causes physical symptoms.
...but we can bust those myths with knowledge!
What advice would you give other women approaching or going through menopause?
Ladies, make yourself knowledgeable about perimenopause (starts in your 40’s) and menopause ( average age 51). Every woman is emotionally, physically and spiritually different and so are their experiences with menopause. Menopause is not an old woman thing! It’s a natural transition in every woman’s life.
It’s a good time to take stock of your health and make changes that will help you to live long and healthy lives. It’s not up to your doctor to educate you. Listen to what your body is saying. Diet plays an essential part in how you manage or have symptoms.
Add phytoestrogen- rich foods to your diet such as soya, tofu, soy milk, soy yoghurt, flax seeds, edamame beans, lentils, chickpeas, mung beans, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, green and yellow vegetables to name a few.
Get yourself in good nutritional shape : ditch the fizzy drinks, reduce caffeine, say no to processed foods. Get rid of the high convenience low in nutrition foods.
Our metabolism slows down in midlife so keep moving - skip, dance, walk… whatever it takes to keep you moving.
It’s an excellent time to implement some strength training which helps preserve bone density and muscle mass.
Find ways to relax every day, even if it’s just 15 minutes. Make this a routine to help reduce stress. Think about your wellbeing and put you first for a change.
And seek help from your GP, Menopause Expert or Nutritionist.
What are you working on next?
I’m keeping very busy! I have been running workshops for groups and companies, and speaking at various corporate and other events throughout the UK, raising the awareness about menopause and how food can make a massive difference.
I’m am writing my long awaited book about my menopausal experiences which of course incorporates food and lots of practical stuff.
My latest venture though is the most exciting to date! I have accepted a position as Business Development Director & Shareholder of Fountain Retreats Ltd. Fountain Retreats is the UK's Fastest Growing Retreat Company, specialising in Menopause. The Menopause Chef brand now forms part of Fountain Retreats. Our vision is women’s empowerment through knowledge and understanding.