Consuming more vitamin D may help women avoid the onset of early menopause, suggests a comprehensive new study.
Characterized by experiencing menopause before the age of 40, early menopause can lead to an array of symptoms, including hot flashes, mood changes, decreased sex drive and possibly other health challenges, such as heart disease and osteoporosis. A woman’s chance of conceiving also dwindles.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst assessed a large cohort of women — more than 116,000 — over a 20-year period. The women, who took part in the prospective Nurses’ Health Study II, were first tracked in 1989, and researchers have followed up with them on a regular basis since then.
The University of Massachusetts team, led by Alexandra Purdue-Smithe, an epidemiology doctoral candidate, sought to understand which dietary factors, if any, might be associated with early menopause. They took a cue from previous research, which has linked vitamin D to bodily changes among women as they age.
“Laboratory evidence relating vitamin D to some of the hormonal mechanisms involved in ovarian aging provided the foundation for our hypothesis,” said Purdue-Smithe.
The new study took those preliminary findings a step further by directly focusing on vitamin D, which is critical for disease prevention and overall health.
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“To our knowledge, no prior epidemiologic studies have explicitly evaluated how vitamin D and calcium intake may be related to risk of early menopause,” reported Purdue-Smithe.
After carefully combing through the data, the researchers discovered a stark benefit among women who consumed high levels of the essential vitamin.
“We found that after adjusting for a variety of different factors, vitamin D from food sources, such as fortified dairy and fatty fish, was associated with a 17 percent lower risk of early menopause when comparing the highest intake group to the lowest intake group,” said Purdue-Smithe.
Previous research has found that some medical conditions, such as cancer or surgery to remove the ovaries or uterus, can lead to early menopause. Genetics and some disorders, such as thyroid disorders, can also accelerate the menopausal process. The new study is perhaps the first to point to nutrition and diet as another cause.
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Overall trends in child-rearing may continue to put early menopause in the spotlight, note the researchers.
“In addition to placing women at higher risk of adverse future health outcomes, early menopause is also problematic as women are increasingly delaying childbearing into their later reproductive years,” said Purdue-Smithe.
“Fertility declines drastically during the 10 years leading up to menopause, so early menopause can have profound psychological and financial implications for couples who are unable to conceive as they wish. As such, it is important to identify modifiable risk factors for early menopause, such as diet,” Purdue-Smithe added.
While the findings are early, the researchers believe they have opened up a promising clinical window.
“Further studies evaluating 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentrations, other dairy constituents and early menopause are warranted,” report the study authors.
The study appears in the May, 2017 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.