Midlife. It's a time of great change for all of us. Mind, body and spirit. Many of those changes we start to notice and feel physically. Our body shape changes and for some of us, it changes a lot!
When women ask us for help with choosing the right swimsuit, the #1 body area they are more self-conscious of is their belly. So I thought, let's talk about that a bit more and explore why many of us notice that our tummies get larger in our 40's and beyond. And consider that in the context of nutrition.
We might not be doing anything differently when it comes to what we eat and drink, but our shape continues to change.
"Through much of adulthood, women tend to carry fat on their hips and thighs. After menopause, however, women store more fat in the abdominal area." (Healthline.com)
What's Going On?
There could be 100's of different things going on. We are complex creatures. In midlife hormonal changes are a significant contributor, causing that change. And it's hormonal imbalance that's often calling the shots.
Much of the typical conversations are around our reproductive hormones - oestrogen and progesterone. But there are others that pack a punch too. Let's dig a little deeper.
Angela Counsel is one of Australia's leading Menopause Coaches who's also a Naturopath and Kinesiologist. Her overview below, is really helpful, revealing the 'why' and 'what happens'.
"As you move closer to menopause your hormones start to shift, they can be like a rollercoaster going up and down for a few years before they start their decline.
As your oestrogen levels start to decline your body will look for other sources of oestrogen to keep it safe (oestrogen is a protective hormone). Ideally it would get this hormone from your adrenal glands but unfortunately many women are quite stressed at this stage of life and the adrenals cannot make enough oestrogen.
The other place where spare oestrogen is held is in fat tissue. It is for this reason that the body will tend to hold on to fat so that it can use the oestrogen that has been stored there over the years."
Low level of oestrogen can lead to low levels of the hormone leptin which is responsible for telling us that we've eaten enough.
"There are other hormones, besides the reproductive hormones, that also need to be considered when it comes to weight gain and these are cortisol, T4 and T3 (Thyroid hormones) and insulin.
High levels of stress - the role of Cortisol
Modern day life is stressful. Add a hefty dose of pandemic to the mix and it's no wonder that stress levels are rising.
- The more stressed we are the more cortisol our body releases.
- The higher your cortisol levels the more your body stores fat around the tummy.
The reason why your body stores fat when you are stressed is due to the feast and famine action of the body. When we were cave women the stress response was required to keep us alive and one of the actions of the body in times of stress was to conserve energy in case of famine. Obviously, we don't live in a world where famine is a thing, but your body still reacts in this manner when there is long term stress happening.
By the time many women reach their mid-forties they're tired and worn out from juggling a family, aging parents, a career and many other things. Stress has become so normalised that we don't even realise it's happening most of the time, we feel that being busy and overwhelmed is normal.
Thyroid Issues - T3 and T4
60% of women in peri-menopause and beyond have a sub-clinical underactive thyroid. Sub-clinical means that the thyroid function is not low enough to be diagnosed as a disease but it does impact the way a woman feels and looks. One the key symptoms of low thyroid function is lowered metabolism and increased fat storage. There are several reasons why thyroid function is low in women including high levels of stress, diets which are high in grains such as wheat and nutrient deficiencies such as iodine and selenium.
Women with thyroid issues tend to store their fat around their bottom and hips, not always though.
Another hormone which impacts our weight is insulin. Our modern diet which is high in processed and highly sugary foods disrupts the body's ability to regulate its insulin levels and blood sugar levels. Ideally when the sugar (glucose) levels in the blood are high, the body releases insulin to store glucose in cells. Over time, if sugars remain high and the cells are full of sugar, the body converts the sugar into fats and stores it around the tummy. Insulin resistance occurs when there is a constant supply of glucose in the blood and the insulin response slows down and converts more glucose to fat rather than utilising it in the cells.
As we age it is harder to shift this additional tummy weight unless you correct the insulin resistance with dietary changes. Over time insulin resistance can develop into diabetes if diet isn't changed.
Eating more food than your body requires
As our reproductive systems starts to slow down we don't need as much energy to produce an egg every month or need to support the loss of menstrual blood each month. This means that we don't need to be eating the same amount of food we required when we were ovulating and menstruating monthly. If the same amount of food is eaten and your body can't utilise the food for energy, it will store it as fat.
Eating the wrong food for your body
There is so much confusion about what type of diet is the correct diet, the answer is that there is no single diet that works for everyone. In fact, the diet that worked for you when you were younger may not work for you as you age, for many reasons (some which I have already written about above). The correct food for your body will depend on your genetics, your lifestyle and some other factors including your hormones.
Drinking too much alcohol
The highest consumers of wine in Australia are women over the age of 45 and in fact many women in this age group have an issue with alcohol consumption. We have talked about Are You A Grey Area Drinker in a previous issue of Beyond The Shop.
In our society it's acceptable for women to have a wine or two (or some other alcoholic drink) to wind down after a stressful day. This level of alcohol consumption results in a high level of sugar in the blood causing insulin resistance (see the notes above).
High levels of alcohol consumption can also lead to liver disease known as Fatty Liver Disease which occurs when excess fat is stored around the liver. It must be noted that Fatty Liver Disease is not only caused by alcohol it can also be caused by insulin resistance. There is a growing number of women who are being diagnosed with this disease.
What Can You Do?
"Stress management is the first line of defense. When you're talking about any hormone...you have to get your stress under control if you hope to make long lasting change." (Dr Stephanie Estima).
According to Barry Sears, MD, "Diet is the most potent agent you have to balance your hormones. This is because it allows you to directly change the levels of hormones (insulin, glucagon, and eicosanoids) depending on the balance of macronutrients consumed at every meal."
Angela backs this up to with her more specific dietary tips:
- To reduce insulin increase your vegetable intake and reduce sugar and alcohol
- To increase thyroid function increase your vegetables and iodine foods (seaweed and sea vegetables), reduce gluten and grain foods, reduce sugar and alcohol
- Increase oestrogen by decreasing stress and consuming phyto-oestrogen foods – soya beans, sesame seeds, flaxseeds
- Reduce stress by eating and living well, reduce sugar and alcohol (are you seeing a trend here?)
- Eat right for your body type, take a personalised approach to your diet and lifestyle (to learn more about Genetic Based Personalised Health go to the Learn section below. Angela covers this in her Workshop.)
Where to from here?
Whether you prefer natural ways to balance your hormones or prescribed hormone therapy (HT) options, search for respected experts that understand women's health and you can communicate well with because we are each so very individual and so are our needs.
For me, searching for answers in menopause began with a GP at a trusted women's health practice here in Brisbane. I then supplemented this with a natural health perspective from Angela Counsel.
I did her Embrace program for 12 weeks (paid my own way, this was not sponsored). She helped me better understand my body, myself and helped me get the outcomes I was looking for. I feel so much better. I'm back in tune with my body and it's really empowering! I share this with you because it worked for me.
Many of the Menopausal symptoms I was having like joint pain, bloating and very warm flushes have gone. I did that program in April of 2021 and the benefits are still with me. I've put a link below in the Learn, Read, Watch and Listen section so you can learn more with Angela if that's what you're thinking of doing. She really knows her stuff and is passionate about helping you feel healthier in midlife and beyond.
Continue the Conversation.
Nutrition in midlife is big topic. We've just scratched the surface here. The information shared above is for that purpose, as information. It's not in any way, advice. Seek the help of experts for that. Please.
But if you'd like to explore the topic more with other women seeking to do the same then I invite you to continue the conversation in our private, respectful and no judgement Facebook group - Women 40+, Self Love, Body Love & Summer Confidence. Angela will pop in there and we'll share video chats too.
You'll need to be a member to join in so hit the link above to do that before then.
Take care, and be kind to you. Stay connected.
Founder : www.SequinsandSand.com.au