As women approach 40 and beyond, the body changes in so many ways. It can be a fantastic, transitioning time with many experiencing successful careers, changing to or maybe starting more fulfilling jobs, raising healthy successful children, more meaningful friendships and relationships, or maybe eliminating unhealthy relationships, greater prosperity, growing confidence, wisdom and expanding generosity to help others in need and so much more!
While some might refer to this time as 40 is the new 30 and 50 is the new 40, however you imagine it, our changing metabolism certainly doesn’t agree with the younger perception. Our exercise and eating habits may not have changed much, but the wise body and brain knows that peri menopause is just around the corner with menopause quickly following.
Our younger metabolically active bodies can usually get away with eating decadent refined carbohydrates – bread, pasta, pizza, crackers, potatoes, cookies, chocolate. If we gain a few pounds, big deal. We cut back on our calories a bit, eliminate certain foods, reduce dining out, go on a special diet or cleanse, step up our exercise and those pounds are gone. Pretty straightforward, right? Not so when you’re over 40 and even tougher if you’re over 50!
Women over 40 experience a steady decline in hormones, along with a dip in energy and menstrual period changes along with way. We also notice that our clothes are fitting a bit tighter and that darned fat seems to be taking up residence around our abdomen and waistlines. “Muffin tops” and “love handles” are usually not desirable nor welcomed. The struggle is real!
During our youthful fertile years, our reproductive hormones – estrogen, progesterone and testosterone – have numerous benefits. These include regulating a healthy menstrual cycle, fertility to create human beings, youthful collagen rich skin, greater energy, cognitive sharpness, creativity, intelligence, multi-tasking specialist, ability to adapt to stressful situations, muscle strength, joint and tendon integrity, shiny and soft hair, strong nails, deep restful sleep and an efficient metabolism to burn fat and build muscles. Unfortunately, this fountain of youth can’t go on forever. The natural descent of hormones around mid-life happens for a biological reason. Women aren’t expected nor capable of bearing and caring for children at 80 or 90 years old!
The age of a women determines where her body fat is stored. In a pre-menopausal female, body fat is typically stored in the lower body – the hips, the buttocks, the thighs, with a lesser amount in the abdominal region. Much of this also depends on genetics, race, diet and lifestyle. In a peri and post-menopausal woman, the drop in hormones is the catalyst for the body to choose to store fat in the abdominal region and in the breasts as well. A similar metabolic and physiological change of increased abdominal and chest fat happens in men with descending testosterone levels.
Why is excess abdominal fat a concern? A little bit of fat is normal, common and usually harmless. Excess abdominal fat, also known as Truncal Obesity, may increase risk for obesity, diabetes, systemic inflammation, cardiovascular disease, elevated LDL cholesterol (adverse) and triglycerides and reduced HDL cholesterol (beneficial), sleep apnea, gastro-intestinal dysfunction, hormone imbalance and a condition called estrogen dominance.
Perimenopause and post-menopausal abdominal fat storage may contribute to estrogen dominance. This means that more estrogen is stored in the body relative to the amount of progesterone. If you are still menstruating, this might mean more PMS symptoms, heavier bleeding, cramping and painful periods, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, headaches, fibrocystic breast, irritability, tearfulness, acne, facial hair, mood swings and much more. If you are not menstruating (menopause), excess estrogen is stored in body fat with minimal progesterone produced by the ovaries and may be a risk factor for breast, uterine and ovarian cancer.
Many of our hormones synergistically work together with a cascade of communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary glands and our organs such as the ovaries, thyroid, adrenal glands and more. All of our hormones have a profound effect on how we metabolize our food and whether our body decides to burn it for energy or store it as fat.
Furthermore, our hormones are extremely sensitive to lifestyle factors like diet, stress, sleep, medications, supplements, caffeine, drugs, alcohol, extreme or little exercise, genetics and more.
Thyroid, Cortisol and Insulin Hormones
The thyroid gland produces less thyroid hormone for many women after age 40. Thyroid hormone is responsible for increased metabolism, stamina during exercise, mood, cognitive function, focus, hair growth, skin moisture and much more. Two of the most common symptoms of low thyroid (hypothyroid) is fatigue and increased body fat. A basic thyroid hormone test (TSH) might look “normal” according to the reference ranges, but in fact it may not accurately reflect what’s truly happening in the body. Best to get a comprehensive thyroid evaluation panel that looks at all markers.
Cortisol, an important adrenal gland hormone, gradually becomes less abundant with age and can become inconsistent. One day it is skyrocketing with a crazy, stressful day, leading to anxiety, irritability and trouble sleeping. Another day it’s plummeted leading to fatigue and cravings for caffeine and decadent carbohydrates – the good stuff like sugary lattes, bread, cookies, chocolate, wine. Not only does chronic stress (and giving in to those tasty carbs) lead to weight gain, that same excessive cortisol interferes with thyroid and those reproductive hormones, further exacerbating the expansive waistline. Testing your adrenals through a comprehensive urinary cortisol panel – either 4x/day or a 24 hour urine hormone test is highly recommended.
There’s yet another fat storing sabotaging condition called Insulin Resistance. Insulin is the hormone that helps escort glucose from the bloodstream into the cells (to feed our organs), thus lowering glucose in the bloodstream. During insulin resistance, glucose can’t efficiently bind to insulin receptors located on the outside of cells. Now glucose can’t enter the cells and it rises in the bloodstream, and that excess glucose often gets converted into triglycerides (fats) for storage. When insulin resistance increases, so does body fat. Ordering a Cardiometabolic Panel for patients helps uncover that risk. That test is discussed at the end of this article.
Add more fuel to the inflammatory fire with a less active lifestyle, demanding job and children responsibilities, restaurant/take out more often than you should, over dependency on pharmaceutical medications or polypharmacy, excessive alcohol abuse, recreational drugs and other health sabotaging behaviors and you’ve got the perfect yet unfortunate recipe for weight gain!
So what can you do to burn excess fat, balance hormones and live a healthier life? Revolutionize your approach to eating, exercising, stress management, sleeping and more. Read the tips below for ways feel and look, strong and vibrant!
Tip #1: Choose Your Carbohydrates Wisely
Low Carb, No Carb, High Carb, Paleo Diet, Primal Diet, Ketogenic Diet, Whole 30 Diet? With countless, trendy diets permeating the internet every second, how do we decide which diet is best for our bodies? No two bodies are alike. Not even the same gender, age and race. While this is true, there are certain diet and nutritional recommendations that can be followed for optimal results at burning more fat.
Let’s start with our favorite macronutrient – Carbohydrates! Carbohydrates are essential for our bodies to survive and thrive. However, to burn fat and minimize fat storage, carbohydrate intake needs to be selective. It’s the type of carbohydrates that really matters the most. It’s complex carbohydrates vs simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits and whole grains contain more fiber and take longer to break down or metabolism. They are more “complex” in biochemical structure and are released into the bloodstream at a much slower rate and are therefore better for your blood glucose and insulin levels. Insulin is the hormone that helps escort glucose from the bloodstream into the cells of our body.
Refined carbohydrates like sugars, white flour, white rice, white potatoes on the other hand contain minimal fiber and are released into the bloodstream more quickly faster and typically lead to a spike in blood glucose and insulin. Too many refined carbohydrates over a period of months to years leads to more body fat but also leads to blood sugar problems like insulin resistance and diabetes. While an excellent dietary goal here is to consume more complex carbohydrates, when you are over 40 and storing more fat, those complex carbohydrates need to be more specific.
The solution to losing or maintaining weight? Limit or avoid ALL grains – even the whole fiber ones. You can easily get your complex carbohydrates from the non-starchy vegetables and less sugar/higher fiber fruit. Vegetables and fruits come in a variety of forms.
Certain vegetables that are firm and crunchy and in many cases are darker in green (like kale, broccoli, collards, spinach) typically have more fiber and nutrients. Other vegetables like corn, peas and potatoes are less fibrous, starchy and tend to get metabolized by the body faster – faster blood glucose rise.
Certain fruits contain more fiber like apples, pears, pomegranates, plums, apricots while softer sweeter fruits contain less fiber such as honeydew melon, cantaloupe, grapes.
No one has a perfect diet all of the time. The key is always moderation. Some days you might eat that breakfast scone. Other days it might be an egg, vegetable scramble with avocado. No room for perfection here. Just balance the unhealthy with a healthier meal the next time.
If you are still wondering, “Well what the heck am I going to eat besides fruits and vegetables?” There are two other very important macronutrients – Protein and Fat! The simplest way to eat “smart carb” is to follow such diets as The Paleo Diet or The Whole 30 Diet or The Ketogenic Diet with 50 grams of carbohydrates. Those diets emphasize eliminating the grains, starchy and refined carbohydrates and are great to do for 30-90 days at a time.
Tip #2: Move Your Muscles: Fat Burning Machines
We know exercise is so important, right? We frequently hear its emphasis. From kids to seniors and for men and women. We can skip exercise from time to time when we are younger without a lot of consequences. Due to an abundance of hormones, our bodies can often stay lean(er) and strong. For women over 40, muscle strength decreases and body fat increases. That is usually the case unless you are exercising the smart way. It is during this phase of life that exercise now becomes essential!
While we can cut calories or change how we eat and we may lose weight temporarily, there is no substitute for exercise. We have to move our bodies regularly to have the greatest effect on fat loss. Similar to changing the types of carbohydrates we eat, we must change how we exercise to reap the most benefit of fat burning.
Cardiovascular exercise or aerobic exercise is very important for a variety of reasons. Like the term describes, it is excellent for both the muscles of your heart (cardio) and also great for your blood vessels (vascular). It is also pretty fantastic for you brain, lungs and sinuses, skin, liver, muscles, your GI Tract – every organ and every cell in the body.
Muscle strengthening exercises or muscle resistance exercises have an anaerobic effect on the body. While it can be less invigorating compared to cardiovascular exercise, it can still raise your heart rate, heat production and metabolism. As the name implies, muscle strengthening makes the muscle cells stronger with an increase in size.
For men’s bodies, their muscles become much larger with this type of exercise due to their size and mass, abundance of testosterone, thyroid hormone and human growth hormones. Women’s muscles will still get stronger with repeated exercise and slightly bigger to a certain degree but not to the capacity of male bodies. We produce a fraction of the testosterone compared to men and our thyroid hormone and human growth hormones are typically less as well.
Here’s a fascinating piece that you need to know! With repeated and increased challenging muscle strengthening exercises (along with cardiovascular exercise), our bodies burn more fat! This is true even when we are sleeping, sitting in a car during commute hour or busily working (yet sedentary) at work all day.
As our muscle cells grow in strength and size, their energy demands for fuel (mainly carbohydrates) increase. In order to build and maintain this muscle strength and size, metabolism must increase. And when metabolism is higher, fat burning is kicked on to high gear!
Other wonderful benefits of muscle strengthening exercises includes better energy, increased appetite (for healthy foods, right?), confidence, less risk of injuries, enhanced sex drive (due to slight boost in testosterone) and a beautifully strong female body.
Tip #3: Intermittent Fasting: The Faster Way to Burn Fat
While intermittent fasting has recently become a very popular “diet” method to losing or maintaining weight, this physiological process has been around since humans have existed. The human body is biologically designed to fast. It inherently knows that when food is scarce during times of famine or starvation that it needs to metabolize excess glycogen and adipose (fat) reserves to provide nourishment and