As women transition into menopause, known as perimenopause hormone levels can be all over the board, sometimes for months, and for some women hormones can fluctuate for years. A woman is considered to be in menopause the day after one year that she has had her last spontaneous period.
Some women experience very minimal symptoms during peri-menopause and menopause, while others experience a wide range of symptoms physically, emotionally, and psychologically. No two women are alike.
With menopause, women often experience an increase in newly-found mid-section belly fat that was never there before, and difficulty maintaining lean body mass. What’s to blame? Hormonal imbalances and a metabolic shift.
As estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate, the distribution of fat changes. Fat tends to accumulate in the mid-section area, even in women who were always lean and fit. Some researchers suspect that the drop in estrogen levels at menopause is linked to increased levels of cortisol, which also triggers fat storage around the middle.
According to research, specific enzymes and proteins are more active in postmenopausal women than in pre-menopausal women, and these proteins in postmenopausal women cause more fat storage than before menopause. These cellular changes cause a decline in metabolism and also reduced fat burning abilities.
Adrenal insufficiency is the most common hormonal imbalance in women. If insulin and cortisol are not balanced, no amount of exercise, dieting or hormone treatment will reduce or minimize any of the symptoms listed above. In reality, low calorie dieting, chronic stress and over-exercising will create an even greater hormonal imbalance and metabolic disaster.
Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to reduce menopause symptoms and support your body during this stage.
1. Managing insulin and stabilizing blood sugar are crucial, and become even more important during the transition into menopause and after menopause.
What you choose to eat and drink, along with portion sizes have a profound influence on belly fat, even more so during perimenopause and menopause. While you may have been able to eat whatever you wanted without gaining weight prior to menopause, that’s just not the case any longer. If you want to prevent gaining extra belly fat, reducing alcohol consumption and completely avoiding starchy carbs, gluten, wheat, sugar and processed foods is crucial.
What works? Organic, nutrient-dense, real foods. An abundance and a variety of fibrous leafy greens and tons of non-starchy cruciferous veggies, which help to bind excess estrogens and feed good bacteria in the colon. Add in organic protein, healthy fats such a freshly ground flax seeds, grass-fed butter, avocado and coconut oil, some low sugar fruit, sweet potatoes, quinoa, yams, and legumes and beans (if you’re not lectin-resistant).
Managing and monitoring portion sizes becomes so much more important during menopause due to the hormonal changes and decline in metabolism. A metabolic shift occurs with metabolic rate dropping approximately 12% every decade after age 25. According to a study in the International Journal of Obesity, the drop in estrogen reduces fat burning by 32%,, which means to stay at the same weight you must consume less food and definitely go easy on the alcohol.
Hot flashes are triggered by stress, too much sugar, chocolate, caffeine and alcohol. It’s especially important to get rid of the processed foods, wheat, gluten, vegetable oils, dairy and sugar.
If you drink two to three glasses of wine every night, it’s going to be very difficult to lose belly fat, reduce hot flashes and sleep well.
2. Balance cortisol (how you manage stress and the health of your adrenals). Adrenal insufficiency is the most common hormonal imbalance in women. In my practice, adrenal dysfunction is extremely common, especially among women. Strong adrenals = a healthier and easier transition into menopause. In a healthy female, before menopause the adrenals produce 40% of the sex hormones. During menopause, the ovaries slow down hormone production and the adrenal glands produce 90% or more of sex hormones.
Research suggests that healthy adrenal function and not the ovaries (although the ovaries may play a role in triggering the adrenals to pick up the slack) is critical for a healthy transition into menopause.
Menopause symptoms intensify earlier and will be magnified if the adrenals have been depleted from years of stress whether it’s stress from low calorie dieting, mental and emotional stressors, poor food choice, excessive exercise, gut and digestive dysfunction, toxic overload, endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) aka obesogens, too much alcohol, toxic relationships, sleep deprivation, electromagnetic stress, liver congestion or eating inflammatory foods your body’s sensitive to. These stressors accumulate causing the adrenals to secrete cortisol resulting in more belly fat.
Abdominal fat has up to four times more cortisol receptors than fat in other parts of the body.
Due to these receptors, abdominal fat is very sensitive to the fat-increasing effects of circulating cortisol. When using more cortisol than normal, the body compensates by producing more progesterone in order to manufacture cortisol, which leads to lowered progesterone levels. High cortisol interferes with conversion of T4 to T3, which can lead to impaired estrogen metabolism and thyroid dysfunction. Progesterone is primarily manufactured in the adrenal glands and ovaries, though some is produced in the brain. DHEA is another hormone that declines from chronic ongoing stress, adrenal insufficiency, and during the aging process.
3. Evaluate the stressors in your life. What can you omit, limit or avoid to minimize stress and tension in your life? So many women nowadays play the role of superwoman – they juggle the role of being a mother, a business/career woman, a wife, a volunteer, a taxi cab driver, a household manager, plus more. Something is bound to suffer as a consequence of this hectic 24-7 schedule and chaotic lifestyle day in and day out, often resulting in exhausted adrenals.
Chronic stress causes major cortisol and blood sugar imbalances, accelerates aging, shortens telomeres, disrupts digestion, depletes the adrenal glands negatively affecting thyroid function, sex drive and hormonal balance, and makes it very difficult to lose stubborn belly fat.
It’s time to re-evaluate your priorities and values. Identify what is truly important in life. Let go of things and people that cause more distress and aggravation in your life. Practice stress-reducing activities and relaxation techniques every single day such as deep breathing, mindfulness, Qi gong, spending time in nature or with animals, prayer, meditation and yoga (not hot yoga, which is taxing on already depleted adrenals).
Women who consistently practice meditation, deep breathing exercises or some other form of relaxation experience a 45% reduction in hot flash severity and a 28% improvement in quality of life!
Another study out of Sweden found that focused relaxation techniques are highly beneficial as an alternative to hormone therapy.
Oxytocin, a chemical involved in feelings of connectedness and compassion declines during menopause. Therefore, it’s important to engage and bond with others who make you feel good. Doing so naturally elevates oxytocin.
4. Good sleep. Just one week of sleeping less than six hours per night lowers testosterone by 10-15% and alters more than 700 genes. When you’re sleep deprived, cortisol rises causing increased belly fat, inflammation, cravings, memory problems, dementia, Alzheimer’s and an increased risk of disease. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Get your butt in bed no later than 10pm. Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Check out these Sleep Tips
5. Test to assess. It’s important to identify the root cause of any menopause symptoms through functional lab testing for thyroid dysfunction, leptin resistance, autoimmune disorders, gut dysbiosis, infections, heavy metal toxicity, nutrient deficiencies, and hormone imbalances. Postmenopausal women with elevated levels of serum sex steroid hormones (estradiol, estrone and testosterone) are at increased risk for developing breast cancer.
6. Support estrogen clearance: increase fiber (leafy greens, cruciferous and non-starchy vegetables, fiber powders, ground flaxseed). Decrease exogenous estrogen exposure (factory-farmed dairy, meat, eggs, non-organic veggies and fruits, birth control pills) and minimize exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (plastics, non-organic foods, dirty electricity, food additives, pesticides, phthalates, parabens, glyphosate, personal care and cleaning products, cosmetics).
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals aka obesogens mimic and alter hormones (inhibit the thyroid, disrupt leptin, decrease testosterone, reduce insulin sensitivity, and increase estrogen load), accelerate aging, cause brain dysfunction, excess weight and increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers.
7. Support neurotransmitter balance. Neurotransmitter levels (sufficiency, excess or deficiency) are unique to each individual. As estrogen drops, so does serotonin. The majority of serotonin, 90-95% is made in the gut not the brain. If your gut is inflamed, infected or not functioning optimally, production of serotonin will be impaired, which can result in depression.
8. Exercise to optimize hormones (growth hormone, testosterone), increase metabolism, prevent sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass associated with aging), maintain strength and lose fat. Follow the 12-week exercise program in Fat Loss Revolution. Higher intensity exercise for shorter periods of time (20-30 minutes) is ideal for hormone balance, reducing belly fat, healthy mitochondria, and optimizing body composition. To improve metabolic rate, women must increase total body muscle mass. Strength training with loads that are heavy enough to provide a stimulus will reduce visceral fat, build lean tissue and bone density…another vulnerable area for women after menopause.
It’s crucial to balance intense training days with rest days, recovery methods and relaxation-type activities necessary for physiological and psychological recuperation and hormone balance. Practice yoga, Qi gong, tai chi, meditation, breathing techniques, mini trampoline, walking and other stress-managing techniques
Many women push themselves to extremes and beyond every day with too much exercise or the wrong type of exercise, while others are completely sedentary. Both extremes are unhealthy and counterproductive for fat loss, healthy aging, longevity, brain function and hormonal balance. Consult with a professional and experienced coach for an intelligently-designed exercise program suitable for your lifestyle and your metabolism.
9. Tame the Flame! Reduce inflammation and remove inflammatory foods. Identify your personal food sensitivities. The top offenders include dairy, wheat, grains, gluten, eggs, sugar, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, GMOs, corn, soy, factory-farmed frankenmeats, and non-organic pesticide-laden foods.
10. Detox periodically to optimize liver function and support your hormonal system. Toxins are unavoidable nowadays. We’re exposed to more toxins nowadays in a 30 day period than our grandparents were exposed to in their entire lifetime! The more extreme the hormonal problem is, the higher the likelihood that digestive dysfunction and toxic overload exist.
A study published in the journal PLoS ONE has linked exposure to chemicals with an earlier age at menopause. In fact, a high toxic load might send you into menopause almost four years earlier!
Realize that there’s a healthy way to detox. There are also countless unhealthy ways to detox— many that damage metabolism, disrupt the thyroid and other hormones, and are hazardous to your health.
Practice these smart and simple detox tips that are safe enough to do every day. Consider the 10 Day Detox, an anti-inflammatory, weight management program that supports detoxification in a gentle and healthy manner with real food.
11. Healthy digestion. Rule out gut pathogens, infections, dysbiosis and digestive dysfunction with a comprehensive stool analysis that detects flora imbalances, malabsorption issues and gut pathogens such as H. pylori, Candida, parasites, bacterial infections and dysbiotic bacteria. Healing leaky gut and ridding the body of problematic infections results in less inflammation, lower cortisol levels and balanced hormones.
12. Identify your personal nutrient deficiencies and support your body chemistry appropriately to improve physiological function. If a woman (or man for that matter) has nutrient deficiencies (or excesses) that are not addressed, it will be very difficult to balance hormones due to nutritional stress.
Taking hormones just because levels are low before exploring the root cause can create further hormonal chaos, metabolic disaster, and a potential to disrupt the entire balance. I am not implying that one should never opt for hormone replacement therapy, however it’s important to dig deeper and identify the root cause, and balance your body chemistry through nutrient-dense foods, healing the gut, good sleep, correcting nutrient deficiencies or excesses, addressing toxic load and underlying infections, healthy relationships, mental and emotional stress, prior traumas, and the appropriate type and amount of exercise first. If that fails to balance hormones, then consider BHRT under the guidance of your practitioner.
Follow and implement the 12 tips in this article and you will look and feel your best, reduce the severity of hot flashes, sleep better, lose excess belly fat and minimize other symptoms associated with menopause.
Keep a positive mindset and nurture yourself. Give your body the support it needs. Honor and embrace the process and transition into menopause as a time of personal growth, wisdom and empowerment.
It’s important to note that what works for one woman, may not work for another. Each woman’s body is different with unique hormone levels and lifestyle issues. All factors must be taken into account.
Take the hormone balance test to help identify underlying causes of your menopause symptoms.