Just as puberty signals the beginning of fertility in young women, so does menopause signal the end of the fertile years, and the commencement into a more mature lifestyle where pregnancy and menstruation need not be a concern any longer. When a woman’s body menstruates, it goes through a process whereby the ovaries produce and release eggs, while the uterus prepares itself to receive a fertilized egg. If that egg is not forthcoming, the uterine lining sheds and is flushed out of the body by a small amount of blood, though it may not seem small at the time. The flushing action is called menses.
When menopause hits, which is usually anywhere between ages 40-55, but can be sooner or later, the ovaries stop producing eggs and the uterus not longer produces a uterine lining. In turn, no menses occurs as there is nothing to flush. Without eggs, the woman cannot become pregnant and without a uterine lining, she does not bleed. This can be very liberating once the symptoms of menopause have passed. It should definitely be noted that while menstruating, the body produces hormones to induce the menstrual cycle called estrogen and progesterone. When the ovaries stop producing eggs, these hormones are generally shut off as they no longer necessary, but they do, in fact, serve many functions that will become quite noticeable when the hormones are no longer produced. These changes include:
* Irregular periods
* Decreased fertility
* Vaginal dryness
* Hot flashes
* Sleep disturbances
* Mood swings
* Increased abdominal fat
* Thinning hair
* Loss of breast fullness
* Short-term memory loss
* Loss of bone mass (osteoporosis)
* Irregular periods
Menopause does not officially begin until the year following the last period, or menstrual cycle, but it can take a few years to lead up to that point. During the time before the final period, those symptoms from the list above can make life a little more frustrating for some, including spouse or partner, though most weather the alterations well. Emotionally, it may be quite a charged time, as the loss of fertility can affect women negatively and induce feelings of depression, which should not be ignored.
Estrogen and progesterone are known as ‘woman’s hormones’, though men have them in much smaller amounts, and the lack of them causes a more manly effect, which may also include increased facial hair. Estrogen is a compound chemical that tells your body to be shaped like a woman, with wider pelvis, fat storage in the hips, thighs, and buttocks especially, the formation of breasts, and contributes to all the other secondary sex characteristics. Progesterone is the hormone that aids in preparing the uterus for a fertilized egg cell. If the uterine lining is not used for its intended purpose, the progesterone levels drop and menses begins. However, these hormones can be reintroduced by outside means to great effect. Consult your doctor to see if hormone replacement is right for you, as it can keep many symptoms at bay and allow a menopausal woman to enjoy life as though her ovaries were still producing the hormones.
One quite troublesome change that occurs during and after menopause is the re-allocation of fat deposits in the female body. Without the estrogen to direct where fat is stored, the body naturally defaults to the midsection, which is the least desirable place on the body for fat to accrue, from a health perspective. There are two kinds of body fat: Visceral and subcutaneous. Visceral fat is packed in around organs and under muscle. It’s the dangerous fat, which leads to disease and physical distress. Subcutaneous is the obvious fat that lies just under the skin, and while considered unsightly, it’s not nearly the health culprit as visceral fat. Increased fat density in the abdomen can lead to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health risks. Weight gain during menopause is natural, but not inevitable. It can be challenged by a diet low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Visceral fat is by far more difficult to lose than subcutaneous because it is so compact and below the surface. Moderate exercise is the best way of reducing these fat deposits, and anything from a brisk 30-minute walk, 6 days a week, to regular and vigorous tennis games, will help get rid of this stubborn fat. (Note that some research has determined walking needs to be done briskly, not at a leisurely pace, five or six days a week. Three days or less does not seem to make of a difference in visceral fat loss and doing nothing actually increases visceral mass.) Also, don’t discount the benefits of strength training, which increases muscle mass. Lean muscle burns calories just to exist, and fat is stored calories. The greater your muscle mass, the more calories or fat you burn at rest while doing nothing. Strength training also helps deter bone density loss, which is particularly of concern in women. For maximum results, do both cardio and strength training in turns, but do them more than three or four times a week, preferably every day. Or strength train three days a week and cardio train the other three days, leaving one day for rest, if you so choose. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt to work the body at a moderate pace seven days in succession.
One method for high fat loss that has been gaining more attention these days is interval training, which can be employed on the days you do cardio work. Aerobic and anaerobic calisthenics is the way to really beat visceral fat. This means to jog 30 seconds, then all-out sprint 30 seconds, then jog 30 seconds, etc… for a total of 15-20 minutes. Jogging can be replaced with bicycling or swimming, if you prefer. Each high-energy burst should attempt to be more intense than the last, and it’s this kind of workout that offers the best results for immediate fat reduction. This will release the hormone known as HGH, which is the Human Growth Hormone, first present in our bodies as a guide to how tall we grow. When we’ve reached our maximum height, the hormone changes duty and cuts body fat instead. Researchers believe that HGH can be increasingly released into the system by 530% with the employment of anaerobic workouts such as mentioned above with the interval training.
For a fat-melting diet, it can be very hard to filter through all the many camps of thought that thickly pepper the nutritional field and find what works. Ultimately, your body will tell you and everyone’s body is different, but as a general guide, avoid anything white and fluffy. Cut carbohydrate intake by reducing grains (some may be shocked by this statement), and instead get your carbs in the form of dietary fiber by increasing fruit and vegetable intake. All lean meats are fine as long as they are not slathered in sauces and gravies; prepare them healthfully. Eat fish and plenty of it, as the Omega-3 vitamins help fight free radicals and other ailments. Omega-6 vitamins, as found in red meat, are good for you but need the Omega-3 balance, so make sure you have it. Reduce sugar intake and if you must take in grains, make sure they are whole and unrefined. No white bread or white rice.
The vast majority of women gain weight between the ages of 35-55 as they move towards menopause. Weight loss may be slowed in this time, too, even if you’ve always had good results prior. Yoga and weight or strength training seems to help a lot in this area, but the weight gain has more to do with hormonal changes than any kind of overeating. If you do gain weight quickly but have not changed eating habits, consult your physician, as this may be an indication of something more serious. The biggest boon you can do for yourself is to remain active or increase activity and eat healthfully. Menopause and weight gain are natural, but they can also be controlled. Enjoy your new freedom!