Menopause can be one of the most disruptive and bewildering times in a woman’s life. Although the focus of much discussion regarding menopause tends to center around the lady hormones estrogen and progesterone, it would serve us well to extend our conversation to exactly what these hormones do, and what implications changes to them have throughout the body.
With understanding of the myriad changes that occur, it becomes possible to tailor our lifestyle to offset many of the uncomfortable symptoms that accompany menopause, like hot flashes, belly fat, brain fog, emotional changes and digestive distress.
1. Estrogen and insulin
Estrogen is an important female hormone not just for reproductive health and function, but for the impacts it has on another hormone, insulin. Insulin takes sugar out of the blood and puts it into the cells to be burned for energy. Estrogen helps keep you sensitive to insulin.
When estrogen declines, sensitivity to insulin declines, too. This means you become more resistant to insulin by the very action of going through menopause. Your body will not bring as much sugar into the cells, turning it aside and sending it to fat storage instead. This is one mechanism for weight gain and belly fat associated with menopause. Through no fault of your own, you are biochemically and physiologically less equipped to handle the amount of carbohydrates you could before.
As such, women in perimenopause and menopause need to find their new carbohydrate tipping point. You would be well served to adjust carbohydrate consumption in volume or timing (or both), and to emphasize fiber and adequate protein. This will help improve insulin sensitivity.
2. Progesterone and cortisol
Cortisol is a rather infamous hormone, connected with stress response. Cortisol is not inherently bad or good, but in menopause it becomes a big player.
Progesterone helps you buffer the negative effects of cortisol. It opposes cortisol’s action and can act as a shield between the stressed-out feelings cortisol can induce and your nervous system.
Progesterone also helps keep your waistline trim, along with estrogen. Cortisol, if left unopposed by progesterone, will strip muscle in the arms and legs and deposit fat in the middle. This, combined with increased insulin resistance, is a perfect one-two punch to gain belly fat.
Not only are women more prone to gain belly fat under this hormonal environment, they also become more sensitive to the effects from stress. They feel it worse. It sticks around longer; they can’t recover from it as well. You may notice things that never bothered you before, and that you are getting forgetful.
To help oppose cortisol, soothe the nervous system and reverse the loss of your waistline, transitioning your movement and exercise routine becomes important. Swap medium intensity/medium duration exercise – which promote an exaggerated cortisol response – for a combination of long, slow movements like walking and a combination of resistance training and sprint or interval style training. Shorter, more intense workouts will release hormones like testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH) and IL-10, which blunt the action of cortisol.
3. Testosterone, the progesterone helper
Women have testosterone too! In perimenopasue, the body will oft recruit testosterone to help with some of progesterone’s duties – like keeping the waist trim. Testosterone can also sharpen the mind and keep your mood up. In post-menopause, testosterone too begins to fall.
Lifting weights and incorporating resistance training helps increase testosterone naturally, where it can help take inches off the waistline and give a mental boost. Resistance training is critical for women, not simply for these hormonal benefits, but also to increase bone density and help balance insulin. Pushing heavy weights around really makes your muscles soak up some sugar, and thus, increase insulin sensitivity.