Mood swings start to become a daily (or hourly) occurrence and being in a room-temperature area starts to feel like a sauna. Lack of sleep starts to kick in, a monthly friend subsides and weight that once was easy to shed is now being stubborn. Welcome to menopause! Why does this happen? Menopause places a higher demand on the body to survive and goes into a heightened catabolic state, better known as “fight or flight.” As a result, the body increases fat storage and switches to a state of atrophy, or the degeneration of cells and muscle tissue due to increased inflammation. This shift can increase stress on the adrenals, increase production of cortisol, decrease bone mass from insufficient estrogen levels and lead to weight-loss resistance.
How can this battle be overcome? Supporting the body with optimal nutrition and lifestyle factors can help decrease the effects of stress. Here are some key nutrients and foods to include which may help the body shed some extra weight.
After menopause, estrogen levels tend to drop. This can pose a big problem for those who are trying to lose weight as estrogen is stored in the adipose tissue. Too little body fat can also be problematic due to decreased estrogen storage; it has been linked to symptoms such as amenorrhea, or cessation of a menses. Without your body’s ability to produce estrogen, it clings on to the fat, which creates weight loss resistance. Estrogen is also responsible for “growth,” or as one of my professors put it, it acts as the fertilizer of the body. This can be negative in the sense that heightened estrogen can cause the growth of cancer but can also be beneficial in terms of bone growth, mental support and healthy hair. Therefore, eating certain foods to support healthy estrogen levels—such as flax seeds, almonds, chickpeas, organic, fermented soy products, sage, rosemary and wild yams—may help to support these processes. These foods contain compounds known as phytoestrogens, or plant-based estrogens, which may help to support healthy hormone levels and contribute to reductions in weight.
Although it is important for everyone to have optimal amounts of vitamin D, it is essential for those that are menopausal. This nutrient is responsible for enhancing absorption of calcium to maintain bone density, decreasing inflammation and supporting immune system function. It also modulates mood and behavior due to the ability to activate genes that encode for the release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible this sensation.Underlying inflammation can lead to depletion of this nutrient and potentially lead to decreased sex hormone production, depression, osteoporosis and weight-loss resistance, which are symptoms that often manifest in menopause. There are two types of vitamin D: vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). The latter is the more potent form and can be found in foods such as cod liver oil. It can be produced in the body from optimal exposure to sunlight. This, in turn, may have beneficial effects on mood and weight.
Adrenal Supportive Foods
The adrenals are small glands that lie on top of the kidney, hence the name “ad” “renal.” These glands are responsible for the production of catecholamines, such as epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and corticosteroids such as cortisol. Under normal conditions, these hormones can act as anti-inflammatories. However, with extended exposure, they can exhaust the adrenals. This can cause symptoms such as fatigue, sugar, fat and salt cravings, shakiness between meals, and weight loss resistance. Therefore, it is important not only to incorporate stress managements techniques such as breathing exercises, getting adequate sleep, guided meditation or prayer, and activities—such as yoga,qi gongand nature walks—but to also add in foods that support the adrenals. Some nutrients that are beneficial for adrenal support are B vitamins, vitamin C, iodine, potassium, magnesium and calcium. Some of the best foods that include these nutrients include:
- seaweeds rich in iodine;
- acerola cherries, camu camu, kiwis, sweet bell peppers and guava rich in Vitamin C;
- grass-fed, pasture-raised animal products, wild caught fish and vegetarian sources such as nutritional yeast, whole-grains and avocados rich in B vitamins; and
- a wide array of green leafy vegetables rich in plant-based calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Adaptogens are known as compounds that help the body to better adapt to everyday stressors, which may improve the immune response. These have been used in Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine to add a calming response. They are of particular importance today as they are touted for decreasing cortisol levels, the body’s stress hormone. During menopause, the body is in a state of catabolism which can increase the body’s stress response. In healthy amounts, cortisol can work for us as it is an anti-inflammatory but long-term exposure can lead to brain fog, decrease muscle tone and weight loss resistance. Adding in foods such as turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper and superfoods such as maca powder, ginseng and ashwagandha may help to support healthy cortisol levels, stress and weight loss.A recent metanalysis included several randomized placebo-controlled trials demonstrating maca’s anxiolytic and antidepressant effect in post-menopausal women. This property may secondarily reduce the stress response, potentially balance hormones, decrease cortisol and promote weight loss.
When weight tends to be an issue, this macronutrient tends to get a bad rap. In fact, the new hype now is the ketogenic diet. There have been great results from this diet, such as improvements in body composition, weight loss, decreases in total and LDL cholesterol, and improved insulin sensitivity. Though scientific studies support this data, it is not beneficial nor recommended for those that are already in a heightened state of stress. Why is that? Carbohydrates are responsible for decreasing cortisol levels, which tend to be elevated in post-menopausal women. Instead of removing carbohydrates from the diet, focus on the quality of the carbohydrate by decreasing or eliminating refined carbohydrates such as white sugar, pastas and flours. Also include at least up to three complex carbohydrates at each meal dependent on your weight loss goals.
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