Photo by: Rene Ehrhardt
This is the third part of the Women’s Hormonal Phases series. The Women’s Hormonal Phase series talk about the hormonal phases that women go through in their lifetime from their teens to beyond menopause. Each post will talk about what’s going on during each phase, the health challenges, and possible solutions. This third post will focus on the perimenopause years between our early 40s to our early 50s.
These age brackets I am using are approximation only. It can vary by as much as five years depending on when we start our first period, the amount of eggs at birth, whether or not birth control was used, etc.
The next hormonal phase in women’s lives is the perimenopause years. The National Institute of Health defines perimenopause from the 1st onset of symptoms through the 12 months after the termination of our menses.
What is happening to our bodies during our 40s-50s?
Hundred of brain chemicals are fluctuating along with our hormones. As estrogen and progesterone levels decrease, so do the three mood enhancing brain chemicals – serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. As mentioned previously, women generally have lower levels of serotonin and endorphins than men, so during menopause we really start to feel its lack.
Low serotonin levels lead to feelings of stress or depression. The only thing we want to do is eat carbohydrates, starch, or sugar to give this brain chemical a boost. This is the most important of the brain chemicals since it is associated with many of the menopausal complaints such as insomnia, depression, hot flashes, and headaches.
Low endorphin levels lead to moodiness and exhaustion. The only thing we want to do is eat any fat (saturated and unsaturated) to make us feel energized. Our mood swings are just as wild as they were during pregnancy. I recommend doing some exercise instead.
Low dopamine levels lead to the brain fog that most women experience at this phase. The only thing we want to do is eat protein to give us more brain power. We might start to notice things like wearing only one earring in public because we left the other one at home or mismatched shoes on our feet. Our brains start to short circuit and we start to forget what we are suppose to buy at the supermarket. That is right – it sounds like all we want to do is eat sugar, fat, and meat to help balance the decrease in our brain chemicals. Hello middle age spread!
While all this is happening inside our heads, our bodies are starting to change as well. After 40, the average women start to lose ½ pound of muscle per year. For women to lose this precious fuel burner is like trying to pedal up a hill, but ignoring that the chain is broken. All that work for nothing. Not making any progress, but actually going backwards!
Middle age weight gain is going to happen if we do not do something about it. The fat storage start to re-distribute themselves to our upper bodies. When we had higher levels of estrogen in our bodies like in our 20s and 30s, most of our excess fat was stored in our hips, thighs, and butts to help protect any pregnancy we might have during times of famine.
But as estrogen drops, it becomes easier to store the excess fat into upper body areas such as the waist, the bra roll, or the flapping “wing” arms (back of the arms). That is why some pear shaped women become apple shaped when they enter this phase in their lives. It is inevitable for menopausal women to develop a small pooch at their bellies. Learn to accept this and stop stressing about what we cannot control. What we can control is preventing this from becoming a full blown gut with good nutrition and regular exercise.
Our health challenge in our 40s and 50s
Learn to manage perimenopausal symptoms.
1/3 to 1/2 of women at midlife experience symptoms associated with perimenopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, fatigue, mood swings, or memory loss.
- Learn to get organize.
We are going through a physical, emotional, and mental transition in our lives. We cannot afford to be derailed by brain fog. Stock up on post-its, notebooks, or a planner that we can use to keep us on top of things.
-Learn to get help with aging parents.
Our stresses include workplace woes, boomerang kids, or age related medical conditions for us or our parents. Just because we are part of the sandwich generation does not mean we have to feel the squeeze every time. Learn to say no and ask for help.
- Learn to think about quality instead of quantity when it comes to eating.
Think of it this way – would you rather have a large pile of cubic zircon or one beautiful diamond? When it comes to eating, we need to learn to look for the diamond.
Get rid of sugar: Most women over the age of 40 experience a heightened interest in sweets because of low serotonin levels. So watch out for this. The longer we go without eating white sugar, the less we will crave them! Eating sugar is the beginning of a self-fulfilling cycle to eat more sugar.
Limit starches: The healthy alternatives of high quality starches such as multigrain breads, pasta, brown rice, and sweet potatoes do not always come in single servings. So watch the portion size.
Consider adding soy: Soybeans contain isoflavones (a weak plant estrogen) that can used by the body. There is controversy about this in the health field. Being Chinese I remember drinking soy milk before it became popular and I love tofu. Lately I have even started eating tofu ice cream.
- Learn to like strength training.
Our muscle mass is the fuel burners in our bodies. If you never strength trained before, it is critical to start now. Most women are not going to be able to add more than 2 pounds of muscle each year from strength training with progressively heavier weights. And for those of us only looking to get fit, we are lucky to just stay ahead of the game since we are losing 1/2 pounds of muscle each year. Do not forget how much muscle we have lost since our teens. We are only playing catchup here, not forge a new bodybuilder.
Until next time and thanks for stopping by Small Steps to Health.
Like what you are reading? How about subscribing? It's free!