The time leading up to menopause (peri-menopause) and afterwards (post-menopause) is a major landmark, and for many women can lead to a review of their mental and physical health, whether that’s to overcome symptoms of the menopause itself or a desire to get into good health as we become more aware of our age.
The changes happening around the menopause can make it feel harder to start a new journey in your approach to food and exercise. However, going through the menopause shouldn’t stop you creating a positive, healthy lifestyle and even getting into better shape and fitness levels than you had in your twenties!
Why does it feel harder to lose weight or get fit during and after the menopause?
During menopause, there is a decline in hormones produced by the ovaries - oestrogen, progesterone and androgens and over time this leads to a loss in muscle and bone mass.
The problem is that as your ovarian hormone production declines, hormones secreted by body fat and your adrenal glands increase. As a result, hormone production goes out of sync with the body and inflammation increases rapidly, this can lead to something known as ‘anabolic resistance’ – where your body doesn’t respond as well as it once did to changes in nutrition and exercise. It can also lead to lower muscle protein synthesis which is the way the body repairs and grows muscle tissue.
This is why you often see an increase in fat levels (the dreaded ‘middle age spread’) and a decline in muscle tone even if your eating habits haven’t changed. For a peri- or post-menopausal woman, there are additional challenges to think about when starting a new health journey such as:
Reduced insulin sensitivity, which negatively impacts the metabolism of carbohydrates – you may find yourself with an increased appetite and cravings
Lower levels of oestrogen which is essential for the production of dopamine and serotonin, the two neurotransmitters responsible for feeling happy and the ‘drive’ that gets you going in the morning! During menopause, the loss of oestrogen means these neurotransmitters also fall, which can lead you to find dieting harder and turning to food or drink for comfort.
Lower levels of leptin which is known as the ‘satiety hormone’ (it tells your brain that you are full!). This poses an additional obstacle when attempting to control your calorie intake.
You may experience ‘brain fog’ as oestrogen levels impact cognition. This can impact your decision making around food or make this process more stressful.
Poor sleeping patterns which can negatively impact recovery from exercise as well as metabolism, insulin sensitivity, cravings, cognition and mood.
Does this mean I should give up now?
Absolutely not! There’s no denying that the menopause makes things a little more challenging but the benefits of getting into your best shape now are huge!
By being smarter, and more organised in your training and your nutrition, you can still get into the best shape and fitness levels of your life and move forward with the confidence boost that all that brings.
What should I think about in my diet?
The best way to tackle the impact of menopause head on is to remove processed and high-calorie foods – this will reduce inflammation of your gut and improve insulin sensitivity (which means your body will tend to use calories for muscle growth rather than store them as fat).
Start with a two-week period during which you cut out highly processed food and refined carbs like bread and pasta and instead get your carbs from fibrous vegetables like broccoli and spinach, accompanied by high-quality protein and fat sources.
When you do eat carbohydrates, have them after exercise when the body is most insulin sensitive which means it is primed to use them for recovery and muscle growth rather than storing them as fat.
While it’s possible to get many micro nutrients and minerals through food alone, menopause has several knock-on effects that benefit from additional supplements.
Vitamin D3 - Vitamin D improves cognition, bone health and general wellbeing, all while reinforcing the immune system.
Serotonin - As oestrogen heavily influences the production of serotonin, levels of this crucial neurotransmitter drop during and after menopause. Serotonin makes you feel relaxed and happy which will create the perfect environment for restorative sleep, improved mood and more energy upon waking. Look out for supplements of tryptophan or 5-HTP to boost your serotonin levels (if you are taking anti-depressants you should discuss this with your doctor before starting these supplements).
Omega-3 Fish Oil (EPA and DHA) - The two most important components of fish oil improve heart health and reducing liver fat, joint pain, inflammation and muscle pain. DHA and EPA have been shown to improve physical and mental health, whilst reducing the risk of disease or health complications.
Magnesium - Magnesium is an essential for the health of your brain and body, directly impacting training, recovery and muscle activity. It also helps lower anxiety which is a common (and often unexpected) symptom of the menopause.
What about exercise?
One of the best changes you can make to your lifestyle is to start resistance training – that is any kind of activity that involves some kind of resistance, for example using weights or resistance bands.
Because osteoporosis risk skyrockets following menopause, strength training is especially vital. Strength training exercises will help to build bone and muscle strength, burn body fat, and rev up your metabolism.
Resistance training also improve the capacity of your muscles to tolerate more load - movement becomes more efficient and takes less effort. As such, improving strength has great transfer to other important qualities like walking efficiency, social sport performance and reducing risk of injury. Muscle strength naturally declines with age – the menopause is an excellent time to consider getting into exercise habits that will mean you take an active approach to retaining your strength as you get older.
Not only does resistance training help with burning body fat, increasing your metabolism, and lowering your risk of osteoporosis but its also been shown to have a strong positive impact on mood through the release of anti-depressant hormones such as serotonin and dopamine as part of the natural ‘endorphin’ release from exercise.
In one study, resistance exercise training significantly improved quality of life, Menopause Symptom Checklist scores and depression symptoms in menopausal women. Not surprisingly, improvement in other symptoms was strongly related with higher quality of life scores.
Following a tailored training program provides a source of focus when many other factors around the menopause can feel out of your control.
What benefits can I expect?
Less ‘brain fog’, a better mood and better sleep
By reducing highly processed foods you’ll decrease inflammation in your body and improve your gut health which plays a pivotal role in mood, cognition and immunity. On top of the benefits of a healthier diet, studies with post-menopausal women showed a decrease in acute and chronic inflammation markers as a result of resistance training. Reduced inflammation also helps to slow down the visible signs of ageing.
Not only that, but the breakdown and digestion of fibrous vegetables in the gut is essential for the production of neurotransmitters, ninety per cent of serotonin (the ‘happy chemical’) is produced in the gut – this is crucial to improve the low mood that can frequently accompany menopause.
Resistance training has also been shown to improve sleeping patterns which has a strong positive impact on your cognitive processing and mood.
Reduced risk of osteoporosis and breaks from falls as you get older
Studies show that resistance training helps to improve bone density and preserve bone health. This can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and breaks as we get older.
Reduced body fat and better muscle tone
A high-protein diet helps to offset Oestrogen plays a crucial role in muscle building and re-modelling, a benefit lost during menopause. The combination of a healthy diet and regular resistance training will increase your metabolism, which typically drops after menopause, and reduce body fat.
Reducing body fat is even more important during the menopause as oestrogen controls where and how women store body fat. When oestrogen production stops, this can increase the amount of visceral fat (fat stored around the organs) which is a predictor for heart disease and diabetes.
Is there anything else I can do?
As well as looking at your diet and exercise there are other changes that you can make to put yourself in the best possible position to manage the symptoms of the menopause.
Managing your stress levels not only puts you in a better position to deal with the symptoms of menopause but gives you a greater chance of being able to navigate life’s ups and downs without having to resort to food or alcohol.
Create a morning routine that gives you time to eat a nutritious breakfast, stretch, or meditate before you go into work mode and the rigors of daily life.
Similarly tick to an evening routine and avoid blue light devices, chores or anything stressful close to bedtime.
Schedule ‘me’ time that isn’t fitness-related, whether that’s reading, doing something creative or catching up with friends or book a massage.
Sleep Quality and Quantity
Sleep is the most underrated tool when it comes to achieving your health and fitness goals, it’s a factor that many find difficult, particularly during menopause. Here are a few tips to help improve your sleep:
Install blackout blinds or curtains or at the very least invest in a good quality sleep mask.
Keep your room cool and quiet, invest in earplugs if you live with a lot of ambient noise (or snoring partners).
Avoid heavy meals close to bedtime. Red meats are harder for you to breakdown and digest, choose poultry or fish instead
Establish a bedtime routine. In the hour before bed, avoid your phone, and other technology aswell as chores. Use the time to read book, take a bath stretch or meditate.
Write a gratitude diary every night – write down three things you are grateful for that happened during your day, this will put you in a more relaxed, happy, and positive mindset before going to sleep.
The menopause is when many women begin to see their health, fitness and physique deteriorate. The effects of the menopause can take their toll on muscle mass, bone strength and lead to weight gain.
Making good nutrition choices, reducing stress and improving sleep whilst introducing regular resistance training will improve hormonal and inflammatory issues which is paramount in preserving and increasing muscle mass, slowing down sarcopenia (muscle wasting) and increasing fat loss, allowing you to achieve the body you’ve always wanted whilst maintaining a healthy lifestyle.