What a week! The “busy bug” found me and bit me. 🙂 But I am otherwise very well, and I hope the same goes for you too.
After my last newsletter, Elaine wrote with a great question (thanks, Elaine). She asked, “Question about the weight gain around the middle. Is it unavoidable or even essential to have that belt of fat? A good friend of mine, who is also a qualified yoga teacher, told me that it is essential to have that belt of fat to retain or compensate for the lower level of oestrogen in the menopausal years. She said her gynae told her that. Say goodbye to the hourglass shape once past fertile years and accept the rectangle because it is nature’s way. True or false?”
Interestingly, this last weekend, one of the lectures on my degree was on “Nutritional Therapy and Healthy Aging.” Our lecturer asked if getting to 50 inevitably means you’ll get middle aged spread, and then proceeded to show us that that isn’t true, as she is living proof of that.
So why is it that we often see evidence of the thickening waistline, and an apparent shift in body shape from the pear (wide hips and thighs, with more weight below the waist, consisting of subcutaneous fat – that is, surface fat surrounding the muscle) to the apple (fat around the middle, and often, also around the organs, known as visceral fat)?
The short answer is, unbalanced hormones.
During our fertile years, oestrogen is produced by the ovaries, and as we get into our 40’s and 50’s, and we begin to stop ovulating, the body looks to its fat tissue to help with oestrogen production. Fat tissue contains an enzyme called aromatase, which converts testosterone to oestrogen, so this becomes an important element of our hormone mix, because oestrogen helps with other bodily changes too, such as slowing down postmenopausal bone loss (which itself also happens because of less oestrgen).
Overall, therefore, as we get into our 40’s and 50’s, we produce less oestrogen, and lower levels of oestrogen lead to a change in the distribution of fat, depositing more fat around the middle. This happens even without any weight gain.
The trouble is, fat around the middle (specifically visceral fat) is more metabolically active than subcutaneous fat, and increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Plus, it is highly receptive to stress, and with ongoing stress being common in our modern lives, the depositing of and holding onto fat in this area is exacerbated. Why? Because with the ongoing stress, the body thinks that it’s going to need readily accessible fuel for “fight or flight”, which is the only way it knows how to interpret stress.
However, in our modern lives, we generally don’t fight or flee, but we do tend to have chronically elevated stress levels. So the body continues to circulate energy in our bloodstream that it means for fighting or fleeing, upsetting our balance of hormones further, and depositing even more fat around the middle for the ongoing stress it believes it needs it for. And now, it’s not just oestrogen, there’s also the interplay of cortisol and insulin.
So does it mean that we have to say goodbye to the hourglass shape and accept the rectangle, and place all the blame on oestrogen?
The bottom line is that our bodies are hugely complex systems, and it isn’t as simple as saying that oestrogen on its own makes you fat around the middle. Too much is just as problematic as too little, and it’ll also be relative to other hormones like progesterone. It’s really about hormonal balance.
That’s why it’s especially important for women in their 40’s and 50’s, to manage their stress levels, to eat the right foods that help to keep their hormones balanced, and to have the right kind of movement, and daily moderate movement, such as walking in particular – because this uses up the energy in the system that the body thinks it needs for the ongoing stress. See how it’s all inter-related?
I’m not a hormone expert. This is something I’m learning more and more about. But what I do know, is that I used to have much more belly fat, and it all came to a head when I started getting episodes of hot flushes, night sweats and insomnia. And when I changed my diet and lifestyle, some of my waist returned, and the hot flushes and night sweats went. The insomnia took a little longer.
Perhaps the most interesting thing of all, is that if I tip the balance on my eating habits for long enough that I cross the threshold, some of those symptoms come back. And the good news is, I know exactly what to do to get right back into balance again. Now, my next target is to get into optimal balance. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, where are you at? Are there changes that you know would be beneficial for you to make, so that you can get some of your waistline back? How would that feel?
Make your next years your best years.