It’s almost like there’s a switch that gets flipped on your 40th birthday. Even if you’ve never struggled with weight in your life, you suddenly start to get a little belly fat. It seems like everything you eat causes weight gain, but it’s so much harder to lose it than when you were younger.
If you’re a woman over 40, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. The changes you’re experiencing aren’t in your head, and you are not alone. Our reproductive hormones begin to change in our early 40s as we near menopause. These hormones have a direct impact on metabolism.
I previously wrote about how hormones fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle and how those fluctuations impact metabolism. In this article, we’ll explore the changes that occur as we age and how to support hormones and maintain balance with nutrition and exercise.
With a few adjustments to nutrition and exercise, you can be a fit and fierce woman well beyond 40!
How Do Hormones Change After 40?
The phase of life leading up to menopause is known as perimenopause. Every woman is different, so exact timing of when perimenopause begins and how long it lasts varies. That said, perimenopause typically begins in your early- to mid-40s and can last anywhere from a few months to several years.
During perimenopause, the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone begin to fluctuate less predictably. Over time, estrogen declines to the point where menstruation stops. Menopause occurs after 12 consecutive months of no menstruation.
Estrogen contributes to several functions in your body beyond reproduction and menstruation. Some of these functions include regulating metabolism, body temperature management, immune function, and stress regulation.
Symptoms of Changing Hormones
Common symptoms associated with changing hormones during perimenopause include:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Irregular periods
- Mood changes
- Trouble sleeping
- Brain fog or lack of concentration
- Increased abdominal fat
- GI issues
- Vaginal dryness
- More frequent urination
In addition to these common symptoms, it is important to note that estrogen plays a role in muscle development and maintenance. It remains uncertain exactly how estrogen impacts muscles, but it’s believed that it may be via multiple pathways.
Estrogen is believed to increase the body’s responsiveness to muscle development. It may also protect the body against muscle breakdown. Finally, estrogen is a known antioxidant and may protect muscles from breakdown by reducing inflammation. (3)
Over time, women with lower estrogen levels are at increased risk of muscle loss. Loss of muscle can lead to loss of bone density as well, increasing risk of osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. It’s important to begin preventive measures for muscle and bone loss as early as possible. Read on for nutrition and exercise tips to support your health through this transition.
Nutrition to Support Hormones and Metabolism
One of the biggest complaints from women going through perimenopause is weight gain and/or changes to body shape. I understand how frustrating this can be, but I strongly encourage you to resist the urge to turn to extreme diets. Cutting calories below what your body needs and/or restricting entire food groups may just increase inflammation and stress in the body, which will further impair metabolism.
The best nutrition strategy for minimizing the symptoms of your changing hormones is to make sure your body is getting the right nutrients to support your health.
Over 40, you need a little more protein in your diet than you did in your 20s. Be sure to include plenty of plant sources of protein such as soy, beans, nuts, and seeds. If you eat animal products, focus on lean sources, such as poultry and fish. Limit processed meats, such as sausage and bacon.
Your main sources of carbs should be vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans/legumes. Avoid high intake of sugars and refined starches, as they are more likely to lead to abdominal weight gain.
Additionally, below are some specific nutrients that become especially important for your health during this time.
Phytoestrogen, which literally translates to “plant estrogen”, mimicks estrogen in the body. It’s found in most plants, but foods considered high in phytoestrogen include soy, broccoli, flax seeds, carrots, apples, lentils, oats, and almonds.
Studies have shown that phytoestrogens may improve BMI, cholesterol, blood sugar, and bone density in post-menopausal women. Additionally, researchers have observed antioxidant properties from phytoestrogens similar to those of estrogen. (1)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acid is a type of fat found in fish and seafood, nuts and seeds, and soy beans. Omega-3s are known to lower inflammation in the body. As estrogen levels decline, inflammation tends to increase. Inflammation is detrimental to immune function, and it can also cause weight gain and insulin resistance.
Omega-3s also support brain function and mood, both of which commonly change during perimenopause.
As noted, you can easily get omega-3s via food. It’s recommended to eat fish/seafood 2-3 times per week, and consume nuts, seeds, and soy regularly. If you’re unable to consistently consume omega-3-rich foods, it’s a good idea to supplement with 1-3 grams daily. (4) Fish oil supplements are most common, but if you are opposed to taking fish oil you can also take an algae-based omega-3 supplement.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium is vital to bone health and vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption in the body. These two go together like chocolate and peanut butter or peanut butter and jelly (can you tell I love peanut butter?).
That said, estrogen also plays a role in calcium absorption and lower estrogen levels lead to decreased calcium absorption. In order to maintain bone health as we age, it’s more important than ever to get plenty of calcium and vitamin D.
Good sources of calcium include dairy, fish with bones, and fortified cereals and juices. Recommended intake is 1000 mg per day for pre-menopausal women and 1200 mg per day for after menopause. At least 2-3 servings of calcium-rich foods daily is sufficient to meet needs. Ideally, you would meet your calcium needs via diet, but if you don’t consume dairy, you should consider a calcium supplement. (2)
Our bodies produce vitamin D when we’re exposed to sun. These days, though, we spend very little time in direct sun and when we do, we’re covered in clothing and sunscreen that block UV rays. Some foods provide vitamin D, including fish, dairy, mushrooms, and fortified foods. That said, obtaining sufficient vitamin D via diet is often challenging.
Vitamin D deficiency is fairly common. If you don’t spend time in the sun, you may want to consider a supplement of 1000-4000 IU daily. (4)
Magnesium is required for hundreds of reactions in your body, including carbohydrate metabolism, synthesis of protein, and vitamin D production. About 60% of your body’s magnesium is stored in bones, so bone health is impacted by magnesium levels as well. (4)
Magnesium is available in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. It is also found in seafood. While it should be easy to consume plenty of magnesium in your diet, some challenges arise.
A diet low in plant foods and seafood will be low in magnesium. Additionally, studies have shown that environmental changes and farming practices have depleted magnesium in much of the earth’s soil. That said, unprocessed plant foods remain the best sources of magnesium.
The recommended intake of magnesium is 310-320 mg per day for women, however a high sugar diet, diabetes, elevated stress levels, excessive intake of alcohol or coffee, and physical activity can deplete magnesium levels in the body. (4)
Magnesium also plays a role in balancing hormones and has been shown to improve symptoms experienced in perimenopause, such as hot flashes, sleep disruptions, and mood changes. (5)
I will go into detail on the various types of magnesium supplements in a separate post, but if you think you may benefit from magnesium supplementation, start with a low dose of 200 mg.
Exercise to Boost Metabolism
If you read this blog regularly, you’re likely already on board with exercise. Yay! Studies have shown that women who are physically active report fewer symptoms related to hormonal changes than their sedentary peers. (3) That said, how you exercise matters more than ever now.
As previously mentioned, when estrogen levels begin to decline, we are at greater risk of muscle loss. Muscle uses more calories than fat tissue, and it stabilizes your skeletal system. Muscle is necessary for weight management and it’s critical for maintaining bone mass. As such, strength training should be a part of every woman’s exercise regimen.
Strength training 2-3 days per week, preferably with high weight/low reps, will help build critical muscle to keep you strong and lean well beyond menopause.
And we all know that cardio exercise burns calories, strengthens your cardiovascular system, and boosts metabolism, so aim for at least 150 minutes per week.
Stay Fierce After 40
As we age, our bodies change. That is a fact. It doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion, however, that we are just going to gain weight and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m not going to promise you can get back to your high school weight. For most of us, that’s unrealistic. But, with some adjustments to diet and exercise, we can be fitter than ever well beyond menopause.
It’s important to focus on a well-balanced diet that provides plenty of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Limit refined sugars and starches to help minimize inflammation and abdominal weight gain.
Due to the tendency for muscle loss as our hormones change, your exercise regimen should include at least 2-3 days of strength training. Strength training paired with at least 150 minutes per week of cardo exercise helps maintain healthy metabolism.
For more guidance on how to integrated into your diet the foods that support your hormones and metabolism, download my FREE guidebook, Essential Foods for Active Women Over 40 here!