During menopause, weight is easy to gain (in fact, some weight gain is almost inevitable) and hard to lose, for all the reasons we mentioned in the last post: metabolic change, loss of muscle mass, hormonal change, sleep deprivation, and stress.
So, ladies, if you’re just entering menopause—heads up! Game-changer ahead! Women who enter menopause close to their ideal weight have a better chance of maintaining it; however, women who tend to yo-yo or who have a hard time maintaining a healthy weight will tend to end up at the high end of their weight range.
Whatever you did in your 30s to keep your weight in check isn’t going to work anymore. You’ve lost about 20 percent of your muscle mass and you need about 200 fewer calories per day you enter your 50s and 60s. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. Simply recognizing this fact may help you step away from the hamster wheel of yore and toward a regimen that actually works.
The good news is that the best weight management strategy—the one that will work for the long haul—will also keep you stronger, more flexible, healthier, and capable of maintaining an active lifestyle for far longer. You’ll be able to travel, garden, play with the grandkids, get up off the floor, carry heavier loads, and remain generally pain-free.
The bad news is that it’s hard. A realistic and effective strategy to maintain a healthy weight requires self-discipline and lifestyle change. For the rest of your life. As you’ve probably guessed, you have to get serious about exercise and your diet—how much and what kind of food you put in your mouth.
Sure, you can go on a killer diet; you can take medications that will help you lose weight. But you probably already know the drill here—without lifestyle change, you’ll put it right back on and then some. Only now, you’re much more vulnerable to a host of serious, life-altering ailments, such as joint problems, diabetes, and cardiovascular trouble.
So let’s talk about ways of eating that work for older women. We’re not talking about draconian measures that you’ll have a hard time maintaining. In fact, overly rigorous dieting can actually cause you to lose muscle mass and slow your metabolism even more, which is the last thing you need right now.
“My body has changed, so I’ve got to change with it. I can’t do what I did 20 years ago and expect to stay slim,” says nutritionist and co-author of The Full Plate Diet Dr. Diana Fleming in this article.
Staying fit and trim after menopause is no picnic, but feeling healthy, capable, and in control of your life is worth every uneaten ounce of chocolate.
As if the hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats, and sexual challenges weren’t enough, now you can add weight gain to the menopausal whammy.
That’s right. In case you hadn’t noticed (fat chance!), women tend to gain about 10-15 pounds on average—from 3 to 30 pounds is the typical range—during and after menopause. And because our entire metabolic mechanism is different now, that weight is blessedly hard to take off.
“I feel like my body has betrayed me,” said one of my patients.
“Prior to menopause I was able to maintain a weight loss of 70 pounds. I see that 25 pounds have come back and nothing I seem to do is helping,” said another woman.
Weight gain during menopause isn’t totally related to “the change.” Lifestyle, genetics, and, yes, hormonal fluctuation all play their respective roles, for better or for worse. But the weight goes on, and the way that happens is different from weight gain in previous years.
So, if you’re accustomed to losing weight easily—or not gaining it in the first place—this development may come as a puzzling and unpleasant surprise. And if you struggle with your weight, be forewarned: The deck is about to be reshuffled, and that struggle may become harder yet. The single bright spot is that you’re in a very big boat with a lot of other menopausal gals—up to 90 percent of us gain weight during this transition, according to this article.
Menopausal weight gain is different because:
In order to effectively tackle this unsettling turn of events and to grasp why the things you did before aren’t working now, it helps to understand the underlying mechanism.
For one thing, muscle mass, which is an efficient burner of calories, slowly decreases with age. Now, even your resting metabolism (when you aren’t active) is lower. Adding insult to injury, loss of estrogen compounds this effect. Studies of lab animals suggest that estrogen has a regulating effect on appetite and weight gain. Animals with lower estrogen levels ate more and moved less.
When the ovaries stop producing estrogen, fat cells tend to take over. Ovaries produce estradiol, a “premium” estrogen; fat cells produce estrone, which is a weak, inefficient estrogen. This hormonal change increases the body’s efficiency at depositing fat, especially, we find, around the abdomen.
A recent study confirmed that certain proteins and enzymes that enable cells to store more fat and to burn it less become more active in post-menopausal women. “Taken together, these changes in bodily processes may be more than a little surprising—and upsetting—for women who previously had little trouble managing their weight,” comments Sylvia Santosa, assistant professor in Concordia University’s Department of Exercise Science in this article.
You got that right, sister.
Menopause packs a couple more weight-inducing changes: insomnia and stress. When you don’t sleep well (and who does, what with night sweats and cratering mood swings?), levels of ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone,” rise and levels of the “fullness hormone” leptin drop. That’s why you get the nighttime munchies. A study of over 1,000 volunteers (The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study) found that those who slept less had higher ghrelin levels and lower leptin levels—and also had a higher body mass index (BMI), i.e. they weighed more.
And we all know what stress eating does to our waistline.
So, what’s a stressed-out, sleep-deprived, menopausal woman to do? It’s a challenge, without doubt. However, when we understand the mechanism—what’s happening to our bodies on a biological level—then we realize that doing what we did before isn’t going to work. We need to change up the paradigm if we want to control our weight and maintain a healthy, active post-menopausal lifestyle.
This paradigm shift involves a different approach to both diet (Note: I did not say dieting!) and exercise. No magic pharma pill or painless regimen. Still, we can regain control of the bathroom scales despite the slings and arrows of our slowing metabolism and estrogen-storing fat cells. And honestly, we might end up with better health habits than we ever had before.
Estrogen, as you know all too well these days, does a lot of good things for your body and your mood. Maybe you didn’t know that it also does a lot of good things for your brain.
“In preclinical studies, estrogen was shown to improve energy production, reduce oxidative stress, increase brain cell survival during damage, enhance the release of protective chemicals, and improve memory,” according to this recent article.
So, you may ask, what the heck happens in the brain when estrogen disappears after menopause? Researchers are also asking if estrogen, or the lack thereof, plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, which disproportionately affects women.
Neither menopause nor lack of estrogen is directly linked to dementia, or specifically, to Alzheimer’s disease. No smoking gun or causal connection has been found despite numerous studies comparing women who have taken estrogen with those who haven’t.
“…Evidence from cohorts in Melbourne, the United Kingdom, and rural Taiwan suggests that the natural menopausal transition probably does not have important effects on episodic memory or most other cognitive skills,” states this National Institutes of Health (NIH) article.
So, what does happen in the brain when estrogen production declines after menopause? Are all those “senior moments” really the result of our estrogen-starved gray matter? Does estrogen replacement therapy (ERT), have any effect on brain health? Finally, although no treatment exists for Alzheimer’s disease, could estrogen play a role in preventing or delaying its onset?
While these are all tantalizing questions that researchers are beginning to tease apart, no actionable answers are forthcoming, yet. Frankly, research results are all over the map. You may remember the groundbreaking 2002 Women’s Health Initiative that was responsible for a seismic shift in the routine use of estrogen therapy after concerns about risk of breast cancer and heart disease--some of which were misunderstood or at least miscommunicated.
Less well-known was that a cognitive component to that study (the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study) found that the risk of dementia increased, sometimes dramatically, for women over 65 who were on hormone therapy.
However, several recent studies suggest that beginning hormone therapy at a younger age may have a protective effect on the brain. A recent study in Norway and another in Finland determined that taking estrogen before and during menopause, resulted in increased brain volume, especially in the hippocampus, which is the area associated with memory and sense of place and which is most disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease.
These conflicting results have led to the “critical window” hypothesis: that at some points in the menopausal transition, estrogen may help preserve brain function while at others, not so much.
“Most researchers seem to accept the idea that a critical window exists during which estrogen treatment is most likely to be beneficial. ‘The question is, when is that window open, and when is it closed?’ ” said Roberta Diaz-Brinton in this article.
Diaz-Brinton suggested that healthy cells may be more likely to respond positively to estrogen but older or “sickly” cells may not. This is the “healthy cell bias of estrogen.”
Frustratingly, for those of us approaching menopause, the data continues to roll in and not much is consistent enough to define a course of action. Obviously, a bunch of variables confound the picture: how the estrogen is administered (whether by pill or patch); what kind of estrogen is administered (bioidentical, equine, or some other formula); certain genetic factors; the combined effect of estrogen plus progestogen (for women who still have a uterus); plus all the other variables of country, culture, health, and lifestyle.
The current position of the NIH, which can be expected to take a conservative position, is that “it is unknown whether estrogen effects on Alzheimer risk are modified by age of use or by use during a critical window close to the time of menopause.”
Probably the most reasonable course of action is to continue to follow general medical guidelines to take the smallest dosage of estrogen for the shortest period of time to relieve menopausal symptoms. According to the most recent studies, that’s when it might do your brain the most good. Beyond the menopausal years, evidence suggests that it either has no effect or it has a negative one.
And, for our daughters’ sake if not our own, let’s continue to speak out about the importance of research in women’s as well as men’s health. We are not the same.
Okay. We’ve talked about sexual lubricants before. Many times. And for good reason. Vaginal dryness and the associated pain with sex, penetration, and sometimes daily life is possibly the #1 issue I deal with in my practice.
Insufficient lubrication during sex isn’t just a problem of menopause—many women experience it at various times of life—during pregnancy, with insufficient foreplay, or while on certain medications, for example. Or just because.
Fortunately, the sexual lubricants are an easy, safe way to make sex more comfortable and fun.
One critical distinction: Lubricants are for use during sex to increase comfort and reduce friction. They coat whatever surface they’re applied to (including the penis and sex toys) but they aren’t absorbed by the skin, thus, they have to be (or naturally are) washed off. Moisturizers, on the other hand, are specially formulated to soften and moisten vaginal tissue. Like any lotion, they should be used regularly and are absorbed into vaginal and vulvar tissue. Moisturizers are for maintenance; lubricants are for sexual comfort.
Basically, there are three types of sexual lubricants: water-based, silicone, and a newer hybrid formulation. Each has unique characteristics and limitations. Water-based lubes are thick, feel natural, don’t stain, and don’t damage silicone toys. They rinse off easily with water. However, they tend to dry out more quickly (although they can be re-activated with water), and don’t provide long-lasting lubrication. Water-based lubricants may contain glycerin, which tastes sweet, but can exacerbate yeast infections.
Some lubes contain “warming” ingredients, such as capsaicin, the ingredient that gives chili peppers their heat, or minty, or menthol-y oils. They’re intended to enhance sensation, increase blood flow to the genitals, and create a “tingly-warm” feeling. As such, they’re good for foreplay and use on vulva, clitoris, penis, nipples, external vaginal tissue, but not internally if they contain essential oil.
Use warming oils and lubricants with caution, however, since delicate or dry vulvar-vaginal tissue may respond with a fiery-hot rather than pleasantly warm sensation.
Silicone lubes are the powerhouse of personal lubricants. They tend to feel slick and last three times as long as the water-based option. They’re hypoallergenic, odorless, and tasteless. They may stain and they will destroy silicone surfaces on other equipment, so you can’t use silicone lubes anywhere near your expensive silicone vibrator. They wash away with soap and water.
At this life stage, you can put away your coupons and dispense with frugality. Your vagina deserves the best! Not only have those tissues become more delicate, your vagina also has a finely balanced pH level that (usually) protects against yeast and bacterial infections. Cheap or homemade lubricants can seriously mess with tender tissue and that natural acidity.
Use only products recommended for vaginal lubrication—not baby oil, vegetable or essential oils, petroleum jelly, or saliva. (Note: Oil destroys the latex in condoms and leaves behind a film that is a bacteria magnet.) Look for organic, natural, and high-quality ingredients (we look for these for our shop).
Each individual (and couple) ends up with one or more faves when it comes to lubricants. So make this a fun exploration for the products that work best, both for solo and couple play. If you don’t like one lube, a different type or brand might be just the ticket; don’t give up on lubes altogether.
Because the options for various lubricants are legion, we’ve tried to narrow the field in search of only the most effective and safest products for our shop. We examine the ingredients and opt for the most natural and organic brands possible. We also look at the philosophy of the company that makes them. We’ve been known to do quite a bit of research “in the field,” as well.
In the spirit of experimentation, we’ve put together a selection of seven sachets of water, hybrid, and silicone-based lubes in a handy sample kit. You can give them a whirl without the investment in a full bottle of lube that ends up in your sock drawer.
New lubricant options appear with some regularity, and we evaluate and add them periodically. If you’ve found something you love, let us know; other women may be happy to learn about the option!
Getting old ain’t for sissies, and neither is menopause. For all you guys out there with menopausal partners, maybe you’ve noticed her, um, lack of patience. Maybe you’ve been caught in the crosshairs of her mood swings. Maybe you’ve been awoken at night to her tossing and night-sweat-induced turning.
And maybe she just isn’t interested in sex anymore.
In my practice, I usually hear the woman’s side, but I know you’re an uncomfortably intimate co-pilot on this journey. You may be feeling confused, hurt, rejected, and helpless. This person you thought you knew is changing before your eyes. You don’t know how to help; you don’t know what this means—and it seems to be going on forever.
You miss the sex, the intimacy, the person you used to know. You miss the way things used to be, and you don’t know if or when any of these things will ever come back.
You aren’t alone. Says 70-year-old Larry in this article: “When she got to about 65 it started to change. Intercourse became painful for her and she developed an allergy to semen. Now intercourse is out of the question and she has no desire for anything other than hugs.”
Life—and sex—does change during menopause, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a relationship without intimacy forever. Shifting ground is treacherous, but with some work on both your parts, you’ll weather the storm, and emerge stronger than before.
Here’s what you can do:
Walk a mile in her shoes. Depending on the intensity of her symptoms, your partner is going through moods that may swing wildly without rhyme or reason, and over which she has no control. She may experience uncomfortable and embarrassing hot flashes frequently and unpredictably. She may toss and turn at night, waking soaked with sweat.
She may gain weight, lose her hair, and generally grow old before her own eyes. This can be particularly galling in a culture that is completely besotted with youth and beauty. “A woman’s self-esteem influences her sexuality, and low self-esteem is associated with sexual dysfunction,” according to this article.
What you can do: Educate yourself on menopause. Understand the trajectory and the tortuous path it takes. Read this blog. Learn about comfort measures and possible treatment options. There are many. She may be too embarrassed or miserable to do her own research or even to bring it up.
Armed with understanding, you can reassure and support. You can say, “You seem pretty down [or angry, or forgetful]. Are you okay? What can I do to help?” That alone may make an intimate connection, but this isn’t about sex right now. This is about reaching out to your lover who’s going through one of the most significant transitions in her life.
Now that you’ve asked, listen. And keep listening. Be an ally and a partner in this journey. Check in frequently to see how she’s feeling. Don’t advise unless you’re asked. Just listen. If she talks with her girlfriends, fine. But let her know you’re in her court. Most important—reassure her that she’s still beautiful to you. Girlfriends can’t do that.
Follow up with actions. Don’t sit on the couch while your partner makes dinner and then watch the game while she cleans up. Nothing says love like taking out the garbage or doing the dishes so she can take a bath. Once in a while, go out of your way. Cook a special, romantic meal. (You can order from one of those home-delivered meal plans, like Blue Apron or HelloFresh.) Send her flowers or plan a surprise getaway weekend. No expectations; no pressure—just an expression of your love and caring.
Get healthy. I harp on this all the time, but both you and she will feel a whole lot better (and feel more like sex) if you’re eating healthfully, maintaining a good weight, and exercising. You can gently encourage walks together, healthy eating, and good sleep habits. Don’t be a drill sergeant, but your good example and attempt to make it a couple’s thing can’t hurt.
Shake things up. Boredom is a slow leak in the sex balloon. I’m not talking about having sex on the kitchen table. But just exploring the array of tools and props that can add sizzle and simple comfort to the routine. Since your partner is probably experiencing the common menopausal complaints of dry vaginal tissue, painful sex, loss of libido, you’ll have to shake up the routine anyway.
You’ll need lots of foreplay, lots of lube, and some toys. Try reading an erotic story or watching a sexy movie together to get your heads in the game. Don’t downplay the effect of a romantic ambiance—candles, incense, music. Use pillows to cushion joints and prop up the bits that matter. Try positions that might relieve pressure, offer a different kind of contact, or just be more comfortable.
Take your time and maybe forgo the literal act if the timing’s off. You can kiss, cuddle, spoon. You can use your tongue and mouth. You can masturbate together. Take the pressure off the performance and focus on trust and intimacy.
Don’t take it personally if she just doesn’t respond the way she used to. It isn’t about you, and it isn’t personal.
Find a counselor, if necessary. Generally, celibacy isn’t a healthy state in a marriage. If you’ve reached an impasse, and there’s no way out, you may have to get some help. This isn’t an admission of defeat; it’s a sign of maturity and wisdom to look for help when you need it. If your wife won’t go, you need to find a therapist for yourself to acquire the emotional tools to navigate your relationship.
I’ll leave you with the beautiful and encouraging counsel from the perspective of a 40-year marriage: “…we have found ways to enjoy sex with each other that do not need penetration. Mutual masturbation and oral and always with some nice foreplay, we still enjoy each other.
“I miss intercourse…but we make it work, and it’s usually fun! I hope some men will read this and decide there’s a way to stay happy with the woman of your youth.”
Lots of attention has focused on the finicky female orgasm in recent years, from Dr. Rosemary Basson’s model of the female sexual response cycle to the helpful finding of just how female anatomy influences the probability of vaginal orgasm.
A new study from Chapman University, Indiana University, and the Kinsey Institute colored in some details of female sexual response, in part by rounding up a wide net of participants. Over 52,000 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 responded to an online survey, including a more robust sample of those who identify as gay, lesbian, and bisexual.
The take-away from all this analysis was the jaw-dropping finding (tongue in cheek) that men (95 percent) orgasm dependably, while women, not so much (65 percent). About 44 percent of women said they rarely or never reach orgasm with vaginal intercourse alone, a number that is quite low compared to other studies suggesting that fully 70 percent of women don’t orgasm with vaginal penetration. These numbers point (again) to some very significant differences in sexual response, which in turn, lead to significant misunderstanding between Venus and Mars.
“About 30 percent of men actually think that intercourse is the best way for women to have orgasm, and that is sort of a tragic figure because it couldn’t be more incorrect,” said Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd, a professor of biology at Indiana University and author of The Case of the Female Orgasm in this article.
Additionally, while 41 percent of men think their partner orgasms frequently, far fewer women (33 percent) say they actually do orgasm. The researchers note that this difference could be due to women faking orgasm for several reasons: “to protect their partner’s self-esteem, intoxication, or to bring the sexual encounter to an end.”
The researchers were particularly interested in the disparity between how dependably lesbian women orgasm (89 percent) versus heterosexual women (that 65 percent figure). They theorize that this is due, in part, to women having a better anatomical understanding of each other’s needs.
The headliner result of all those survey is a “Golden Trio” of sexual moves that the researchers say are almost guaranteed to induce the Meg Ryan-style “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in women: clitoral stimulation, deep kissing, and oral sex. Even without vaginal penetration, 80 percent of heterosexual woman and 91 percent of lesbian women were able to orgasm dependably with this magic trio. (Although deep kissing and oral sex seem either mutually exclusive or tremendously acrobatic.)
The research noted that women who orgasm more frequently also have sex more frequently and are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships. Whether satisfying sex is the chicken or the egg—a contributor to a satisfying relationship or an effect of a good relationship, it’s safe to say that the two go hand-in-hand. Good sex and good relationships are both enhanced when partners communicate about what works and include a healthy dollop of fun and flirtation.
“I would like [women] to take that home and think about it, and to think about it with their partners and talk about it with their partners,” said Lloyd. “If they are not fully experiencing their fullest sexual expression to the maximum of their ability, then I think our paper has something to contribute to their wellbeing.”
Regular or decaf. White wine or red. Chocolate or vanilla.
Choices abound. Some are inconsequential—the whim of the moment. Others matter, like your choice of health care provider. I’d like to make the case that, although you may be well past childbearing years, you haven’t outgrown being a woman. Ergo, you still have very unique and specific needs that are best served by a specialist with training and experience in all things feminine.
Most gynecologists see an abrupt migration of their older patients to internal medicine or family practice providers. “…between ages 45 and 55, you start to see a very sharp decline in the number of encounters between women and their ob/gyn--and a mirror-image rise in visits to internal medicine,” says Dr. Michael Zinaman, director of reproductive endocrinology at Loyola University Medical Center in this article.
Not for one moment am I suggesting that this is a bad thing. General practitioners take a broad and thorough approach to patient care. In a typical exam on an older woman, an internist would screen for diabetes, colon and other common cancers, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and cholesterol, anemia and other blood disorders—basically, the whole enchilada. Since heart disease is the #1 killer for women, it’s a good idea to have this type of broad screening every year.
Internists also counsel with patients about lifestyle issues, such as smoking or weight control, diet or exercise (which I also do regularly). And they might refer and coordinate a patient’s care with various specialists.
So, why might a woman who no longer needs reproductive care and who may or may not even have her reproductive organs continue to see a gynecologist? Well, for all the stuff we talk about on this website, for starters.
Older women have specific needs and vulnerabilities for which gynecologists have deep and specific training and experience. The incidence of breast and ovarian cancers increase with age, for example. And although internists may do pelvic exams (and note that “may”; even when, after age 65, we no longer need a pap smear, we still need regular pelvic exams) and order mammograms, gynecologist have years of practice in detection and treatment.
Then, there are all those everyday annoyances of menopause and an aging reproductive system—pelvic organ prolapse, incontinence, hormonal disruption, and all those vexing sexual changes we address here on MiddlesexMD. When it comes to treating these quotidian challenges to health and well-being, gynecologists are simply the specialist. We’re more likely to know about new treatments and medications; we’re more likely to catch anomalies; we’re very attuned to kinds of changes that can signal something serious.
But the bottom line? This isn’t one of those either/or decisions. You can choose between a chocolate sundae and a frozen yogurt, but the choice isn’t between a gynecologist and a general practitioner.
You need both. And both healthcare providers need to be working together for you. “A collaborative approach would be very good,” said Dr. C. Anderson Hedberg, head of general internal medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center.
In one study comparing the type of screenings women tended to receive from primary care doctors as opposed to gynecologists, researchers found that gynecologists were more likely to screen for cervical and breast cancers, and osteoporosis, while primary care doctors were more likely to test for colon cancer, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
I’m thinking you wouldn’t want to miss out on any of this fun stuff, and you sure want to know early on about issues or warning signs. But in the end, you make the judgment calls about your health. You decide what doctor to see and how often and whether or not to follow medical advice. That’s as it should be.
Having the right medical team on your side simply gives you the ability to make the best, most informed choices.
I’m not sure which "tightening product" you’ve seen. The only way to tighten the vagina is to tighten the surrounding muscles. Kegel exercises (we give instructions on our website) target the muscles of the pelvic floor. And many women find that exercise tools (like vaginal weights or a barbell) helps them be sure they’re flexing the right muscles. I also recommend the Intensity Pelvic Tone Vibrator, which uses a combination of electrical pulses and vibration to build pelvic tone.
The sexual arousal creams and gels are effective, and beneficial to most women who use them. Like our category of “warming lubricants and oils,” they typically use an ingredient like menthol, mint, or pepper to stimulate circulation, which increases responsiveness during intimacy. Read the instructions for the product you intend to use, to be sure you understand whether it’s for internal or only external use; lubricants are generally safe for internal tissues.
Arousal and warming products have the potential to cause some irritation for those women with significant atrophy, or thinning of the vulvovaginal tissues. I recommend applying a small amount to the genitals in advance of sex to make sure it’s comfortable and pleasurable.
Intrarosa is a new product for treating vaginal atrophy, approved by the FDA in November of 2016. It will be available by prescription only; it’s not yet in pharmacies but is likely to be later in 2017. The clinical trials for Intrarosa are favorable for treating vaginal atrophy, or genitourinary syndrome of menopause causing painful intercourse. It is an adrenal hormone, prasterone (dehydroepiandrosterone), formulated as a once-a-day vaginal insert.