You mention joint pain, weight gain, and food cravings in addition to hot flashes as symptoms of menopause. Menopause has such a variety of symptoms, depending on each individual. Lifestyle matters more; exercise is more important; adequate sleep and good nutrition—all of these have a greater impact to quality of life now than they did previously.
I wish I could tell you there is good data suggesting vitamins have a favorable impact on menopausal symptoms, but the trials looking at the specific supplements you mention and others suggest no benefit greater than placebo. But, hey, placebo has about a 30-percent response rate in any trial, so there is certainly no harm in using them. They provide some general vitamins that will not be harmful, and may help if you aren’t getting them in your diet.
The symptoms you mention could all potentially benefit from hormone therapy (HT). The loss of estrogen is huge for most women, and the loss of progesterone to some extent as well. For many women the only way to address symptoms adequately is to consider HT. More and more data suggests that HT is beneficial for women specifically with weight gain; that was a lead article in one of my journals just this week.
It’s a complicated journey that is nuanced, and each woman needs to assess her own symptoms and goals and determine the best approach to managing through menopause. It’s difficult to address all of the treatment options in a single Q&A. You might find the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) website helpful: menopause.org. They cover many issues related to menopause.
Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Joan Vernikos for my podcast series “Fullness of Midlife,” which are conversations with interesting people about health, love, life, and meaning. Dr. Joan was director of Life Sciences at NASA until 2000 when she “retired” to write and speak (some retirement!) about some of the groundbreaking research she had conducted from her special perch at NASA.
You can listen to the entire interview here, but I wanted to also distill the pertinent bits for MiddlesexMD readers.
As you might imagine, the effect of gravity, or lack thereof, is a fundamental concern for scientists at NASA. Astronauts are exposed to low-gravity environments, sometimes for months at a time, which has wide-ranging and deleterious effects on bones and organs, blood and cardiovascular systems. During her time at NASA, Dr. Joan specialized in the effects of gravity on the human system.
But here’s the thing: Dr. Joan came to understand that gravity operates on earthbound humans in similar ways! When we are upright and moving around, we are subject to the full effects of gravity pulling us to the center of the earth vertically. But when we are horizontal, lying in bed, for example, gravity’s pull is spread evenly throughout our bodies and is much less intense—similar to the experience of astronauts. “…The changes that accompanied lying in bed… 24 hours a day… are very similar to those we see in astronauts. Granted, maybe a little less intense,” said Dr. Joan.
Interestingly, these metabolic changes don’t happen when we sleep at night. Normal sleep appears to have a restorative, “detoxing” effect on the body and the brain, which is also important to good health.
Since the few astronauts who actually spent time living in micro-gravity were harder to find than subjects willing to lie in bed, Dr. Joan began studying the effects of long stretches of time spent horizontally. She found, for example, that after about four days “very significant changes” began to happen in the way her subjects metabolized fluids, in the cardiovascular system, and in stress responses. Of course, as with astronauts, these changes mostly were reversed when the test subjects got up and walked around or the astronauts came back to earth, and gravity took over.
Then, Dr. Joan visited a friend’s elderly mother who was bedridden, and she realized the low-gravity changes she’d been studying looked a lot like aging. Was there a link between our increasingly sedentary culture and the symptoms of early aging? Dr. Joan feels that the chronic diseases of the elderly—diabetes, cardiovascular problems, obesity, bone loss and muscle wasting—are happening at younger ages, even in childhood, because we no longer allow gravity to do its work. We sit too much and move too little.
Dr. Joan hypothesized that the body is meant to move all day long, and in the not-so-distant past, that happened pretty naturally. Our grandparents “…bent over and reached up and made beds and cleaned and washed and gardened. And went and bought groceries and walked home or rode a bicycle, or whatever.”
Following several studies, Dr. Joan feels that simply standing up is “fundamental” to countering the effects of inactivity. Simply standing up and then moving around reverses the micro-gravity effects of lying in bed—or of aging. Trouble is, we don’t live like our grandparents. More likely, we sit for hours in front of one screen or another in the office and at home. Then, if we’re disciplined, we might exercise a few times a week.
Exercising, while good in itself, isn’t enough to counteract the effect of sitting around for hours every day. Our bodies are designed to move, to work against gravity. That, not sitting, is our normal state, the result of eons of evolution.
After her 2011 book, “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals,” was published, a slew of new research supported the hypothesis she’d developed from her work at NASA: Long periods of inactivity have deleterious health effects. “…sitting makes worse absolutely everything. Whether you’re talking about cancer—prostate, breast cancer, cardiovascular conditions, stroke, metabolic conditions, diabetes, obesity—you name it, it makes it worse,” said Dr. Joan. (Here, for example, is NPR’s report on recent studies of aging subjects. The conclusion? If you don’t walk now, you might not be able to later.)
So, what should we do, especially if we’re still working and chained to a desk all day—but even if we’re retired and reading or knitting? Fortunately, the solution is simple. “Stand up!” says Dr. Joan. Go to the watercooler, the bathroom, just take a break every 30 minutes or so. You don’t need to hop on a treadmill or take a 30-minute walk, just stand up and move for a few minutes. You won’t lose weight or tone your muscles with this regimen; it isn’t meant to take the place of exercise and a healthy diet, but it’s a good habit to develop if you regularly sit for hours every day.
Gravity is your friend, says Dr. Joan. Embrace it!
In previous posts, we discussed why menopausal weight gain is such a game-changer, and we explored how to limit the damage through dietary changes. Now, we’ll talk about the second critical key for maintaining—or regaining—a healthy weight after menopause.
You know what I’m gonna say.
Exercise. Not only does a regular exercise regimen help you burn more calories, which is what weight loss is all about, but it can also give you a higher quality of life and actually stave off illness.
Longitudinal studies have found that people who are more fit at midlife have lower levels of chronic illnesses, such as heart failure, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, colon and lung cancers, as they age. Although other factors, such as heredity, play a role, in general, higher fitness levels were strongly linked with lower rates of major chronic illnesses. “Compression of morbidity” is when debilitating illness doesn’t happen until close to the end of life—and people with healthy, active lifestyles tend to have compression of morbidity.
How’s that for paybacks?
I can tell you from personal experience that a regular, moderately challenging exercise regimen relieves stress, helps you sleep better, reduces the “aches and pains” associated with aging, and helps you to keep up with normal activities of daily life. It regulates your bowels and your moods. And simply feeling stronger and more capable physically helps you to feel more capable and in control of your life generally.
However, I will also say that maintaining a serious (and by serious, I mean regular and moderately challenging) exercise regimen is not easy. It takes time and self-discipline. It makes you sweat. It makes you breathless and it might make you sore.
Not only that, you have to approach exercise differently in your golden years than you did before. You won’t be able to just take off running without a serious warm up; you’ll have to watch your form more carefully; you’ll want to opt for low-impact exercise. Your postmenopausal exercise regimen should contain four elements:
Lately, high intensity interval training (HIIT) is recommended to increase the effectiveness of an aerobic workout. In this regimen you alternate bursts of higher activity, such as jogging, with a less active period, such as walking. This gives you an “afterburner” effect in which your muscles continue to burn oxygen after the period of high activity. This AARP article has a good explanation of the benefits of HIIT.
Arguably, the hardest part about exercise is getting started. If you have any health conditions that might limit your activity, such as high blood pressure or arthritis, you need to talk with your doctor about what exercises you should and shouldn’t do.
Ideally, you should find a gym with classes or a trainer to get you started—to make sure you’re using correct form, and to show you how to use the machines. Yoga or Tai chi classes with experienced teachers are fantastic and motivational for establishing an exercise regimen.
If this isn’t practical or possible for you, you might turn to the internet for videos and programs. You want substance, knowledgeable leaders, and safety, not razzle-dazzle. Try Fitness Blender (free workout videos and programs for all levels of fitness), Daily Burn, ($15/month; variety of workouts, including yoga, tailored to age and fitness level) or Yoga Today ($15/month with a discount for yearly membership; many workouts tailored to fitness level).
The next hardest part of an exercise regimen is continuing. You will miss days; you will have days in which you don’t work as hard as you should. After a few missed sessions, starting again is hard. That’s just how it goes. You start over; you don’t quit.
Part of the battle is finding a program that works for you—one that is varied, challenging (you are progressively lifting heavier, going longer and faster), but that isn’t killing you. Soreness is good; pain is bad. Move carefully without overextending or snapping joints. Always warm up and cool down.
This is your new normal: a clean diet, a daily exercise regimen that alternates weight training and aerobic exercise and incorporates stretching and balance segments.
I promise you that every ounce of effort invested in a healthy diet and regular exercise will return to you many-fold in a much higher quality of life now and in lower risk of chronic illness down the road. Let me know how it goes and send me any questions you may have. This stuff is too important to overlook.
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.