It's springtime! Are you still waiting for that winter weight to melt? For many of us, winter means seeing a shifting scale.
Most people gain about one pound over the winter months, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. And while one pound seems relatively harmless, that extra poundage is the result of both fat gain and muscle loss, which can put your waistline -- and your health -- at risk. Gaining as little as 4.4 pounds after age 50 could increase your risk of breast cancer by 30 percent, according to Mayo Clinic.
Regardless of what number you see on the scale, women's weight through menopause and perimenopause is largely determined by five factors: hormones, diet, exercise, stress and genetics. Though we may not be able to control all of these factors on our own, a healthy weight is certainly within reach and should be an achievable goal.
Here are my five steps to help you shed those extra menopausal pounds:
1. Don't let your hormones get the best of you. Research shows that estrogen receptors located in the hypothalamus of the brain control food intake, energy expenditure, and body fat distribution. When estrogen levels in the brain dip during menopause, this control panel increases hunger, slows metabolism, and encourages fat gain around the waist. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could potentially be improved upon to keep the brain's estrogen receptors from promoting hunger, a sluggish metabolism, and a growing waistline during menopause. Currently, HRT may prevent abdominal fat gain, according to research from Gunma University School of Medicine in Japan.
2. Quit dieting. Deprivation diets cause weight gain, not loss. Since they don't provide your body the energy (aka calories) it needs, they can cause your body to slow its metabolism to conserve resources, according to Mayo Clinic. On the flip side, in one study of 465 overweight and obese postmenopausal women by the University of Pittsburgh, women who simply ate more fruits and vegetables while reducing their consumption of desserts, meat, and cheese not only dropped pounds, but maintained that weight loss for four years. If you are looking for an actual program to help you eat healthier, Weight Watchers is frequently recommended by physicians and recently topped US and World News Report's "Best Diets" list for weight loss. My husband and I tried it with great success! At first I was reticent, as I would rather have a Pap smear than have to add up points. But if you use the Weight Watchers app, all the adding is done for you. No math needed! WW taught us a new way of eating that was size shrinking and life changing!
3. Exercise. Physical activity not only wards off weight gain, but keeps the body young. Exercising during and after menopause can help maintain the muscle and bone mass that we tend to lose rapidly after menopause, according to the American Council on Exercise. If you're unsure of where to start, try taking a walk! While all exercise raises your fitness and feel-good endorphin levels, breaking a sweat outside has been shown to increase energy and positive thinking while slashing tension, anger, and depression even better than indoor exercising, according to a review published in the Environmental Science and Technology. Wearing a pedometer--though it may seem geeky--could give you serious incentive to move more. So clip one on and start counting!
4. Slash stress. It's hard to relax, especially when you're going through the trials of menopause, but it's important for your mind and body to decompress. Stress not only tends to add weight around your belly but can also boost your appetite, creating a vicious cycle. High stress is a predictor of weight gain and can break your will to stick with a diet, according to research from King's College London. Here's my prescription: Find some form of exercise that makes you smile. Grab your lover or friend and take a walk, ride your bike or go to the gym. Take the time to read a book, watch a favorite TV show or simply enjoy your family and friends. Whatever helps you decompress.
5. Control your genes. No, not the "skinny jeans" you bought last September and can no longer squeeze your bod into, but your actual genetics. They play a huge role in weight at any age. If your female relatives developed curves in their later years, you probably will too -- unless you do something about it! Yes, you can change your genes. Walking briskly for an hour a day can cut the genetic influence toward obesity in half, according to a study from the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. However, a sedentary lifestyle (aka watching TV for four hours a day) increases the influence of your genes on weight gain by 50 percent, according to the study.
Reaching out is IN! Suffering in silence is OUT! Remember: It's totally normal to suddenly find that you are a member of the sisterhood of the shrinking pants, especially if you're going through perimenopause and menopause. But it's never too late to start living a healthier life. Your brain and body will thank you and so will those clothes collecting dust in your closet. Take the first step! Go ahead -- you can do it!
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Ellen Dolgen is a Health and Wellness Advocate, Menopause Awareness Expert, Author, Speaker, and Health Blogger. Ellen is the author of Shmirshky: The Pursuit of Hormone Happiness -- a cut-to-the-chase book on perimenopause and menopause that's filled with crucial information, helpful guides, and hilarious and heartfelt stories. Known for her humor, compassion, and sassy personality, Ellen has appeared on numerous television and radio broadcasts, including: The Rachael Ray Show, The Doctors, Oprah Radio, Playboy Radio, "Tell Me More" on NPR, Doctor Radio, and dozens of other regional and national media outlets. Ellen is a frequent guest on the popular radio show, "Broadminded," on Sirius XM Radio (Stars XM 107) and is a regular contributor on Huff/Post 50 along with blogging for many leading women's health sites. Ellen has dedicated herself to women's wellness through a wide breadth of activities ranging from working with pharmaceutical companies in helping them to effectively address women's health needs to serving on hospital advisory boards and advocating for cardiovascular health.
Ellen's motto is: Reaching out is in! Suffering in silence is out!
"Exercise is absolutely critical," says Susan Moores, a registered dietician. Exercise can be a powerful sleep aid, combating the sleep disturbances many women complain about. It has been shown to improve the whole gamut of menopause symptoms from hot flashes to mood swings. She says not to just focus on aerobic exercise, but also try strength training and relaxation techniques, such as yoga.
"Flaxseed falls in the same camp as soy for the phytoestrogens," says Susan Moores, a registered dietician. One study by the Mayo Clinic found the incidence of hot flashes was reduced as much as 50 percent by consuming flaxseed. It is also thought to be very promising because, along with phytoestrogens, it also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which can aid in mood stabilization. According to A.D.A.M., an online health content provider, when compared to hormone replacement therapy, 40 grams of flaxseed was reported to be equally as effective in reducing hot flashes, vaginal dryness and mood disturbances.
Two German studies have shown black cohosh to be effective in reducing hot flashes, according to A.D.A.M. One study in particular showed 80 percent of women saw a decrease in hot flashes while using black cohosh. However, no long-term studies have been done and there have been reports of side-effects including upset stomach and low blood pressure, caution the experts at Harvard Medical School.
This over-the-counter cure uses progesterone or progesterone-like compounds as the active ingredient. "Natural progesterone is a hormone and it works," says Dr. Marcie Richardson, obstetrician and gynecologist at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. "Skin creams that contain extracts of Mexican wild yams have been widely promoted for natural menopause relief for years," says Harvard Medical School. However, because of variation among products and the individual nature of skin's responsiveness, this method is not recommended by the North American Menopause Society, says Harvard. There's no safety data on this hormone, Dr. Richardson cautions. Learn more about the risks and benefits here.
Red clover is often used to reduce vaginal dryness and decrease hot flashes. The effectiveness of red clover is thought to be due to a plant-chemical, isoflavones, which has an estrogen-like effect in the body. However, according to Harvard Medical School, research results have been disappointing. Two studies published in the journal 'Menopause' found that women fared no better with red clover than a placebo for both hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Learn more about red clover here.
Fish isn't just delicious; it contains a valuable ingredient that may help stabilize your mood swings too -- omega-3 fatty acids. There have been some good studies to attest that omega-3 can help improve mood, says Dr. Marcie Richardson. There's also growing research that omega-3 fatty acids help fight heart disease. The best way to add this key ingredient to your diet is by eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna and trout.
You wouldn't necessarily think that sticking needles in your body would be a helpful way to cure menopause symptoms, but when combined with other treatments, it can be helpful. Some controlled studies have shown some effectiveness in some woman for hot flashes, says Dr. Marcie Richardson. According to A.D.A.M., "both the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health recognize that acupuncture can be a helpful part of a treatment plan" for many illnesses, including menopausal symptoms.
There has been a study, which showed a slight effect in decreasing hot flashes for women using vitamin E, says Dr. Marcie Richardson. Along with reducing hot flashes vitamin E may carry with it extra benefits, such as fending off macular degeneration, lowering blood pressure, and slowing the aging of cells and tissues according to A.D.A.M.
Who hasn't felt the negative effects of drinking too much alcohol, such as trouble sleeping or feeling flushed? This goes double for women during menopause. The thing about alcohol is: women metabolize it worse than men and we metabolize it worse as we age, says Dr. Marcie Richardson. According to Harvard Medical School, alcohol can act as a trigger for hot flashes. And if that wasn't enough to ward you off the bottle, studies show that consuming alcohol regularly ups your risk for other conditions like breast cancer and stroke.
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