Females, Fit or Fat: The Challenges after Forty Part 1

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc. Pharm.

A critical period of physical changes or metamorphosis occurs for a woman as she enters her forties. Important hormonal shifts experienced during perimenopause can cause turbulence similar to, yet the opposite of, the experience of entering the time of adolescence. This turbulence often manifests itself physically as an over-weight issue. The remarks I often hear from women can be summarized as a frustration over the uncontrollable weight gain — especially around the belly — known as central obesity.

The role of hormones on fat production

Everything doesn’t have to fall apart at forty, yet there is a need for woman over forty to embrace the changes in her body. The reproductive system, moods, sleep, sex drive, digestion, skin, nails, hair and most disturbing of all — body shape are all in transition. A woman’s body starts preparing to shift estrogen production some time between 35 to 40 years of age. Women’s genetics have built in ways to deal with the upcoming decrease in the ovaries production of the hormones- estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen and progesterone production is shifted from the ovaries, first to the adrenal glands for the production of progesterone and the precursors of estrogen and then finally to the fat cells for the manufacture of estrogen. Fat cells start storing fat and even divide themselves in order to store more fat so that during menopause when estrogen levels decline to a certain point these fat cells become the estrogen producing centers. Fat cells closest to the adrenal glands and the liver become the manufacturing plants for estrogen.

For a lot of woman, it seems that everything is changing, psychologically and physically through the forty’s sometimes starting even sooner or even lasting into the fifty’s. The metamorphosis that occurs around the time of the menopausal transition (known as perimenopause) adds an extra weight and an extra level of stress to the already busy lifestyle of most women.

According to Dr. Pamela Peek, senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health and expert in the fields of nutrition and stress, women over forty have a particularly hard time breaking the stress-fat cycle that thicken their waistlines.

How does stress cause weight gain?
Perimenopause can add an extra dimension to the already over-stressed life style of many women. It is now widely accepted that the body’s response to stress determines appetite, body composition and overall fitness level. How does this occur? Every disturbance to the body’s state of harmony and balance, either real or imagined, produces a stress response. When we experience something stressful, our brains release a substance known as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which puts the body on alert. A burst of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) are secreted from the adrenal glands and released into the body. The body is chemically changed as these hormiones prepare the body for “fight or flight”. As the body gears up for battle, the pupils dilate, thinking improves, and the lungs take in more oxygen. But something else happens as well: our appetite is suppressed, and the digestive system shuts off temporarily. CRH helps mobilize carbohydrate and fat for quick energy. When the immediate stress is over, the adrenaline dissipates, but the cortisol lingers to help bring the body back into balance. The cortisol hormones (there are more than one) are largely responsible for the continued response to an ongoing stress trigger. One of the ways it gets things back to normal is to increase our appetites so we can replace the carbohydrate and fat we should have burned while fleeing or fighting.

All stressors cause a series of responses originally intended to help the body escape from danger or prolong the body’s survival. These stress-response chemicals are identically produced whether the danger is real or imagined. Physical danger may be rare in today’s world, but mental issues, emotional trauma, physical injury, infection or other illness can also be triggers for stress. One of cortisol’s major roles is to refuel the body after each stress episode. Uncontrolled stress keeps the refueling appetite on, thus inducing stress eating and weight gain.

If these triggers for stress are extreme, unusual or long lasting, the stress response with its production of stress hormones can be quite harmful causing a cascade of biochemical interactions resulting in insulin resistance, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and even some forms of cancer. “A sustained high level of cortisol, which results from unrelenting stress, can have a dangerous, even life-threatening effect on the body”, states Pamela Peeke in her acclaimed book – Fight Fat After Forty.

Healthy Snack Ideas (always use organic when possible):
* A handful of sunflower, pumpkin seeds, or almonds (soaked or sprouted)
* Low-fat yogurt with fruit or berries
* Chopped veggies with hummus
* Nut butter with crackers or fruit
* Power shake – whey protein or fermented soy powder, berries or fruit added
* Whey protein bar with high fiber low refined sugars
* 2 oz tuna or chicken salad on whole grain crackers
* 1/2 turkey or chicken (whole or sprout grain bread) sandwich
* Cottage cheese with fruit or berries (especially blueberries)
* Turkey roll up – 2 oz turkey, low fat cheese rolled in sprout grain tortilla
* 1/2 whole grain English muffin with peanut butter or almond butter

RoseMarie Pierce, B.Sc.Pharm, earned her degree in Pharmacy from Dalhousie University in 1972. After extensive studies in herbal and nutritional medicine, RoseMarie integrated these disciplinary practices with her pharmacy education to become Canada’s first Holistic Pharmacist.