Despite being such a common problem in menopause, it’s still extremely distressing for us. Suddenly, we lose our waist, we lose our figure. This can affect our self-worth and affect the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. It can cause depression and also interfere with our relationships with our partners. That’s because a lot of women feel they’re no longer attractive once they’ve lost their shape.
It’s a very difficult problem to put right as well because the usual dieting methods don’t often work. So why does it happen, and why is it so hard to lose the weight? The main thing here is to understand what exactly goes on behind the scenes. And once you understand that, it’s actually a lot easier to try and deal with it.
How your nervous system impacts your weight?
Now, I’ll try to explain, but it might be a little bit long-winded. You’ve all no doubt heard of the fight-or-flight response. Hundreds of thousands of years ago when humans were evolving, our nervous systems evolved to cope with very sudden shock, disaster or emergency, and this is where fight-or-flight comes in.
Imagine you’re living in a cave and you go out one morning looking for something nice to eat, but when you turn a corner, there’s a huge sabre-toothed tiger eyeing you up for its breakfast. Your nervous system is geared to react in an instant to help to save your life.
What happens is your blood will be diverted from your digestive system and directed toward your muscles. You’ll start breathing really heavily and quickly and your brain will get extra sharp because in that second, you’ve got to decide what to do. Do you climb up that tree? Do you pick up that big stick and fight the tiger or do you jump in the river and swim to the other side?
And that one second could make the difference between you having breakfast or you being breakfast. So you think very quickly, jump in the river, swim to the other side and clamber up (hopefully without the sabre-toothed tiger on your heels), you sit on the bank and go, “Phew,” and that’s it.
Your emergency is over, and it might be days and days until something actually happens again. That’s great because you were helped by how quickly your nervous system responded to the disaster. But today, it’s completely different for us. Our nervous systems haven’t really caught up with the 21st century.
So when we’re in menopause, there are two main issues. One is that the minute your hormones start to change, it’s going to stress your nervous system. So even if you have an easy ride through menopause, your nervous system will be stressed to some extent.
If you then add on all the day-to-day stress that we have as women, then our nervous system is continually triggered. And because our nervous system is stressed regularly, it becomes much more sensitive and overreacts to absolutely everything.
So your alarm goes off and you wake up with a start. Already your nervous system is in that flight-or-fight mode. You’re rushing around getting ready to go to work. You’ve got to think of your breakfast. You can’t find your car keys. You’re worried you’re going to be late. You end up in a traffic jam. The boss is yelling at you at work. You come home. You’ve got piles of ironing to do and everybody’s asking you to do things.
As a result, your nervous system is basically firing constantly throughout the day. It doesn’t get a break even for a second, let alone a few days. And this continues day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year, and this is where we get the problem with weight around the middle.
Going back to the day when we crossed the river and saved ourselves from the sabre-toothed tiger, our bodies were very clever. They went, “Whoa, it took an awful lot of energy to run and swim across the river. I need to make up that energy because if this happens again, I’ve got to make sure that I’m fast enough and can think quickly enough.”
The role of cortisol
The body releases a chemical called cortisol. It does a whole load of things, and some of them can interfere with menopause as well. But one of the things that cortisol does in this instance is make us hungry and crave sweets.
Now, in the sabre-toothed tiger example, that’s very sensible because we have to very quickly make up the energy that we’ve lost through the experience. But when we craved sweets in those days, we would go for things like berries and fruit, and we’d try and find as much food as we could over the next couple of days in order to replenish that energy.
If you fast-forward to today, since our nervous system doesn’t get a break, cortisol is produced practically all the time. So we’re always in a state of hunger. We’re always craving sweets, and since food is plentiful nowadays, we’ve got it on hand practically 24 hours a day. So we tend to eat a lot more sweets, and it’s not fruits and berries. It tends to be cookies and cakes and anything with sugar in it. And that’s one way the weight will start to creep on.
The other thing that happens is that the body goes, “These emergencies are happening all the time, so I need to have a store of energy that I can get to and break down really quickly.” The one place that’s the easiest to do it is around the middle. So the body will start to put down a layer of fat inside the abdominal wall, and this is how the spare tire starts to grow.
Why dieting doesn’t work
The problem is that the normal methods of dieting, such as cutting calories and exercising, just don’t work because you’re in this state of emergency. If you cut your calorie intake, the body goes, “I’m not getting any food. Help, this is another emergency.” If you are then going to the gym and exercising like mad, the body goes, “Whoa, I’m using up an awful lot of energy.”
Not only is the body not getting enough calories, it’s using up too much energy, so the body will think, “This is another emergency. I’m going to slow down the metabolism,” and that is what happens. So you end up putting on more weight even though you’re cutting calories and exercising.
I actually had one woman contact me who was down to 800 calories a day and spending an hour at the gym five days a week. She was still putting on weight, and that’s why normal methods just don’t work. So hopefully you’ve understood the explanation, but what can you do to actually help with this situation?
How to deal with that stubborn belly fat
We’ve got to be crafty. We’ve got to learn to fool the body in certain ways. First of all, the most important thing is to deal with stress. We need to support our nervous system so that it’s not getting over-fired and actually gets a break.
Take a magnesium supplement and eat magnesium-rich foods
So especially for those of you who tuned in last week, the number one priority is lots of magnesium. Take magnesium supplements or incorporate lots of magnesium-rich foods into your diet. You can take a vitamin B supplement as well.
De-stress your nervous system
Look for calming herbs. We’ve got something called Avenaforce, which is a nice, very gentle stress remedy. You can look at passion flower. If you’re feeling a little bit down and not on any other medication, then you could try St. John’s Wort. It’s a nice herb for gently lifting your mood.
Remember the foods that can trigger your nervous system—things like coffee, fizzy drinks, alcohol and salty or sugary foods. These will all switch on your nervous system very quickly, compounding the problem, so try and cut those out. The other most important thing for your nervous system is to remember your daily relaxation. Give your nervous system the break it needs.
Try just shutting yourself off for 30 minutes. No phone, no television, no talking—just relax and listen to some nice music. It could make all the difference. Studies have shown that doing 30 minutes of proper relaxation can reduce cortisol considerably, so this is a really important one to get into your daily regimen.
Eat well without cutting calories
Secondly, you need to eat well. Don’t cut calories; that won’t help at all. We need to fool the body into thinking that there’s plenty of food available. Try a really good high protein diet, and cut down on carbs because they tend to rev everything up. Eat lots of vegetables and a little bit of fruit, nuts and seeds – in other words, have a really good, healthy diet.
Remember to snack because, again, you want your body to think there’s plenty of food around. Go for healthy snacks: nuts and seeds, a little bit of dried fruit, fresh fruit like a pear or an apple or some yoghurt. So eat well, but eat enough calories every single day and have snacks because they’re really important for keeping your nervous system nice and balanced.
Exercise the right way
It’s really important during menopause to exercise well. You’ve got to keep your joints mobile and your muscles strong. But doing a whole lot of intense exercise for hours at a time is not going to work if you’ve got a spare tire.
One of the best things to do is keep active every single day. Walk, run up stairs, do short bursts of exercise. One form of exercise that is really coming to the fore now is high-intensity interval training There’s a huge amount of research on it, and it seems to work very well for just about everybody. The trick is to exercise strenuously, really throw yourself into it, but only for a few minutes at a time.
If you exercise like that, then you don’t give the body time to go, “I’m doing too much exercise.” So high-intensity interval training can work really well. There are a lot of DVDs available on the market; I’ve got a couple of really good ones. Just do 20 minutes first thing in the morning. It’s over and done with, and that’s your exercise for the day. You can get on with the rest of your day and actually have time to relax at night instead of running on a treadmill at the gym.
A few things you need to be aware of
Hopefully this has given you a little bit of an idea of how you can deal with fat around the middle. A couple of things you need to be aware of: If you try this regimen and find that it doesn’t help, then I would advise that you check with your doctor.
Get the doctor to check your blood sugar levels. Pre-diabetes and diabetes can actually appear in menopause even if you’re looking after yourself properly and eating a really good diet.
Putting on weight around the middle can be an indication that your blood sugar balance is not quite right. The other thing is that if you seem to have put on weight overnight, then get it checked out by a doctor because it may mean that your thyroid is losing function, which is another major issue during menopause.