Being a human female can be a special and awesome way to move through the world...
...and it can also be a real pain in the keister.
An average biologically-born woman will spend 40 years menstruating, possibly several years pregnant, and another one to 10 years going through the process of menopause. Other than all that, it's smooth sailing! Am I right, ladies?
As a nutrition consultant and a trainer, I work with many clients who are endeavoring to shed unwanted body fat. Jettisoning body fat is already a challenging thing to do, but for a woman in a certain age range - especially 45 to 65 - it may feel like her body is fighting the process tooth and nail. I'm writing today to tell you that this is a real thing! I'm also writing to tell you that it's still possible to succeed in losing body fat during menopause, it just takes some extra attention and possibly a little more patience.
Women face special challenges when it comes to building and maintaining a lean and muscular physique regardless of chronological or reproductive age. All things are not equal between the sexes when it comes to this process. That's because hormones play an enormously important role in both muscle and strength acquisition AND fat loss.
Men and women have ALL of the same basic hormones. While "testosterone" may be the hormone we identify with maleness and "estrogen" with femaleness, both men and women have testosterone and estrogen, and a host of other hormones that regulate the body's processes. Testosterone and estrogen are the "sex" hormones, but they each impact a LOT more than reproduction. And they are both present in a male and a female body, just at different levels depending on sex, age, body composition, and physical activity.
Testosterone is the hormone most responsible for sperm production in a man, but it also governs physical strength, power, and muscle development. It is present in most men at 10 to 20 X the level in most women. This is a friggin' huge discrepancy. It's why when an athlete (or wannabe athlete) takes performance enhancing anabolic steroids, that person almost automatically becomes bigger, stronger and faster. When a steroid user also eats a ton and weight trains maximally, they can become EXTREMELY bigger, stronger and faster.
Testosterone surging during male puberty is also why a 10-year-old boy usually looks a lot different from a 16-year-old one. Testosterone prompts the body's human growth hormone to add size - in height and in muscular density and volume, especially in the upper body. Testosterone also increases neuromuscular efficiency, and dramatically so when trained. Neuromuscular efficiency is a big part of strength, and therefore power, and therefore speed. This is why a 16-year-old male track and field athlete is almost always faster than a female of the same age and training experience, while 10 year-old boys and girls are often about the same. An interesting side note is that testosterone does also affect cardiovascular efficiency, but not as much. That's why the two 16-year-old athletes might do slower pace training runs together for equal time and distance, but in an all-out sprint the boy would surge ahead.
At this point, female readers might be thinking, "UNFAIR!". I'd have a hard time disagreeing with you. It's why almost every professional, collegiate and high school sport is divided into female and male teams, and it's why most sports prohibit performance-enhancing drugs. That is a complex topic itself, but suffice it to say that biological men and women do not have the same capacity when it comes to strength and brawn.
Girls and women have testosterone too, which is largely why we ALSO respond positively to resistance training (we get stronger, we add muscle). But our natural ceiling for where we can take it is lower. Now when it comes to the hormone estrogen, it won't shock you to hear that we have more of it on average than men do. Just as women have testosterone, MEN HAVE ESTROGEN, and they would have serious problems without any, but they don't have enough to develop the reproductive system that can sustain the growth of a new life and then feed it for months afterward. Estrogen is essential for all life. It's also the reason that a 16-year-old girl usually looks a lot different than her 10-year-old self, most noticeably in broader hip development and the accumulation of bodyfat - especially surrounding the hips, thighs, and breasts. We all (hopefully?) remember 8th Grade health class, so I won't linger on the facts of puberty, but it's important to note that estrogen is mostly manufactured in a woman's sex organs - her ovaries - and a woman's "child-bearing" years begin when the ovaries start doing their thing and end when the ovaries begin to close up shop. The 30 to 40 years between are not static when it comes to hormonal levels. Aging alone is both a cause and effect of changes within the endocrine (hormonal) system. But those years are relatively consistent compared to the often DRAMATIC changes a woman experiences in menopause.
Women technically produce three types of estrogen - the hormone estradiol is the one that regulates periods and it is predominantly what wanes leading up to menopause.
Fat and Hormones
Both dietary fat and body fat (aka adipose tissue) are major players when it comes to hormones in the body, especially the stress hormone cortisol and the female sex hormone estrogen. Just as someone who doesn't eat enough dietary fat may have hormone related problems, someone who carries too much body fat can too. Obesity is a metabolic disorder - and hormonal function is a key part of your metabolism. If a man spends 25 years carrying excess body fat, he may develop a hormonal profile that is too estrogenic, because body fat itself acts as a giant gland that can produce estrogen. This is especially evident when a man is carrying body fat in parts of his body that are generally more common for women - like the backs of the arms, the chest, and the hips and thighs. In general, the more body fat someone (male or female) is carrying, the higher their estrogen and cortisone levels may be relative to a leaner individual. This is why some women who aren't on birth control pills notice stronger period symptoms during chapters of life when they're carrying more body fat, and why some men with sugar-soaked diets find sexual function starts waning in their 30s and 40s. The world of hormones is very complex, but some relationships between body fat percentage, libido, stress, and overall health are hard to deny.
The relationship between body fat and estrogen takes center stage as a woman enters menopause. At this time, her body starts to decrease production of estradiol from the ovaries whereby stopping release of eggs from her ovaries on a monthly basis. Sometimes the process takes a couple of years, and sometimes it's a decade. But one thing is the same - menopause is a time of tremendous hormonal change. Essentially, a woman's main estrogen producing glands - her ovaries - are stopping their reproductive career. For most women, a drop in the body's naturally produced estrogen means that her body may start holding onto any estrogen stores that it can. And remember? Body fat is estrogenic! So as the ovaries slow estrogen production, the body is anxious to keep as much going as possible and it starts to hold onto body fat as its source...and if a woman isn't paying close attention to her nutrition and doing consistent serious resistance training, her brain may even divert more energy for storage as body fat, causing a GAIN.
As natural a process as menopause is, it can be tumultuous, especially as your body tries to adjust to a new hormonal profile. The ovaries are slowing down production of estrogen, so your body holds onto body fat for dear life. This is why many women at menopause find it particularly frustrating to lose body fat.
The excellent news here is that it is still very possible to work toward a leaner physique during menopause. This may come as no surprise to you, considering you're reading a TrueFN blog post right now, but RESISTANCE TRAINING plays a major role. The more skeletal muscle (pecs, lats, biceps, triceps, delts, glutes, hams, quads, etc.) you possess, the more metabolically potent you are, and the more body fat your bod will require as fuel throughout the day. Since estrogen also helps protect bone density, its loss during perimenopause into menopause means that resistance training is even MORE important.
With intelligent nutrition changes (mostly the same kinds of changes someone needs to make to lose body fat regardless of her age), and serious resistance training at least 3x week, women can lean up at any time of life, including menopause. It may be harder to do and you may have to be a little less compromising with your lifestyle than 20 years prior, but it is totally doable. If you need help figuring out what that looks like, please contact me about some one-on-one nutrition work together.
What's more, eventually a woman experiencing menopause will be post-menopausal, and the chapter of hormonal tumult will close. The subsequent time of greater hormonal balance may allow her body to finally release some excess body fat - IF she is being smart about her nutrition and she has prioritized the building and maintenance of muscle mass through lifting weights.
In sum, MUSCLE MASS trumps AGE as the most important factor in a woman's ability to lose body fat before, during, and after menopause. While it may be harder to shed body fat around menopause, keep up your hard work resistance training and eating well. You'll always be ahead of the curve.