Menopause is a natural biological process that marks the end of a woman’s reproductive cycle. It occurs most commonly between the ages of 48 and 55. The average age for a woman to go through menopause in the United States is 51.
Menopause begins when the ovaries greatly reduce the production of the hormone estrogen, and it is marked by the end of menstrual cycles.
There are a variety of responses that can occur during the menopause transition. Most women recognize…
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Mood changes
- Thinning of hair
- Dry skin
- Loss of breast fullness
- Vaginal dryness
Then there are the postmenopausal symptoms, which can increase your risk of serious medical conditions:
- Elevated blood cholesterol level
- Osteoporosis (brittle bones)
- Susceptibility to constipation
- Urinary incontinence
- Impaired sexual function (discomfort during sex)
- Weight gain and altered body composition
There are ways to maneuver through menopause that make the transition from your bleeding to non-bleeding years more manageable.
Hormones and Menopause
Hormones are the body's chemical messengers that direct different bodily functions, from hunger to happiness to reproduction. During menopause, your ovaries stop producing as much of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, and menstrual cycles and fertility decrease as a result. As ovarian follicles decrease, the luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) are unable to effectively regulate your estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels. Lower levels of reproductive hormones can impact your health.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Produced by the ovaries, estrogen is the “female” hormone that is important in the development of many female characteristics. Because estrogen levels plunge in menopause, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is used to decrease the symptoms of estrogen deficiency.
HRT can be taken orally, vaginally, or transdermally (in patches). The most common type of hormone therapy combines estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen is given regularly, while progesterone is added in on a supplementary basis. The two hormones are given in combination to prevent the overgrowth of the uterine lining, which decreases the risk of endometrial cancer that might occur as a result of estrogen therapy alone.
The effects of HRT on body composition in postmenopausal women are inconclusive, with some studies showing a positive effect and others failing to show any difference in body composition between HRT users and control subjects. While cross-sectional studies demonstrate conflicting results as to HRT's effect on muscle performance, experimental trials indicate that hormone therapy may actually help prevent the deterioration in muscle force that commonly accompanies menopause.
HRT is generally used for lessening menopausal symptoms and is not recommended for more than 3 to 5 years due to evidence of increased health risks.
Risks of HRT
Hormones have a wide variety of effects in the body, and providing hormones therapeutically to increase hormone levels and treat one problem often causes unexpected side effects. HRT increases the risk of a number of conditions and diseases.
Here are the takeaways of HRT risks:
- When estrogen is given alone the risk of endometrial cancer is increased.
- Combining estrogen with progesterone diminishes this risk.
- The combined use of estrogen and progesterone slightly increases the risk of breast cancer.
- Combined estrogen and progesterone therapy increases the risk of venous thromboembolic disease (blood clots in the veins).
- HRT increases the risk of gallbladder disease.
- The risk of both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is also increased.
We will cover some HRT alternatives in a bit, but first, let’s discuss menopause and its influence on body composition.
Menopause and Body Composition
Menopause is associated with weight gain and a change in body composition. Not only can fat mass increase and lean mass decrease, but the distribution of body fat (otherwise known as adipose tissue) can change as well. In particular, the deposition of trunk fat increases after menopause—the trunk area of your body is your abs, hips, and back.
Many of the adverse responses during and after menopause are related to these changes in body composition and fat distribution. An increase in trunk fat is associated with increased cardiovascular disease risk. Total body and trunk fat accumulation also have indirect effects on other heart disease-risk factors, including plasma lipoprotein-lipid profiles, blood pressure, and insulin resistance. A loss of muscle mass can lead to impaired physical function and other problems as well. Addressing the changes in body composition related to menopause may be the most important way to decrease many of these related detrimental responses.
What Causes Body Composition Changes in Menopause?
Weight gain, especially fat, occurs so commonly after menopause that it is presumed by many to be caused by the drop in estrogen. This perspective was supported by some early studies indicating changes in body weight and composition could be lessened with HRT therapy. However, more recent evidence suggests that an increase in body and trunk fat in midlife women is a natural function of aging, as well as a response to changes in dietary and physical activity patterns.
The effects of regular physical activity on body composition changes was demonstrated in a study comparing three groups of postmenopausal women.
- One group consisted of endurance athletes who had been training for many years and regularly performed high-intensity athletic endeavors.
- The second group was composed of sedentary women.
- The third group was made up of active women who were not athletes.
- About half the women were receiving HRT.
Total and regional body composition were measured using dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry. The results showed that the active women and endurance athletes spent about the same amount of time per week performing exercise, and had been for the same number of years. The women who performed high-intensity training had the lowest body fat, but there was no difference between the sedentary and active women. HRT had no significant impact on body composition in any of the groups. These results indicate that it is possible to do something about body composition changes in menopause by exercising, but that the intensity of exercise must be high.
The Effect of Essential Amino Acids on Body Composition
If you are in the postmenopausal category, take a moment to check in and be honest with yourself: now that you know that high-intensity training can improve body composition in postmenopausal women, will you engage in high-intensity exercise on a regular basis?
We hope so, as high-intensity training can help tone your heart and lungs, lower you body mass index (BMI), and improve your overall health, while a sedentary life contributes to a higher waist circumference, intra-abdominal (or visceral) fat and significantly less lean mass. But, if you think you might slack on your high-intensity training efforts, then we have some good news.
The good news is that you can improve your body composition without intensive training if you add an essential amino acid supplement to your diet. Essential amino acids are the active components of dietary protein. They cannot be produced in the body but are crucial components of all proteins in the body.
In a different study, essential amino acid supplementation for 3 months increased lean muscle mass, strength, and physical function in sedentary postmenopausal women. Other responses associated with changes in body composition in menopause, including plasma and liver fat and impaired insulin sensitivity, were also improved with essential amino acid supplementation.
So, while changes in body composition at the time of menopause are, in part, an unavoidable aspect of aging, supplementing with essential amino acids has a proven beneficial effect on body composition, strength, and physical function, along with improvement in many of the risk factors for serious diseases and conditions. Combining essential amino acid supplementation with high-intensity exercise is an optimal duo for health before, during, and after menopause.