On issues pertaining to boomer women’s health, it gets increasingly difficult to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff with regarding good information about health from the bad. We all have friends who have been misguided by misinformation promoted as “health facts” in popular magazines, television shows, or on internet sites. We Boomer Women are given enticing sound bites of advise that end up doing more harm than good. And while we are earnestly trying to do all the right things for our bodies, sometimes we end up actually hurting our health in the process.
So what are these health myths? And how do they coax women into making poor health choices? We could list dozens, but let’s keep it simple: we’ll start with seven of the most widespread women’s health myths we hear in the media and from the women we talk to.
1. If you eat a low-fat, low-calorie diet, you will lose weight.
When it comes to reaching a healthy weight, restricting calories may be a quick fix for some women, but it is not the long-term answer. The key factor in weight loss is not what we eat, but how we metabolize our food. For much of human evolution, food was scarce. So our bodies evolved to metabolize food slowly, conserving fat for our bodies to use as an energy source in periods of starvation. Slow metabolism and the ability to store fat was an evolutionary advantage, as was the body’s ability to respond to starvation by slowing its metabolism still more in lean times. Though we rarely suffer long bouts of starvation anymore, some women still have these evolutionary responses. So when you cut calories, your body — still conditioned by evolution to guard against starvation — may respond by slowing food metabolism, which makes it more difficult to lose weight.
We’ve worked with many women to help them understand that a sluggish metabolism can lie at the root of an inability to lose weight. For lots of people, increasing or adding exercise can help increase metabolism. But our bodies are amazingly complex, and there are other imbalances — often hidden below the surface — that can bring down metabolism. Here are some you may not hear about:
- Over-worked adrenal glands
- Thyroid imbalance
- Insulin resistance
- Toxic overload
- Food sensitivities
Any of these imbalances can affect the way the body metabolizes food and stores fat. There are so many different physical issues that affect weight loss, and it can be overwhelming. Don’t get discouraged. We’ve written about these issues in other areas of our website and will continue to help women understand how the interconnection of our body’s systems balance weight. So feel free to explore and stay tuned for more to come
2. Once you gain weight during menopause, you can’t lose it.
Let’s start off by saying that losing weight — before or after menopause — doesn’t automatically make us healthier. Lots of women believe that if they can just shed those extra pounds, it will solve all the other health issues they may have. But, for better or worse, this just isn’t so, particularly if your weight gain is related to an underlying hormonal imbalance to begin with.
Many women gain weight during menopause, and though a certain amount of weight gain is natural as women pass this milestone, it certainly doesn’t have to be permanent. In our reproductive years, our bodies are biologically equipped with enough estrogen to facilitate procreation. When we enter perimenopause and estrogen from the ovaries declines, the body is programmed to protect itself from an abrupt transition in a couple of ways. One of these natural mechanisms is by storing more fat. Fat cells provide another source of estrogen in our bodies, particularly after menopause. Once the body has adjusted to less estrogen, oftentimes weight goes down again.
But menopause is not just about changes in estrogen. Another way our bodies are cushioned during the switch from reproductive mode toward healthy aging involves the adrenal glands. As ovarian hormone production winds down in midlife, the adrenals contribute small, yet significant amounts of estrogen and other sex hormones. This buffer provided by the adrenals is compromised by chronic stress, which causes the adrenals to expend themselves on cortisol production, leaving less reserve for manufacturing sex hormones. Studies suggest that over time, this “cortisol dominance” leads to deposition of fat in the abdominal area, which in turn deranges hormonal balance even further. So both estrogen and cortisol can influence the way the body stores fat.
Everywhere we look, our hormonal pathways are intimately connected, and when one is out of balance it has a cascading effect on others. This helps explain why weight gain can be caused by imbalances in estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, cortisol, insulin, hGH and DHEA — all of which work together to regulate your metabolism and appetite.
The good news is that regardless of your age, if you provide your body with the support it needs, you can certainly avoid or reverse the hormonal imbalance that drives unwanted weight gain — and one of the best ways to do this is through nutrition. Conventional medicine and the media have long overlooked the fact that nutrition, in the form of a balanced diet, is essential to hormonal balance. When women follow a Mediterranean-style diet — which includes cutting back on refined carbohydrates and increasing quality fats — they often have great results. Our Nutritional and Lifestyle Guidelines have helped many women resolve the problem of unwanted weight gain and maintain wellness through menopause and beyond.
It is very normal for a woman to have shifts in her weight during menopause, but it doesn’t have to be a long-term change. For more information about gaining and losing weight at menopause, see our article on menopausal weight gain. You might also find Dr. Pamela Peeke’s books helpful. She has dedicated her career to disproving the myth that women can’t lose weight after menopause. Check out her website for more information on her Body-for-Life books and programs.
3. As we Boomer women age, your body requires less sleep to stay healthy.
Yes, it’s true that our sleep changes as we get older, but it’s not true that we need less of it. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, “Most of us require about eight hours of sleep at night to feel fully alert when we’re awake.” You may realize that you’re not getting a solid chunk of sleep like you used to — many of my patients complain that they are more easily woken from sleep or that it is more difficult to get to sleep than when they were younger — but this doesn’t mean you don’t need the hours.
Waking more easily can be due to natural changes in your sleep cycle pattern. After around the age of 50, we begin to spend less time in the deeper phases of the sleep cycle and more time in stages I and II, which are lighter and may leave us more susceptible to disturbances throughout the night
Sleep disturbances in women can stem from a wide variety of factors, such as daily stress, a partner who snores, stimulating activities before bed, drinking or snacking late in the day. Or, you may have pain, hot flashes, anxiety or some other internal imbalance disrupting your sleep. As we age, we are also more prone to sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or side effects to medications that can disturb sleep. Good sleep depends on many things, and one simple place to start is by looking at the amount of artificial light you’re surrounded by before bed.
When it’s dark, a part of our brains known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) lowers body temperature and prompts the release of melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that helps our bodies prepare for sleep, while cortisol is the hormone released when we are exposed to light. In the presence of light — natural or artificial — the SCN increases the body’s temperature and sends a message to the adrenals to release cortisol. Cortisol, also released in response to stress, is one of the hormones that tell our bodies that it is time to be alert.
In the past, we worked until the sun went down and rested when it was dark. Our modern lifestyles allow us to work, play and be awake at any hour — day or night. Of course, this is convenient, but it comes at a cost to our sleep patterns. For women who are having trouble with sleep, be sure you allow time in dim light or darkness to give the brain a chance to move into sleep mode.
You may also find it helpful to keep a pen and paper near the bed so you can write down the thoughts keeping you awake. Writing down the thoughts gives you the freedom to let go of concerns for the time being.
4. Boomer women’s sex drive decreases with age.
Many women report that sex gets more enjoyable as they age. But sometimes the hormonal fluctuations that occur during and leading up to menopause can make sex one of the last things on your mind, leading lots of women to fear that it will only get worse as they age. Fortunately, decreased sex drive is often a temporary situation.
As we approach menopause, considering the state of our boomer women health, all three of the major sex hormones — estrogen, progesterone and testosterone — can be out of balance. Testosterone is the primary hormone related to the libido. So if you experience the very real and natural hormonal imbalance that occurs during menopause, it isn’t surprising that your libido may suffer. To learn more about the physical causes and solutions of a low libido, see our article on low sex drive in women.
The physical problems related to sex, such as pain and vaginal dryness — once pinpointed — are relatively easy to solve, but what’s often more difficult to address are our emotions around sex. Whether you’ve grown apart from your partner, feel unattractive because of hot flashes, mood swings or little sleep, or something else entirely, sex can feel like an enormous chore — and women may say, Oh well, it’s just a fact of life. The older I get, the less I want sex.
Sex drive is so complicated, and there are lots of issues related to the psychology of sex that come up as we age. One aspect of sex many people underestimate is that women have biological differences from men in the ways they are turned on. Women’s brains are much more responsive to communication and connection. They often find it easier to engage in sexual thinking when they connect with their partners conversationally. When partners ask, How are you today? How was your day?and truly listen to the response, it’s much easier to feel connected. As many of us have figured out by now, most women need time — with conversation as well as foreplay — to become fully aroused.
It’s also extremely difficult to enjoy sex when we don’t feel sexy. And it’s hard to think of ourselves as sexual beings after a stressful day of work or a night without sleep — not to mention being constantly bombarded by images of teens as the standard of sexual desirability. A woman’s desire for sex is rooted in how connected she is to her own sensuality. Once we take time to rekindle our enjoyment of sensual pleasures, it becomes much easier to engage in sexual relations.
5. You need to exercise 30–60 minutes per day to have any impact on health.
We know firsthand how difficult it is to find the time to exercise. In terms of our boomer women’s health regimen, t’s one of those things that always slides to the bottom of the list whenever something else comes up. And it can seem nearly impossible to carve out an hour for exercise. But over and over we hear how getting at least 30 minutes a day of exercise is crucial to a woman’s health.
That’s just not so. “Bursting” is an exercise method where you quickly and repeatedly bringing your body to an extreme and back again — to the point where you’re breathing so heavily, you might not be able to talk. If you exercise in bursts, you may not require more than 20 minutes three to four times a week to improve your health. No matter how busy you are or what sort of shape you are in, you can benefit from this time-efficient method — as long as you keep at it regularly.
Studies on various patterns of bursting show significant health benefits from many diverse timing regimes, so don’t worry too much about checking heart rate monitors or other gadgets. Just start by pushing yourself to your natural limit and staying there for one minute. And if you can’t make it the full minute, that’s fine too! Start by bursting for 20 or 30 seconds at a time, and build up to the minute mark slowly.
As humans, we are meant to move, and whatever way you choose to do it works with the bursting concept. If it’s cross-country skiing, dance, yoga, walking, swimming or something else — you don’t have to go to a gym to build strength or increase your metabolism. The most important thing is that you get to the place where you’re breathing and moving your body at peak intensity.
Bursting is also beneficial for the prevention of osteoporosis. Studies show that when the body is brought to its limit in unexpected short bursts rather than long-term routine loading, it stimulates the bone-building cells in your body to make more bone.
If you can burst four times during a 20-minute work-out you’ll trigger a whole cascade of positive metabolic changes that improve your lipid profile, muscle volume, and respiratory capacity — which is the best way to ensure long-lasting weight loss and optimal health. If you absolutely can’t find 20 minutes to exercise, try doing a minute-long burst four to five times throughout the day. The key is to listen to your body, remembering to factor in your condition, to burst within your limits, and to build on that capacity. This way you can learn what your body is capable of, and what it needs to do, to stay fit over time.
With so much coming at us on a daily basis about what is healthy and unhealthy, it’s easy to lose track of our own instincts. Everything you read, see or hear passes through your personal filters — and we want to remind you to trust those filters. Listen closely to what feels right for you, and don’t be afraid to do something against the grain if that is what your body desires. You have the wisdom to find your own best way to health. We are here, if you need a hand along the way.