By Taylor Carr, MS, ISSN-SNS, PN1
Mood swings, brain fog, hot flashes… o my! Menopause can make your body nearly unrecognizable. Maybe you’re feeling totally out of control of your body and mind. You may have what diet culture is calling the “meno-belly.” It may have you questioning whether this is affecting your training and performance for climbing. Chances are, it probably is.
It is important to understand, however, that there is no “life-hack” or ways to “overcome” menopause. Menopause is a natural part of life and hopefully with the help of this article, you’ll learn to understand your body, appreciate how it is adapting, and embrace the change. While you may feel like you are out of control in your body, remember you can control your mindset, environment, and lifestyle.
I recognize that everyone is different. You may not identify with the sleepless nights, hot flashes, or unexplained weight gain. Hopefully you will still take something away from what I have to say.
I also want to preface that we at Climb Strong do not believe that weight gain or weight loss are of themselves “bad” or “good.” Everyone is on a separate journey to match their nutrition and fitness goals. If you want to lose weight, that’s great. If you are feeling the strongest at your current weight, that’s great too. Most women that I work with who are going through menopause are wondering why they are gaining weight when their eating habits and training has not changed.
Most of us know that as we age, we generally gain more weight as it is harder to “keep it off.” Women especially see this and have traditionally pinned hormones as the culprit. In the past, estrogen has been blamed for weight gain because it drops during menopause and then levels out post-menopause. However, research suggests that these hormonal changes are not to blame. One study found that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with estrogen did not have an effect on weight or fat gain. If estrogen and other hormonal changes that take place during menopause truly increases weight gain, the HRT should have reversed that. It did not, however, and it can be suggested that hormone changes may not have a direct effect on increased weight (Norman et al., 2000).
These menopause hormone shifts, however, can have an affect on how fat is distributed in the body. This shift may not cause “weight gain,” but it could lead to an increase in fat around the abdomen. Most women also notice increases in water retention as they go through this phase. Research isn’t totally conclusive on why this happens, but it is likely due to this darn hormone shift.
The great news is that there are ways you can mitigate increases in abdominal fat and water retention. Or, you know, any of the million other symptoms you may experience. It starts with an individualized nutrition plan and maintaining your activity levels.
Due to the “diet culture” we live in today, most women think that they must be restrictive in order to feel better during menopause. That’s just not true. What is important is structuring your nutrition around your climbing and lifestyle goals.
Menopause is just a season in your journey of life. Making small changes to your nutrition and training can help you maintain (or gain) muscle mass to keep you strong, increase your energy levels, get more sleep, and so much more. Everyone is different, but there are a few things that most women can do to make sure they’re feeling their best during menopause.
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables
- Stay hydrated
- Get “good” sleep
- Eat slowly and mindfully
- Keep a food/feelings journal
Let’s look at each one of these tools to see how this could play out in your life.
Fruits and vegetables
Eating lots of fruits and vegetables seems obvious to some. You’ve probably heard that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is good for you regardless of where you’re at in life. This helpful tip is also great for a few specific reasons relating to menopause.
- Certain fruits and vegetables are jam packed with lots of great fiber. This can be helpful to keep you satiated for longer periods of time.
- When you are physically satisfied with your meal, you are less likely to find yourself ready to eat every hour. I’m all for eating when you’re hungry, but we want to find ourselves intentionally snacking rather than aimlessly eating shredded cheese over the sink. Or is that just me?
- Fruits and vegetables can also keep your bowel movements regular. When we stay regular, we’re less likely to have that constant bloating feeling.
Maybe right now you haven’t been making this a regular practice. Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t like vegetables. This probably won’t work for me.” May I encourage you to start small? If you’re not currently eating vegetables, try adding one serving a day. If you’re getting that, add another serving at another time. Aim for at least two servings per day.
I also want you to enjoy eating foods you love. If you don’t like a certain vegetable, don’t eat it. Get creative and open your mind to trying all kinds of fruits and vegetables until you find the ones you love.
Not sure where to begin?
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We can’t possibly stay hydrated if we aren’t consuming plenty of water. It sounds counterintuitive, but drinking lots of water can help with the menopausal symptom of water retention. The more water we drink, the faster we flush out excess waste from our system. This is not to say that you “shouldn’t” or “cannot” drink other beverages that you love. However, caffeine, sweet drinks, and alcohol may increase certain unwanted symptoms.
Insomnia and anxiety are already typical symptoms of menopause. As one can imagine, caffeine tends to bring out these feelings, even with non-menopausal athletes. Caffeine blocks the function of adenosine. Adenosine is a neurochemical that makes you feel sleepy. Again, not that you would need to give up caffeine, but if you’re a 4 cup coffee drinker, it could be helpful to cut back to even just 3 cups. It can also be helpful to simply consider what time of day you’re consuming caffeine. It can take several hours for your body to fully metabolize caffeine. Fifty percent of individuals metabolize caffeine quite slowly– meaning it sticks around longer in that person’s system. I encourage you to play around with your caffeine consumption time. It may just be your limiting factor.
Soda, juices, and flavored coffees may be yummy, but they can be full of less nutrient-dense calories and loads of sugar. Not a problem for those special occasions, but can be another limiting factor for trying to feel your best climbing during menopause. These types of drinks can cause major blood sugar swings, leading to a decrease in energy levels and an increase in disturbed sleep. Consuming these beverages regularly can also make it difficult if one of your menopause goals is to maintain or lose weight.
Some women struggle with the effects of alcohol more than others, but here are a few things to consider when thinking about how and when you’re drinking. First of all, alcohol has been shown to worsen hot flashes in menopausal women because it works against vasomotor regulation. Regular hot flashes can affect our mood and sleep patterns. Alcohol has also been shown to slow muscle recovery post exercise. As we age, it already becomes harder to recover from activity. If you’re finding it especially hard during this season of life, consider how your alcohol intake could be interfering with your climbing recovery.
If only you could sleep in the fridge, right? Night sweats are one of the most common reasons for sleep loss during menopause. We’ve already talked a little bit about how certain things could be hindering you from a good night's sleep, but what else can you do to sleep better?
At some point, after back-to-back nights of restless sleep, you wonder if you will ever sleep normally again. These thoughts can be mentally taxing and could even be keeping you from getting good rest. When you are anxious about being able to sleep, that can cause you to stay up longer. This is a vicious cycle. These thoughts usually go something like, “I’ll never be able to sleep again.” “I’m going to get nothing done at work tomorrow.” Instead, try reframing those thoughts into, “I may not sleep well tonight, but it won’t be like this forever.” “I may not be my best self today, but perhaps getting a climbing session in will help me feel better.” Our thoughts and how we speak about ourselves carry a surprising amount of weight.
Eating Slowly and Mindfully
Chasing kids, keeping up at work, and sticking to a training plan can be tough on time. We’re sometimes lucky if we can actually sit down for a meal. Some of you may not even be thinking about how fast you’re eating. Eating slowly and mindfully, however, is one of the most underrated nutrition tips. Eating slowly has been shown to lead to better digestion, easier weight management, and greater meal satisfaction. Here are a few ways to eat more slowly:
- Put your utensil down between bites
- Find the slowest eater around you and pace with them
- Take 20-30 minutes to eat each meal
- Sit down to eat in a calm, non-distracting environment
- Use smaller plates
This takes a lot of practice. Try out a few of these methods and see if one of them works for you.
It can be challenging to recognize or remember what is causing our symptoms to increase or how they are making us feel exactly. Journaling can be helpful for this. When we write down and record what we did and how it affected us, we are less likely to repeat the cycle. For example, if you have a cup of coffee at 3:00pm and then have trouble sleeping that night, you may be able to piece that together as a cause by writing it down. It may be the same with certain foods or environmental factors. A food/feelings journal can, over time, help you to connect various menopausal symptom triggers.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, staying hydrated, getting sleep, eating slowly, and keeping a food/feelings journal can all be helpful practices for you during your menopause journey. While climbing and performance may become harder during this stage, it doesn’t have to be the end of training. Hopefully as you go, you’ll be able to learn more about your body and be able to embrace the change while still pushing to be your best self. Creating new habits and making small changes can go a long way in your nutrition and performance.
Norman, R. J., Flight, I. H., Rees, M. C. (2000). Oestrogen and progestogen hormone replacement therapy for peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women: weight and body fat distribution. Cochrane Database Syst Rev., (2), DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001018
ABOUT TAYLOR CARR
Taylor has a dual Masters in Sports Nutrition and Strength and Conditioning. She also holds a certification through Precision Nutrition and is a certified Sports Nutritionist through the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). Taylor got her climbing start on the beautiful granite of North Carolina. She has since moved to Lander, WY with her husband to be a nutrition and strength coach at Elemental Performance + Fitness.
Taylor works with athletes of all backgrounds to educate and instruct proper food fueling and nutrient timing. Taylor believes that with a functional nutrition plan, every athlete is able to better reach their unique climbing, fitness, and lifestyle goals. She is also passionate about helping individuals heal their relationship with food. Taylor offers one time consultations, monthly custom plans, and long-term coaching.