This month we talk to Libby Stevenson, a 200 hour Yoga Teacher certified in Pregnancy, Post Natal and Menopause Yoga and a member of the British Menopause Society.
Have you noticed that as you age you tend to gain weight around your middle? Perhaps you noticed more bloating or constipation and changes to your digestion and bowel movements?
Changes to our digestive system during the menopause come in many forms: from acid reflux, excess wind, diarrhoea, bloating or constipation to cramping, increased appetite & weight gain. You might begin to experience these as you approach midlife even if you never suffered from these before. If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, your symptoms will only get worse.
What is happening? All of these symptoms are down to the decreasing levels of the female hormone oestrogen which protects so many parts of our body including our digestive tract. Oestrogen also regulates our hormone levels.
During a woman’s reproductive years, oestrogen levels are high and keep the stress hormone cortisol levels steady. As we age, however, oestrogen levels decrease and cortisol levels are no longer regulated. What does that mean for you? A lot actually.
Cortisol is the key stress hormone which allows us to react quickly in a stressful situation by making us fight it or run away from it.
In order to fight or run away, we need to have the energy to do so and we need to be ready to move into action. Therefore, the stress hormone cortisol makes us crave sugary foods for a quick burst of energy and salty foods to keep our blood pressure up and our heart pumping fast. However, unless you actually fight or run away, these extra calories get stored as fat near your middle – close to the liver.
The liver will use that fat and convert it to energy the next time you need to fight or run away. But if you don’t do either, then the fat will stay there unless you do something about it. And you need to do something about it because visceral fat (fat around our abdominal organs) has been linked to cardiovascular disease and can lead to diabetes, Alzheimer’s and different types of cancer.
It is no longer about calories in and calories out. As we age, our metabolism slows down for a variety of reasons. Nutrition, eating habits and lifestyle affect gut health. Midlife is a good time to re-evaluate our habits and behaviours so we can improve our wellbeing:
1) Chew your food – Digestion starts in the mouth. Without taking time to chew the food, the gut has to work harder to break it down. Chewing for longer can prevent indigestion and it helps you feel full quicker which stops you from overeating.
2) Give yourself time to eat – Eating on the go diverts energy that would be used in digestion to other activities and prevents the digestive system from working efficiently.
3) Pay attention to when you eat – Skipping breakfast and eating late at night affect weight gain.
4) Try intermittent fasting – Eating all your meals in a 10 hour window and not eating for 12 hours gives the digestive tract time to rest and repair itself.
5) Drink more water – Hydration is important for your overall health and aids in digestion.
6) Add more fibre rich food to your diet – Fibre helps to move waste through the digestive tract.
7) Include probiotic rich foods into your diet – Yogurt and fermented foods such as sauerkraut increase the amount of good bacteria in the gut which aid in digestion.
8) Manage your stress – Stress contributes to digestive issues. Identify your stressors and come up with a plan to handle them.
9) Try to get a good night’s sleep – Poor sleep disrupts the hormones that regulate appetite making it harder to identify feelings of hunger and fullness.
10) Do yoga – Yoga is beneficial during this time of hormonal fluctuation because it makes us pause, focus on your breath and feel centred. YogaBu improves strength, flexibility, balance and coordination – all areas that are affected negatively as we age. It is low impact and gentle on the joints because the movements are slow and controlled.
Yoga poses target and can improve slow digestion. Asanas such as sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and matsyasana (fishpose) stimulate the thyroid gland and boost metabolism while paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) and cobra stimulate digestion – to name a few poses.
The brain is also positively affected by doing yoga. Meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) have a direct and positive impact on areas of the brain that control stress. Now that we understand the effect of stress on our body, and in particular the digestive system, by releasing stress through meditation and pranayama, we can positively impact the functioning of the digestive system.
Most importantly, a yoga practice has you at peace with yourself which makes you more accepting of yourself and where you are in life: stress is reduced making you feel calmer and improving gut health.
To find out more about Libby and her Yoga, follow her on Instagram at @mumaste_yoga_wellbeing where she also shares details of her online menopause events.