Menopause, Andropause and now “Somatopause”?

bodybuilder poseWell it’s no secret what menopause is.  Luckily there’s an increasing body of information widely available out about it these days.  Among other hormonal shifts, the primary change in menopause and peri-menopause occurs with estrogen levels.  Estrogen production decreases as women age, and move away from the reproductive stage of life.

Men have an equivalent transition as their androgens shift and the production of testosterone wanes.

Somatopause is not as commonly discussed and the term might be unfamiliar, but depending on your age you might not be surprised to hear what it is.  This is a change that happens for both men and women as we approach later life.  The prefix soma comes from the Greek meaning “body”.  In medicine the term somatic refers to the physical body – the machine: muscles and bones.

If you’re someone who’s nearing mid life or just past it, then you may already have noticed that your body is definitely changing – possibly even before you notice changes in estrogen or testosterone.  In addition to finding hairs where there didn’t used to be any or skin tags in inconvenient places, skin may not be as firm or as thick, but above all, our muscle mass is suddenly not what it used to be.  Many middle aged people will notice that seeing and feeling the results of exercise becomes harder and harder.  It becomes really easy to lose the effects of exercise.  The decrease in muscle mass and the decreased ability to build muscle is what the term “somatopause” refers to.

Somatopause, or this decrease in muscle mass, just like the other two ” -pauses”, is also because of a decreasing hormone.  In this case it’s the human growth hormone (HGH).  The human muscle cell (sarcomere) needs HGH in order to grow.   Our body stops naturally making as much growth hormone as we do when we’re younger.

Does this mean we should all just roll over and become flabby and weak?  We certainly can but it’s not a fate we have to accept silently. At the very least this information should make us want to work a little harder at staying with an exercise regimen.  The “Move it or Lose it” adage definitely becomes louder and clearer the older we get.

Incidentally, there’s some really interesting evidence just coming to light recently that seems responsible for feeding yet another trendy exercise fad.  In recent months you may have heard more and more about high intensity interval training.  The allure of this kind of workout is that it touts much less of a time commitment in the gym (for the busy professionals) but promising to deliver the same or better outcomes fitness-wise.

Well, I’m the first to dig my heels in when I notice the frenzy for a fad taking hold and I always advise caution to all patients considering trying this particular one – no matter what age.  The potential for injury is high when we combine speed or time stress with intensity since neither leave much room for focusing on safe form unless closely supervised.  So, I generally don’t advise anyone to do this kind of training, but I am changing my tune a little bit and here’s why:

Studies have shown this kind of training appreciably stimulates an increase in growth hormone production. So, if  it’s done safely, the high intensity, short spurts of exercise can be particularly useful to those of us approaching somatopause.  The added stints of growth hormone production will aid in the building of muscle mass even in someone who has entered this stage of life where the natural decline of HGH has begun!

If you’re struggling to put on muscle mass don’t forget to think about your nutrient intake but you might as well also consider  kicking it up a notch once or twice a week for the sake of these muscle building benefits.  But don’t leave behind the traditional workouts that you enjoy.  It’s far too important to our brain chemistry to leave those behind.  Workouts of a minimum of 30 min. and longer, will be what give you a good dose of “happy chemicals”.  These will become more important as you add the naturally more stress hormone inducing high intensity workouts, simply for balance. (Take a moment to read this post to learn why it’s important for some people to be especially careful with stress inducing activities – you might be adding fuel to the fire despite your best intentions)

I hope you’ll consider the fact that maintaining and gaining muscle mass at all ages is not just about looks. You will look great and feel much better about your looks but more importantly, it’s very much about life sustaining function that will make all aspects of daily living easier, safer and seamless.  It’s a biological fact that movement is ultimately what sustains life and you can’t move if you don’t have muscle!

 

References:

http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2013/06/21/interval-training.aspx

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442584

One Thing People Don’t Tell You About Peri-Menopause…

Menopause concept.…is that it can be a highly inflammatory time for your body!

All the things you used to be able to get away with like strange sleeping positions, eating the wrong thing, or taking on too much at work; suddenly you start to experience critical mass in all of these areas of your life – not to mention the emotional toll of the added stress from hormonal fluctuations. So now you’re even less well equipped to emotionally cope with these sudden chemically based inflammatory triggers in your life – none of which previously would have been a big deal at all.

Have you ever heard anyone describe the time leading up to menopause as feeling like PMS 24-7?  Well, since every woman’s PMS feels different, regardless of what exactly that means to you, that analogy is not actually too far fetched.  As we approach menopause our hormones start to take on a sustained state of affairs that hormonally mirrors the time in our cycle right before menstrual flow.

The thing about female reproductive hormones is that the multitude of actions they coordinate day in and day out throughout a one month cycle is more like a sophisticated concert symphony rather than a simple switchboard-like action => reaction and on/off function. The harmony of this symphony that is being played by many different hormones at the same time, is highly dependent on how  they interrelate rather than on their individual measurable levels alone.  The concentration and resultant effect of circulating estrogen is to some degree only significant in relation to the concentration of progesterone.  Because they dampen or heighten each others impact on the body, it’s more about proportion than it is about their sole presence.

Using just the main two groups of hormones, estrogen and progesterone in our example, here’s roughly how a smoothly played symphony  goes for the duration of a four week / one month cycle:

1st two weeks of the month:

Estrogen rises – going up first then not until a few days later Progesterone starts to rise – going up as well.

Estrogen peaks then starts to decrease – going down but Progesterone is still increasing…going up

Beginning of the 3rd week: (or whenever ovulation occurs for you)

Estrogen still goes up slightly then levels out and stays  steady for a little while but Progesterone is still on the rise…going up

Beginning of the 4th week:

Progesterone peaks and then starts to decrease – going down but Estrogen is still level – same for a few days…

once Progesterone and Estrogen levels are equal again then they both start to decrease – going down together at a similar rate all the way until bleeding phase of the cycle happens.

Then it starts all over again!

When this symphony is in complete harmony, we don’t experience very significant symptoms even during that pre-menstrual time.

If this all happens according to plan, harmony is high and symptoms are few.  Women experience symptoms of PMS mainly when these events happen out of order or each group of hormones rise or dip to strange levels – in relationship to the others and this is what creates disharmony.  It’s not just one poorly behaving hormone it’s the whole symphony of hormones losing their way and becoming unsynchronized – creating noise rather than music.

The three main players are: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.  Each of these can cause symptoms of excess if they are high in relationship to one or both of the others.

Progesterone Excess = Inflammation

Progesterone can seem high when estrogen is low – this happens to varying degrees during the second two weeks of the menstrual cycle aka: the two weeks before menstrual flow.  This is when women often experience greater levels of inflammation which can lead to sudden strains and sprains or headaches or an increased stress response or simply more generalized aches and pains.

Progesterone definitely will seem high for some women approaching menopause because of the steadily but erratically declining estrogen levels.  Again the body becomes more inflamed  but now at odd times – much less predictable than during the regularly cycling lifetime.

Testosterone = Anti-Inflammation

Women produce testosterone from the ovaries and adrenal glands and this notoriously “male” hormone actually stays the same before and after menopause.   It only seems higher after menopause because of the absence of estrogen and progesterone to dampen its effect, so it becomes dominant and we start to notice symptoms associated with testosterone effects like facial hair, deepening voice, balding etc.

Estrogen Excess = can be Both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory depending on the situation.

Estrogen dominance is a big problem in our society because of all of the chemicals that we are exposed to that mimic the structure of estrogen.  But this is  a much larger topic for a different blog post.

What I want you to take away from this necessarily over-simplified snapshot of peri-menopause, is that if you or anyone you know are in the throws of it, you should be aware of the fact that this can be a very inflammatory time for the body. While this simmering inflammation will be part of what feels discouraging and as though you’re aging before your time, be patient, be careful and respect the process. But know that it will end and if you care for the inflammation now even though it seems so out of proportion, you will be okay and in fact better off once the fluctuations end.

There are many resources out there on natural food based anti-inflammatory nutrients including turmeric (curcumin), boswellia serrata, ginger and quercetin.

Stress management is also a great way to deal with the overall inflammatory response in your body.  Magenesium is an important mineral that can help the nervous system with this.

Speak to your natural health care provider for more specific guidance as to what your body needs during this time.  He or she will know best based on your full clinical picture.

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