Ladies, you all know we have an exceedingly more difficult time aging than our male counter parts. What is distinguished and attractive on them is seen as elderly and unattractive for us. Graying at the temples, a few lines on the face, these are not regarded in the same way on women; no equality here.
Some of the most common signs of aging we all struggle with are changes in our hair and skin, weight gain around our middle, and difficulty sleeping peacefully through the night, preventing adequate rest. Anti-aging is a billion dollar industry. Many of the products and services available do make a difference. However, these can be prohibitively expensive unless we are famous celebrities. Is there help for us?
What causes these specific changes in our bodies, and is there a way to minimize or slow down the process?
Hair changes and aging
Women have a complex, love ̶ hate relationship with their hair. On good-hair days we can conquer the world, whereas bad-hair days (which, for me, are very common) cause us to lose our confident stride. We cut, color, highlight, buy expensive products for our hair, and spend lots of time washing, drying, and styling. It takes up a large part of our grooming time. But why does our hair change as we age? Why do our good-hair days seem to become rarer?
Graying hair is often the first and clearest sign of aging. The hair follicles produce less melanin. Melanin is the pigment that gives our hair its color. As melanin decreases the hairs turn gray and later silver. Genetics determine how early and how much we gray.
There are natural herbal supplements that claim the ability to slow or reverse graying, specifically amla, or Indian gooseberry and foti. These herbs have been used for centuries in India and China. Sadly, there is no scientific research to verify this claim.
Thinning hair and hair loss
The living portion of our hair, the hair inside the hair follicle, is dependent on the health of the follicle and the skin where it is located. This makes hair uniquely vulnerable to aging. Our skin is affected by decreasing hormone levels, sun damage, and genetics. Diminishing hormone levels, androgens and estrogen, occurring during menopause have a profound effect on the appearance of our hair, and not really in a good way.
Menopause is, in many ways, not our friend. As estrogens decrease the hair shaft becomes thinner because the hair follicle begins to shrink. It produces finer hair. The result is fewer hair-producing follicles, and thinner existing hairs. This causes the overall look of thinning hair that we dread. The hair-growth cycle becomes shorter as the follicle ages so hair does not grow as quickly or as long.
Hair Growth Cycle
The average human head has around 2,200 strands of hair per square inch. Given this, the average head has roughly 100,000 hairs.
My hair was at its thickest and best while I was pregnant. Pregnancy is a time when your body is operating at is healthiest: hormone levels are uniquely high and our hair and skin respond by looking plump and beautiful. Menopause is the exact opposite: hormones decrease and then cease altogether, leaving our skin and hair follicles to struggle, thus we age. Hormone therapy is sometimes recommended. It does make a positive difference in our skin and hair. As we approach 60 years of age, this is no longer an option, mainly because of the risks of blood clots and strokes associated with estrogen in particular.
Hair loss in men generally occurs as male pattern baldness. While women may show this type of balding, most commonly there is diffuse thinning of the hair over the entire scalp (female pattern baldness). The hair follicles slow their production of keratin (hair shaft) so the hair grows slower. Eventually the hair stops growing and falls out.
While hormones and environmental factors play a part in our aging hair profile, genetics is by far the largest factor in how we age. As our parents and grandparents aged, that is the lot for us as well. Sadly we can’t do much to change that.
What can we do?
Short of undergoing a hair-transplant procedure, what can we do? Nutrition plays a huge part in how our body functions as we age. A healthy diet supplemented with top quality vitamins and minerals would be the first step. Add exercise to keep blood flowing and our muscles strong. Good blood flow allows for efficient distribution of the nutrients to all parts of our body including our hair follicles. Some of the key nutrients that have been identified to aid hair health specifically are biotin, silica, hydrolyzed collagen and keratin.
Topical minoxidil, a chemical, is used by doctors to treat hair thinning. It is available over the counter as Rogaine, or in prescription strength. Dermatologists say it takes about four months to realize results. My personal experience with this product is that it produced severe angina, or heart pain. I was not able to continue using it.
Some Dermatologists will prescribe the drug Propecia, which has proven results in men. It has been shown to be safe for non-pregnant women. It is extremely dangerous to an unborn fetus so it should never be used or even handled if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Propecia works to block hormone-related (androgen) hair loss. As with any supplement or medication, check with your health-care provider before starting, and read all product labels.
The wrong hair style or color can add years to our appearance. Consulting a good hair stylist will offer insight into the proper cut for our face and hair type. A cut that is too long will drag facial features down. A style that is too short may be unflattering as well. Minimizing heat styling and how frequently we shampoo will preserve the strands and cause them to look healthy for a longer period of time.
Keeping gray hair vibrant rather than letting it yellow will take years off. A hair color that is too close to your facial complexion will cause you to look washed out. You may try going just a bit darker to provide contrast.
Aging and Weight Gain
Weight gain in peri-menopause and menopause is all too common. In fact 30% of women age 50 to 59 in the USA are considered not just over weight but obese. Obesity is loosely defined as having a waist size greater than 35 inches (89 cm). We struggle with our body image by comparing ourselves to our friends and family members. Magazines and Hollywood continually project unrealistic body images adding to our sense of dislike and dissatisfaction with our bodies. Viewing our body in a negative way may lead to psychological difficulties and make it that much more difficult to lose weight.
What causes midlife weight gain?
We are all unique and each of us faces our own weight challenges. There are common causes of menopausal weight gain that many women struggle with. Our hormones and our fat cells are part of a complex network responsible for metabolism, appetite, digestion, heat regulation, and detoxification. Any breakdown in the network will result in symptoms like hot flashes, food cravings, and weight gain.
In animal studies, estrogen appears to help control body weight. With lower estrogen levels, lab animals tended to eat more and be less physically active.
Decreasing estrogen levels during peri-menopause and menopause may slow the rate at which the body converts stored energy into working energy. It is what happens with women when estrogen levels drop after menopause. Lack of estrogen may cause the body to use starches and regulate insulin levels less effectively, which would increase fat storage and make it harder to lose weight.
At the same time that our bodies begin producing less estrogen our lives may become more stressful. Midlife career stress, family obligations such as teenagers, grandkids, or taking care of older adult parents takes a toll on our system. Stress may cause us to eat more, increase cravings for unhealthy foods, or just basically not having enough time to prepare healthy meals.
We have three primary hormones: insulin, adrenaline, and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol manage our stress response while insulin controls our blood-sugar levels. Yes, food and stress directly affect our hormones! Insulin is driven by the food we eat. When we eat too much sugar, white flour and processed food, insulin levels will rise. When we are exposed to chronic stress, adrenaline and cortisol will increase.
Whatever your weakness is—bread, pasta, sugared coffee drinks, alcohol, or dessert—if your blood glucose levels are high and you have insulin resistance, or insulin sensitivity, your body will store every calorie it can as fat. That’s because even though you may be gaining weight, your cells are actually starving for the healthy nutrients.
Even if you have not been diagnosed with diabetes or insulin resistance, many of us have insulin sensitivity. We have glucose (sugar) levels that are higher than they should be. Moving toward perimenopaus, this will absolutely result in weight gain. Your body will store fat to ensure it has what it needs. In addition to insulin fat storage, our bodies want to store fat to replace declining estrogen levels. Hormone-related fat storage tends to start in our belly and around our waist. Increasing weight, low estrogen and high blood-sugar levels cause us to feel sluggish and make us much less likely to exercise. Over 60% of us are not active enough.
Decreasing hormone levels and less exercise equal less fat-burning muscle mass, resulting in decreased or slower metabolism and weight gain. We lose muscle mass as we age and only exercise can slow the loss. Not only that, even when we do exercise our body does not burn fat at the same rate it did when we were younger. You must exercise longer for the same effect. Have I completely depressed you yet? There must be something we can do, right?
Can we stop the middle age spread?
Stopping or reversing weight gain is no easy task. If it was certainly everyone would be doing it, and there would be no need for the volumes written on the subject. I’d like to outline 10 changes you can make to begin feeling better, stronger, and more in control of your body.
1. Begin or increase your exercise program. You can start small by walking a few minutes a day. The goal is to work up to 30-minute walks 5 times per week. You will need to work harder than when you were younger because metabolism is slower now (metabolism decreases 1% per year after age 30). Building muscle by strength training for about 15 minutes twice per week will help increase your metabolism.
2. Move as much as possible throughout the day during your daily tasks. Park farther away, forcing you to walk farther. Take the stairs. Consider investing in a fitness tracker to show how active you really are. It’s been a good motivator for me.
3. Portion control at meal time seems like a no brainer, but it is easy to forget what a normal portion looks like in our super-sized world. Share a meal or save half for the next day. Choose healthy meats and add lots of fruits, veggies, and fiber. Even when you are making healthy food choices portion control is still important. All calories ad up!
4. Choose healthy fats. Do your best to avoid hydrogenated oils like palm oil or anything that contains trans fats. Healthy fats include olive oil and nut oils. Your body needs fats but don’t overdo it. Consuming healthy fats will increase your satisfaction after a meal possibly causing you to eat less, and have fewer cravings.
5. Be careful what you eat after 3 pm. late afternoon and evening is when most women tend to over snack. It is best to have a small, healthy snack and then a sensible dinner. Avoid eating after dinner and especially before bedtime.
6. Any activity is better than no activity. Do your best to avoid the same old routine. Mix it up. Instead of walking around the neighborhood, go to the park. Call a friend to go along. Take a bike ride, anything just to change the muscles that you normally use. Your metabolism will thank you.
7. Exercise with friends. You are more likely to exercise longer and not skip workouts if you are accountable to a friend. Doing your workout with a group is very motivating. To budge your belly fat, you will need to burn around 500 calories per workout most days of the week.
8. Reduce stress. As mentioned earlier in this article, stress causes our cortisol hormone to increase. This is our fat-storage hormone, and yes it stores fat in our belly.
9. Get some sleep. Adequate rest will give you the energy you need to be active throughout the day. This is sometimes difficult to do because menopause and insomnia are related. We will discuss this in the next section of this article.
10. Hormone-replacement therapy. If your menopause symptoms are severe, talk with your doctor about the possibility of this treatment to help you take control of your body.
By making some or all of these changes, your body will begin to reward you with more energy, better health, a feeling of wellbeing that comes from being in control, and a better-fitting wardrobe.
Aging and Sleep Changes
Up to 61% of peri-menopausal and menopausal women report having varying degrees of insomnia. It is a common and sometimes severe problem. Again, the main culprit is declining hormones and everything that comes with it. Hot flashes, night sweats, anxiety, and stress all play a part in disrupting our much needed rest.
In addition to hormonal causes, midlife can be unexpectedly stressful, as I mentioned earlier. Teenage children, grandchildren, ageing parents, career stressors can all come into play in a major way. Pile all of these factors together and it is no wonder that sleeping becomes just a fond memory.
What is insomnia? There are different types of sleep problems. Trouble falling asleep, waking up too early, waking frequently throughout the night, and waking in the morning without feeling refreshed are all classified as insomnia. It can last a few nights or many years. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 8 hours of sleep nightly for women in our age group.
The Sleep Cycle
Not physically sleeping, your body is preparing to sleep.
Lasts about 5 min.
You are sleeping; your brain is in a state of calm to keep your body resting.
Lasts about 40 min
Deep sleep occurring about 30 minutes after your eyes close. Delta sleep waves release hormones and your body starts to repair itself.
Lasts about 20 min
Deep sleep part two. Continuing the deep sleep phase.
Lasts 20 to 30 min
Occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Dreaming and deep heavy breathing continuing cell repair.
Lasts 18 to 20 min
We repeat this complete cycle four or five times per night and each cycle repeated in roughly 90 minute intervals.
What can we do to reach deep sleep?
Here is a list of sleep suggestions from the Cleveland Clinic:
1. Avoid naps during the day as naps can prevent you from sleeping well at night.
2. Exercise daily. However, try to avoid vigorous exercise 3 hours before bedtime if that energizes you.
3. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine throughout the entire day.
4. Keep your bedroom cool to prevent night sweats.
5. Do not go to bed until you are tired.
6. Take a warm bath or shower at bedtime.
7. Do not watch television, eat, or read in bed. We recommend you do these activities in another room until you feel sleepy.
8. Follow the same bedtime routine each night.
9. Avoid using drugs and instead take a natural supplement if needed.
10. Wear socks to bed to help control core body temperature.
If hot flashes are keeping you up, (these are the worst!) try these suggestions:
• Staying cool during hot flashes by wearing loose clothing to bed
• Keeping your bedroom well-ventilated to prevent night sweats and disturbed sleep
• Avoiding certain foods that might cause sweating (such as spicy foods), especially right before bedtime
These are good suggestions and are worth a try. I personally have had to give up all caffeine except my morning coffee. I also take a natural sleep aid once or twice a week, and nearly always take a magnesium citrate capsule at bedtime. Magnesium supports many bodily functions, and acts as a natural muscle relaxant. This has helped me tremendously. I do still wake at night but mostly have very little trouble going back to sleep.
It is essential to see your doctor if severe sleep problems continue. Insomnia may lead to depression and it would be important to be sure you have no other underlying medical conditions that are causing insomnia.
Aging is not for wimps as we’ve learned. But if we take an active role in our health we can absolutely slow the process. Keeping our bodies well-nourished and active is the key to aging gracefully. Yes, genetics play a primary part in how we age as individuals, but eating healthy and staying physically active will keep us that way much longer. We can avoid disease; have good muscle strength, better balance, flexible joints, and an overall stronger self-esteem from feeling and looking our best. When we feel good it shows no matter our age.