menopause

Stressed, fat, tired and depressed - because you're 50?

Is that how you feel? I speak to so many women around that age – not least because I am one of them – and am surprised and saddened by how many of us feel that way, have accepted it as a normal consequence of ageing and have given up. After all: Everyone else says the same.

Many of us have battled with their weight for our entire lives. We grew up surrounded by magazines that showed us what a woman should look like. A quick comparison between what we saw in the mirror and what was depicted in the magazine confirmed that we certainly didn’t fit the ideal. So we went on a diet. I was probably on my first one at around age 14. Looking back at the photographs now, I can’t really see what the problem was: OK, I wasn’t a stick insect, but I certainly wasn’t as fat as I thought I was (and as I was going to become!) by any stretch of the imagination.

Me as a teenager in the early 80s.

Me as a teenager in the early 80s.

I wish I had known then what I know now: That going on diets is just a downward spiral – or upward, in terms of weight. Diets don’t work and serve only to make us feel miserable. After all, we keep failing at them. We eat less, move more, are starving all the time … and then fall off the wagon. Before we know it the weight we just lost is back and then some.

And then the exercise … We work all day and are lucky if we get away with 9-5 only, we’re commuting for 3-4 hours a day, braving London transport, do household chores when we get home and are still replying to work emails when we’re finally on the couch. Those of us who don’t work in London may be even worse off, stuck in traffic on the Southend Arterial Road twice a day, inching forward in the summer sun and losing the will to live. We pass the time by making mental lists of all the things we have to do when we get there. If we ever get there. We’re stressed, we’re tired, and hungry all the time. Where are we supposed to find the time and energy to exercise? Which is not even fun! Unwinding with a glass of wine and some chocolate in front of the telly sounds much more like it, and there’s barely even time for that.

Many of us around 50 are facing major life changes: The kids have left the nest, instead our parents are getting older and demand more of our time, maybe even need our care. There is a house to maintain, food shopping to be done, a social life to keep up with and a job to hold down for our contribution to the household income. The days never seem to be long enough.

And then that age … 50! Even that number alone! We’re officially middle-aged. It’s downhill from here. Yes, ok, there seem to be some of those annoying ‘healthy’ types who never seem to age, still run marathons with ease, keep their youthful figures, golden tresses and wrinkle-free faces apparently effortlessly. But that’s not us. We’ve acquired a spare tire around the middle, crow’s feet around our eyes, and no sooner do we get our roots dyed and they show again. The last thing we need are hot flushes and night sweats to rob us of that desperately needed beauty sleep, but, hey, things weren’t bad enough already, so why not add that to our misery and remind us that we’re now officially old. Thanks a bunch!

So what’s the answer? Is there even one? After all most of the women we know are in the same boat, going through similar things. It must be normal to be stressed, fat, tired and depressed at 50. Right?

Well, no. It depends on how to define normal: Is it how the majority of people feel? Then yes, it’s ‘normal’. Is it inevitable to feel like that at 50? I think not.

Given my profession, you’ll already know that food is going to come in here somewhere. And it is! You cannot underestimate the power of food. After all, everything that happens in our bodies is chemistry, and that requires chemicals, which in the food world are called nutrients: fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients. That’s what you need for your body to work properly and it is fully capable of doing that even at 50 (and beyond).

You wouldn’t put diesel into a petrol car and expect the engine to run on that. And that’s just a machine. How is the human body – an intricate biological organism – supposed to function on artificial 'foods', laden with sugar, damaged fats, flavourings, thickeners, emulsifiers, preservatives, herbicides, pesticides, plasticisers, colourings and other questionable additives?

It won’t, and you already know that a) from experience and b) because you’re not stupid, but it’s near impossible to get away from the stuff! Fake foods are made for us to love them. The food industry spends billions on research to find that ‘bliss point’, that perfect combination of fat and sugar, that melt-in-the-mouth feeling, that will trigger our brain chemistry to release endorphins that will make us happy and keep coming back for more. It’s not you, it’s not a lack of willpower, it’s chemistry.

Knowing that is power. If you know what to do, you can take the reigns back and can get your health – and with it your life – back on track.

I didn’t mind turning 50, because … what’s the alternative? My father died from a heart attack when I was 4. He was only 39. When I was approaching 50 I was determined to celebrate my age, because I knew that he would have loved to turn 50. Getting older is nothing to complain about. It’s great!

And you know what? I’ve never felt better! And if I could achieve that, so can you!

Here’s me at 36 (left) and now. Need I say more?

50 stressed fat tired depressed menopausal

More on Stress from the Inside

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the body’s stress response, or “fight-or-flight” response. The article described what happens inside the body in a situation of immediate danger – the alarm phase. The changes I described are mainly due to the stress hormone adrenaline. It triggers a cascade of mechanisms designed to save our life. The effects of adrenaline are very short lived.

Another stress hormone, cortisol, kicks in right after adrenaline. It is produced in order to continue fighting the effects of a stressor long after adrenaline has worn off. Cortisol stimulates the conversion of protein into glucose to ensure that the body has a sufficient supply of energy even after the emergency stores of glucose have been depleted. For the same reason, it also continues to inhibit the functioning of insulin and sustains the changes to the cardiovascular system – among others elevated blood pressure and a fast beating heart – that are designed to transport oxygen and glucose to those cells that need them most in an emergency situation. Cortisol also helps us deal with emotional crisis, performing strenuous task and fighting pain and infection.

This is all extremely useful in an actual dangerous situation. Although physical danger is undesirable, it doesn’t normally go on forever. When it is over we can start recovery – again with the help of cortisol, which stimulates appetite and has anti-inflammatory properties. Eventually, all is well again and we move on.

Yet, today’s stressors are different. We are – luckily! – rarely under physical threat these days, but most of us are stressed, some of us often, some of us all the time. What this means is that our adrenal glands, where stress hormones are made, have to continuously churn out those hormones, with hardly any break, and in the long run, this can have serious consequences. If cortisol is constantly or very frequently present in the blood stream:

  • Blood pressure is high.
  • Insulin function is impaired, which over time can lead to diabetes II.
  • The heart beats fast and works overtime.
  • We are on high alert, which interferes with concentration and can contribute to anxiety.
  • Digestion is erratic at best.
  • Fertility is on hold, because as far as the body can tell this is not a good time to procreate.

This is clearly not good! Prolonged stress really is not just tiring, unpleasant and a matter of the mind. It affects the whole body and can be at the root or at least a contributing factor to a whole host of chronic illnesses.

Stress is often seen as “busyness to an unpleasant degree”, but having to rush around all day long is not the only and not the worst stressor by far. Technically, almost any change in our environment is a stressor: hot or cold, physical trauma such as illness or injury, stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and sugar, environmental toxins (including exhaust fumes, pesticides, chemical exposure from furniture, cosmetics etc.), even exercise, if excessive. Then there are emotional stressors, like bereavement, divorce, bullying, job loss, debt and more.

Apart from the effects continuous stress hormone secretion has on the body, it also affects the adrenal glands, where they are made. For one, these little glands that sit on top of each of your kidneys, have other jobs as well. They make a wide range of other hormones besides stress hormones, too. If the adrenal glands are busy making stress hormones for a long time, this takes up most of their capacity and other hormones fall by the wayside. Remember: acute stress is meant to be a priority (and short-lived), so all efforts are diverted to them.

Stress hormones also hog the “raw materials” other hormones need: Cortisol and ultimately the sex hormones progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone are made from a hormone called pregnenolone, which in turn is made from cholesterol. If all the pregnenolone is diverted towards the production of cortisol, this will have a knock-on effect on sex hormone levels: think premenstrual syndrome (PMS), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fertility, libido and more.

Co-factors required for other hormones, too, are going towards the production of stress hormones. Stress uses up vital vitamins and minerals that will be missing elsewhere.

If stress persists over years and years, the adrenal glands can wear out and struggle to produce any hormones at all. You’d feel very tired and exhausted to the extent where even sleep does not refresh you enough, struggle to concentrate, and might even experience depression. It is possible to recover, but it may take a long time. After all, it took a long time to get to this stage, too.

So, what to do? Watch this space! While you wait, you may want to subscribe to Nutrilicious News. Tomorrow's contains a yummy stress-busting recipe, which is easy to make, as always. There'll also be a breakdown of what it is that combats stress in this particular recipe.

If you suffer from stress and its physical manifestations, if you are suffering from stress-related illness, why not book a personal health and nutrition programme with me at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex?