Even though 50 is the new 30, with each passing year, the body goes through a sea of changes. These fluctuations manifest in varied ways—some activities may become more strenuous than before or some foods may not agree with your gut anymore. One of the earliest and most apparent indicators? Gaining muscle becomes that much tougher. That’s because the metabolism rate diminishes with age. “The first signs of a slowing metabolism can a difficulty to lose weight. You can usually notice this dip at age 40 and older. This can also be associated in women to the age of menopause,” explains Dr Rocio Salas-Whalen, MD, a triple board-certified endocrinologist based in Manhattan and founder of New York Endocrinology.
Metabolism is the mechanism by which the body converts what you eat into energy, in other words, burn calories you consume. This energy is then used for processes like respiration and digestion, for one, and also for daily physical activities. But the word metabolism gets bandied around a lot, with claims to increase it by trying a quick-fix-promise workout here and a yo-yo diet there. But, like any other anatomical system, metabolism is a complex infrastructure, where hormones are deeply intertwined. Up ahead, Dr Rocio Salas-Whalen, an NYC-based endocrinologist, clears the air on the connection between the two and how to make it work for you as you age.
Understanding the hormonal and metabolic connection
“Every metabolic function is completely controlled by your hormones,” Dr Salas-Whalen reinstates. Stable hormones equates smooth functioning of the body. “Cortisol, thyroid, oestrogen, testosterone, growth hormone and insulin are the key hormones at play here.” A slump or spike in these will mean your workout and weight will be thrown out of equilibrium. “Oestrogen and testosterone (the most common names on the list) are both sex hormones that help with muscle mass maintenance. When decreased, it can lead to central weight gain. In women, we can see a drop of oestrogen during menopause. This affects the individual’s metabolism by increased visceral fat [the excess weight that develops around the abdominal cavity]. As a treatment, hormonal replacement therapy may aid postmenopausal women. In men, a drop in testosterone can slow down metabolism trough the same mechanisms.”
Each of these hormones are mutually dependent too. So, for example, “when cortisol, a stress hormone, is chronically increased, it can lead to weight gain and a surge in appetite.” This makes you likely to overeat, especially refined carbs and sugar, which drives insulin resistance and elevates levels of insulin. Too much insulin can cause your body to store more fat. “Thyroid is the master metabolic hormone as it directly controls your metabolism. When there is a hypo functioning of this gland, your metabolism reduces.” A waning thyroid will deplete the body’s progesterone production, and a body emitting cortisol will drain the thyroid. “Growth hormone encourages the body to break down fat and build muscle in adults,” and it also enhances the activity of all your other hormones.
Small changes for a big impact
A good night’s sleep is the simplest way to drastically improve your life. There are quantifiable benefits of being well-rested: improve your memory, cognitive performance, ability to handle problems, immune system, and your metabolism. “Adequate sleep is very important as it decreases the stress hormone cortisol,” elaborates Dr Salas-Whalen. A 2016 analysis, in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, highlighted sleep deprivation to be a cause for heightened desire for food as a reward the next day. The gold standard, more than seven hours of snooze, usually works for all. But if you’re waking up tired, you’re not getting enough sleep. Keeping a consistent schedule is an important part of your overall sleep hygiene too.
It’s no secret that a body in motion will age better than one on the couch. Physical activity of any kind part of a day-to-day routine is a potent way to counter diminishing metabolism too. This brings us to the guaranteed efficacy of adding weight lifting to your fitness regime. While resistance training may seem counterintuitive for older people, studies have affirmed that simply contracting a muscle pumps out favourable hormone signals called myokines. Simply put, when you start lifting weights that may feel heavier than you can handle, your body responds by making more muscle to deflect what it perceives as damage. Dr Salas-Whalen explains, “As you age, you become less active and lose muscle mass. Adding muscle mass with weight bearing exercises and increasing in protein consumption is important at many levels. It helps with coordination and balance to avoid falls and injuries, it’s vital for bone protection, and it avoids osteoporosis. With reference to weight control, muscle mass can help burn more calories.” And the good news is you don’t have to lift weights like a body builder to reap the benefits. High-intensity interval training, going for a run, taking the stairs, jumping, and even household chores can stimulate growth hormone.
Eat right and more often
Several types of dietary fibre can positively rev up hormones like oestrogen that govern metabolism. Foods like whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits are nutrition-dense and low-carb, perfect to increase the good burn and aid weight loss. Whether you choose three meals a day or six, stick to balanced portions that keeps you from feeling famished for prolonged intervals.
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