Master Your Metabolism

In years past, you could enjoy a meal overloaded with calories and the next day it didn't show on the scale. The story completely changed when we hit the 30s. Now, every morsel of food seems to move the needle on the scale upward. Of course, we blame ourselves for our lack of willpower or something else—stress, hormones, age – any reason we can find that makes us feel good and avoid responsibility.

Your body is much like an orchestra. If just one musician misses a note, it may ruin the entire performance. In your body's orchestra, the hormones are the key artists that, when not in synch, can ruin your metabolism's performance.

Hormones are significantly affected by diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress—all of which ultimately have an impact on metabolism, disease occurrence, and overall aging process, according to Jade Teta ND, CSCS from the Neuropathic Health Clinic of North Carolina and author of the book New Me Diet.

To make sure all these musicians hit their notes, you have to feed them with the right nutrients and the most effective physical activity. Studies show this combination is one of the top ways to prevent the metabolism slow-down that eventually occurs as you age.

Support Your Thyroid Health

Why? "The thyroid gland is the main governor of the metabolism," says Natasha Turner, author of The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Indeed, it's the gas pedal that determines if your body burns or stores fat. The thyroid responds to signals from other hormones. Changes to both progesterone and estrogen levels can slow down the production of thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, explains Shane Steadman, DC, functional medicine practitioner at Integrated Health Systems in Denver, Colorado.

Symptoms like cold intolerance, weight gain, brain fog, hair loss, constipation and brittle fingernails are symptoms of a sluggish thyroid, even though they can be easily confused with menopause symptoms.

What to eat? Minerals, such as iodine, zinc and selenium, and the amino acid tyrosine are necessary to keep the thyroid functioning properly. You can include them in your diet by consuming more pumpkin seeds, nuts, yogurt and fish for zinc, and Brazil nuts, broccoli, oats, salmon and dairy for selenium. Avocados, almonds, tofu, and seafood are all good sources for tyrosine.

How to exercise? Give the thyroid a boost by ramping up the intensity of your workout. The more you push the intensity—walking, jogging, resistance training, etc.—the shorter the duration you'll need to gain thyroid benefits.

Cortisol

Why? Your adrenal gland releases cortisol to produce the rush we get when something happens that frightens us. It prepares the body to fight or flight. Although an acute cortisol release is beneficial, when this hormone is chronically elevated, it impairs glucose metabolism, immune system function, blood pH, thyroid function, and even bone mass. Likewise, when persistently elevated, it will facilitate visceral fat deposits around the waist.  This type of fat is the most dangerous fat, linked to heart disease and diabetes.

What to eat? Have some lean protein at every meal to lessen glucose metabolism disruption, which facilitates the deposit of fat around the belly. This is particularly important when you crave sugary carbohydrates that increase glucose levels. Instead, choose whole grain carbohydrates (rich in fiber) and pair it with some protein like yogurt and fruit, or chickpeas and veggies.  And if you crave chocolate, this is the time when you may benefit from having a bite of dark chocolate; studies show the polyphenols in chocolate can reduce stress.

You may also want to take a look at your gut flora. A recent study shows that a diet high in probiotics—the good gut bacteria—is associated with less belly fat accumulation. Yogurt comes to your mind when you think of probiotics, but make sure the product contains "live cultures" or "active cultures." You can also consider a supplement since it's hard to get enough probiotics by food only.

How to exercise? This is not the time to show up your best strength or cardio skills. In fact, a study shows that mental stress raises inflammatory chemicals and may decrease pain tolerance, according to the Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Equally, the spine tissue load has shown to increase significantly under stress.

Nevertheless, you have to shake your body to break up the stress cycle, do so with a light walk or a body-mind type of exercise, such as yoga or tai-chi.

Insulin

Why? This hormone makes sure the glucose spike that happens after you eat (particularly following a meal high in carbohydrates) feeds your muscles and/ or your fat cells. The latter mostly happens when you eat in excess and the muscle glucose storage is full. Its production depends on how much you put this hormone to work in three scenarios: what you eat, how frequently, and how active you are. If cortisol is elevated, so is insulin.

What to eat? It's critical your carbohydrate food sources come from vegetables, 100% whole grains, and fiber-rich fruits. To keep insulin levels under control, you can consume chromium from broccoli, beans, eggs and chicken, as well as asparagus for alpha-lipolic acid, and bulgur, oat bran, banana, and nuts for magnesium. Those foods also help your body better manage the glucose response after you consume carbohydrates.

How to exercise? Lift weights! The more body mass you have, the better response to glucose and insulin sensitivity you'll get from your the muscles. Studies show that resistance exercise coupled with cardio exercise works better than cardio alone.  Plan for 30 minutes then perform four resistance body exercises back to back—like squats, lunges, chest-press, back row—for 12-15 reps. Repeat the circuit for up to 15 minutes, followed by your cardio of choice for 15 more minutes.

Estrogen and Testosterone

Why? As estrogen declines, there is a shift of fat deposits from the hips to the belly, which doesn't just alter a woman's appearance, but also her mood. "Since estrogen helps our cells respond better to insulin, a plunging estrogen also tends to cause an unwelcomed increase in insulin," adds Turner. And you already know that insulin, when overworking, facilitates tummy fat.

This estrogen slowdown also affects your levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel calm and relaxed. Low serotonin levels are associated with low levels of estrogen.

While you may think testosterone belongs just to the male members of our species, this hormone is created in the bodies of both men and women. It decreases as we age, can facilitate weight gain, reduces libido, causes painful intercourse, and/or causes poor exercise tolerance.

Low level of this testosterone may also affect another neurotransmitter that stimulates your attention, alertness and motivation: dopamine.

What to eat? Increase the intake of the amino acid tryptophan, which helps in the production of serotonin, found in shrimp, tofu, tuna, oats, chicken, eggs, salmon, and beef tenderloin. As for dopamine, include food rich in the amino acid tyrosine, which can boost the production of this neurotransmitter. Add peanuts, banana, fish, yogurt, sesame seeds, and cottage cheese to your diet. Likewise, cocoa powder helps to boost both chemicals. Do not ditch all fats. While excess sugar may indirectly turn down both hormones, mono-saturated and poly-saturated fats such as the ones found in avocado, olive oil, fish, lean pork and chicken, nuts, and 2% dairy, are staples to optimize the sex hormones production.

How to exercise? Studies show moderate to high-intensity exercise increases the feel-good hormones. Increase serotonin with a cardio workout in which you break a sweat, while to bump up testosterone and dopamine lift some heavy weights and shoot for exercises that uses many muscles at once.

Growth Hormone

Why? It's considered the true fountain of youth for a good reason: it affects every cell of the body. The growth hormone is essential for tissue repair, muscle building, bone density, and healthy body composition, states Turner.

What to eat? Essentially, this hormone calls for whole grain carbohydrates—oat, quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat—paired with protein sources like lean meat, fish, olive, canola, and/or coconut oil, and nuts. But to naturally make the most of this hormone you must hit the sack for 7-8 hours of nightly sleep. This hormone picks up when you sleep to fully nourish the body and repair tissues. In fact, it's been shown that sleeping less than 7 hours will alter the hormone pattern affecting metabolism.

How to Exercise? Resistance training has been showed to increase growth hormone. It also enhances bone mass, which is particularly important as you reach menopause when your risk of osteoporosis increases, according to a study published Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Here are some guidelines for resistance training, from the American College of Sports Medicine, to beef up your bone mass and your body’s creation of the growth hormone:

- Multi-joint exercises to tackle different muscles and joints at once—squats, lat-pull down, and push-press.

- Loading should be high while reps should be low— 8-12 reps—with the last two hard to perform.

- Two to four sets. However, for novices one set of 12-15 reps is a good start.

Leptin and Ghrelin

Why? These two hormones are in a constant battle to whether you devour or pass on the Cheetos. When leptin is high, hunger is in control. But if ghrelin is high, chances are you won't resist the munchies.

What to eat? Leptin responds well when eating fiber-rich carbohydrates, such as an apple, oatmeal, oat bran, and popcorn. Ghrelin is both protein and carb responsive. If you follow a low-carb diet and don't feel full after eating, you need to add more carbs to stimulate this hormone in the short time. Think whole grain carbohydrates though. If you get hungry two hours later, then you need to eat more protein.

How to exercise? Studies show that high-intensity, moderate duration, interval exercise—either cardio or a mix of cardio and some resistance training exercises—decreases appetite intake while low-intensity, long duration workouts may create the opposite effect.

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