Let’s clarify two things. Being in perimenopause means your hormones are changing and your fertility is reducing. Being metabolically flexible means your body can use both sugar (glucose) and fat for energy and switch between the two with ease.
The key connection between them – you need one to make the other easier to handle. Holly explains all…
It’s a double whammy I’m afraid, ladies.
- Age ✔
- Gender ✔
Metabolic flexibility naturally declines as we age and is also profoundly influenced by hormones making perimenopause a key transitional time where the body’s ability to maintain the flexibility to use sugar and fat for fuel is challenged. Stubborn weight gain around the middle is often a key sign of this decline.
Perimenopause symptoms are commonly discussed, but did you know that metabolic inflexibility exacerbates many of these symptoms?
- Hot flushes
- Sleep disturbances
- UTIs and thrush
- Mood swings
- Loss of libido
- Weight gain especially around the waist
- Brain fog
Fun fact – all of those symptoms can also be experienced because of insulin resistance! This is the reason that blood sugars and diabetes can be more difficult to manage during perimenopause.
Oestrogen is inextricably linked to energy metabolism because it influences how sensitive our cells are to insulin and therefore has a direct impact on blood sugar levels.
Newer studies link it to the suppression of glucose production (gluconeogenesis) in the liver (a nifty way the body compensates for low blood sugars in the absence of food, but when out of balance can drive insulin resistance!). It also influences whether the body is metabolically flexible and helps the body to switch to fat-burning when carbohydrates are less available. Progesterone also affects blood sugars because it has a role to play in signalling gluconeogenesis and insulin release from the pancreas.
Still unsure about insulin resistance and metabolic flexibility – check this blog out.
As a woman’s sex hormones fluctuate and then decline during this life stage, blood sugars naturally become more erratic and cells become less responsive to insulin – cue an increased predisposition to insulin resistance and a host of symptoms that can really affect your quality of life.
This is a two-way street though and just as oestrogen affects insulin so it goes the other way too. High levels of insulin also disrupt the balance of our sex hormones contributing to excess oestrogen in the body – think fibroids, sore boobs and heavy bleeding.
But if low levels of oestrogen mean that tissues are less sensitive to insulin, does that mean that higher levels bode better for metabolic flexibility?
The answer would be no – as always the body needs balance and high oestrogen levels are also linked with insulin resistance! This is why it is so crucial to balance blood sugars as hormonal balance in any life stage is compromised by high levels of insulin.
For tips on dealing with hormone balance before peri-menopause check out Krista’s blog here.
It is also worth giving our adrenals and thyroid a mention here too.
The adrenal glands are those ‘little hats’ that sit on top of our kidneys. As peri-menopause progresses and oestrogen production from the ovaries declines the adrenal glands take over and try to compensate for the shortfall.
Adrenal activation comes hand-in-hand with the release of cortisol – our stress hormone. Cortisol raises blood sugars by releasing glucose that has been stored and, you guessed it, leads to more insulin release. All of this can manifest as very unpredictable blood sugar fluctuations which leave you feeling exhausted, unrested after sleep, hangry and craving foods.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits just below the Adam’s apple in the neck and is responsible for releasing hormones that play a key role in regulating our metabolic rate and you guessed it – it is common for the thyroid to function less optimally during perimenopause.
The thyroid can become over or underactive and both thyroid disorders increase the risk of diabetes because of the role that thyroid hormones have on blood sugar regulation and insulin resistance.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Sensitivity to heat
- Weight gain
- Irregular periods
- Loss of libido
So it is not uncommon for thyroid symptoms to be mistaken as menopause. Metabolic flexibility is key to thyroid health too as insulin resistance affects the way that thyroid hormones work.
My number one tip
All women need to work on metabolic flexibility before perimenopause hits – before the fluctuating hormones are exacerbated by metabolic dysregulation – because many menopausal symptoms including hot flushes, poor sleep, fatigue and low mood are all exacerbated by insulin resistance due to its impact on hormone balance. Improving those symptoms without improving insulin sensitivity first will be like swimming upstream.
The good news is that loss of flexibility isn’t inevitable or permanent! Balancing blood sugars is a key step to increasing metabolic flexibility because optimally balanced blood sugars will ensure that the body is able to switch from fat storage to fat burning.
First steps to flexibility
Cutting down on processed foods, caffeine and alcohol is often advised, but refined carbohydrates like rice, bread and pasta need to be addressed too.
The low-fat, high-carb approach that is commonly used to address weight gain in the mainstream is problematic for metabolic flexibility as it will only continue to stimulate the body to use glucose as fuel instead of fat and potentially contribute to insulin resistance. Focus on including a diversity of whole foods; vegetables, fruits, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, lean protein sources, healthy fats and whole grains.
The caveat to this is if you are already type 2 diabetic because the carbohydrate content of whole grains and starchy vegetables may not be tolerated. Everyone’s response to different carbohydrates is individual and working with a nutritionist can help you identify the carbohydrate sources that are optimal for you and your body.
Make sleep priority
Too little sleep is a risk factor for developing insulin resistance. There is a lot of research directly linking ongoing poor sleep quality with worsening blood sugar dysregulation, insulin resistance and a slowing metabolism. It is also true that poorly regulated blood sugars also affect sleep quality so it’s a vicious circle!
Quality sleep can be really hard to come by for many women as perimenopause progresses and taking steps to stabilise blood sugars through nutrition is key but sleep hygiene is also key. If you are ready to prioritise yourself and get the quality sleep you deserve then check out our blog – 8 tips to secure a good night’s sleep to get started.
Make time for movement
As well as helping with body composition research shows that exercise is key to improving insulin sensitivity. It will be incredibly difficult to be metabolically flexible and burn fat as energy if we are insulin resistant (remember insulin is a fat-storage hormone!) so don’t give up! The more we exercise the more we will help our cells to become more sensitive to insulin again, in fact, the only thing other than insulin that can get glucose into the cell to be used for energy is exercise!
Weight-bearing activities are also essential for bone health and your heart, both so important to consider during this transition.
Put the spotlight on stress reduction
Remember earlier when we talked about the adrenals releasing cortisol as they try to hold the fort with oestrogen? Well, we also release cortisol when we are stressed and you guessed it the more stressed we are the bigger the impact on our blood sugars.
Make time for de-stressing a priority, whatever that may look like for you – time in nature, a deep breathing practice, journalling or simply soaking in the bath will all reap rewards in calming your nervous system and reducing your stress response.
Key take home
We have the ability to maintain and increase metabolic flexibility in spite of our age and hormones because it is influenced by modifiable lifestyle factors that we can influence – what we eat, how we sleep, how often we move and how we chill out. Book in for a free call with me Holly, or any of the team, and start your journey to metabolic flexibility today.