In this article we will talk about the “Big M,” or also referred to by some women as “The Big Change” and the effects on body muscle mass as well as the best supplements to build muscle after menopause. Menopause is a phase in every woman’s life when the production of hormones start to decrease as she loses her ability to have children.
Unfortunately, the hormonal changes occurring during menopause are associated with a natural decline in estrogen. This increases visceral fat mass, decreases bone density, muscle mass, muscle tissue and muscle strength. The potential consequences of estrogen loss involve not only women experiencing natural menopause, but also women who are rushed into menopause because of surgery or cancer treatments. In the US, about one in every eight women has her ovaries surgically removed (oophorectomy) before the natural arrival of menopause. Similar rates are reported in Europe, while in China more than 250,000 hysterectomies (the surgical removal of the uterus, including the ovaries) are performed each year.
All women in their early forties to late fifties (forty-two to fifty-eight years old as research showed), go through menopause. So, it’s not true that menopause happens when you are old! Furthermore, in most industrialized countries the average age that a woman becomes menopausal is fifty-one. Some women experience menopause earlier than usual, before age forty-two, which is sometimes referred to as premature menopause. There is not an age at which women are automatically in postmenopause. Once their period has been absent for more than one year then they are considered in postmenopause regardless of age.
The Menopause Transition
Many women believe that one day you suddenly stop having your period and that’s that. As good as it sounds, most of the cases it’s not that simple. The hormonal changes leading up to menopause occur over a fairly long period of time, taking one to eight years for the ovaries to officially retire, ending your cycle once and for all and leaving you postmenaupausal.
There are three stages of menopause:
Is the time leading up to menopause. It can even begin in the early thirties and last easily a decade or more. Perimenopause is the time when menstrual periods typically become less frequent and more irregular, and hormonal levels begin to decline. On top of your period being all over the menstrual map, this can make for physical and emotional changes as well. From hot flashes and weepiness to insomnia and forgetfulness. Add to that aching joints, sore breasts, and a reduced sex drive. For some women menopause can be deeply disturbing.
It occurs when you’ve stopped producing the hormones that cause your menstrual period and have gone without a period for 12 months in a row. Since periods can become less frequent during this time, in the end, it is hard to know when they have actually stopped for good. This is of course much different for women who have their ovaries surgically removed, who immediately pass from having a regular cycle to menopause.
Postmenopause (After menopause)
Is the time after menopause has occurred. Once this happens, you’re in postmenopause for the rest of your life. Postmenopausal women worldwide are at an increased risk for certain health conditions like osteoporosis, heart disease, sarcopenia (involuntary loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength).
How is Menopause related to muscle strength?
Hormonal changes experienced during menopause involve, in particular, estrogen and estradiol levels. The estrogen made in the body protects mostly our heart and bones. Estradiol is the most potent estrogen hormone. We know that it regulates the menstrual cycle and is responsible for female sexual characteristics. Also, our skeletal muscle has specific estradiol receptors that respond to estrogenic hormone production. Estradiol can also limit inflammatory stress damage on skeletal muscle. So, estradiol can promote muscle regeneration, strength and contribute to muscle health. Luckily, hormone therapy, physical activity and nutritional plans, can counteract this risk.
Also, diminishing hormones are known to accelerate the aging process. Throughout the body, as we get older, hormones that build muscle and bone are on the decline, while those that break down tissue increase. The result is that our cells experience more wear and tear with less access to repair. The skin gets more wrinkly, the hair turns more dry and bones become weaker.
How to build muscle after menopause?
Instead of ignoring the challenges of menopause, or waiting for that time when you start experiencing the symptoms to take action; let’s explore the alternatives we have to maintain and/or build muscle through the use of nutrition and supplements.
Supplements to build muscle after menopause
We believe that supplements cannot replace a healthy diet, but they can be really helpful to correct insufficiencies. If you don’t get to eat enough nutrient-dense foods, or if you have a medical condition that limits absorption of some nutrients, it is worth trying the supplements. This is particularly the case for women, as some vitamins and herbal products have been proven to help improve mood, sleep, and the discomforts of menopause. Although we understand that each woman is unique and may experience menopause differently from other women, we propose the following supplements that have validated clinical efficacy.
Vitamin D supplementation
Vitamin D3 5000iu
✓ No gluten, soy, fillers, or artificial colors.
✓ Everything you need for stronger, healthier bones and immune support
✓ Easy-to-take gel caps
✓ One full year supply
Vitamin D is both a nutrient we eat and a hormone our bodies make. It is a fat-soluble vitamin that is widely known to help the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus that are critical for building bone. Research shows that vitamin D has important roles beyond bone health. For instance, vitamin D deficiency in postmenopausal women leads to muscle weakness, lower capacity to retain muscle mass, and a greater tendency for falling. This placebo controlled trial, published at the Annual Meeting of the North American Menopause Society, showed that vitamin D supplements can significantly increase muscle strength, and reduce the loss of body muscle mass in women as late as 12+ years after menopause. This other study, done with mice, showed that mice missing the vitamin D receptor had smaller muscles, and they were less strong. They also had significantly decreased running speed and didn’t run as far as mice with normal vitamin D action.
The best way to get enough vitamin D is to simply spend time outdoors and have sunlight exposure. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. This happens very quickly; about 15 minutes for a very fair-skinned person, and up to a couple of hours for those with darker skin. Vitamin D can also be obtained by consuming fatty fish as well as from egg yolks, wild mushrooms like chanterelles, maitake, and morels; cod liver oil, salmon, swordfish, tuna fish, sardines, dairy and plant milks fortified with vitamin D and beef liver.
For some people, absorbing vitamin D naturally, either from sunlight or food, can be challenging. NHANES (US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) data found that the daily median intake of vitamin D from food and supplements in women ages 51 to 71 years was 308 IU (the daily recommendation is 600 IU), and only 140 IU came from food alone (including fortified products). Many women aren’t meeting the minimum requirement for this vitamin.
Luckily, clinical research supports the use of supplements of Vitamin D to compensate for any deficiency. For example, this new research demonstrates vitamin effectiveness in muscle strength, specifically Vitamin D3 supplements since they are similar to what your own body makes when you expose your skin to sunlight. Vitamin D2 supplements showed no benefits, it’s not quickly or easily metabolized into an active form your body can use.
There is high quality evidence that vitamin D plus calcium reduces the risk of any type of fracture in post menopausal women and older adults. Interestingly, the trials showed that taking only vitamin D cannot help prevent fractures and neither fortify skeletal muscles. Vitamin D taken with additional calcium in natural forms or as supplements reduces the risk of hip fractures and other types of bone deficiency.
Our bodies don’t produce calcium, so we can get it in food and in supplements. For calcium in food, we have dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables and fish with edible soft bones (sardines and canned salmon). There are also calcium-fortified foods and beverages, such as soy products, cereal and fruit juices, and milk substitutes
From a women’s health perspective, findings from the Nurses’ Health Study indicate that drinking cow milk helps hormonal health and fertility, in addition to being a good source of calcium. We can even say that an average glass of cow milk can be an amazing hormonal cocktail. This makes sense, since cows, being female, produce estrogen in their milk, along with other female hormones as well as some androgens like testosterone. But, be aware that the benefits were found only in full-fat milk. Women who consumed skim or low-fat milk tended to suffer from infertility and low bone density. It appears that processing milk to make it skim or low fat changes negatively the sex hormones balance damaging hormonal health. Even more, skim milk may end up increasing your testosterone levels.
On top of that, skim milk sometimes has refined sugar, starches, and additives to try to get the flavor and texture of regular milk. With all this in mind, you should consider switching to full-fat milk as an easy and accessible source of nutritional boost to improve hormonal health and calcium levels, especially if you are approaching menopause. With dairy products full-fat is the way to go without worrying about weight gain!
If you simply can’t tolerate lactose or are vegan or have health problems that don’t allow you to eat any dairy products, there’s good news! You don’t need to drink milk or eat dairy to get your calcium: many non-dairy foods are just as good a source. These include various vegetables (spinach, turnips, kale, and beet greens), legumes (soybeans, tofu, beans, and peas), and even seafood (salmon, sardines, and shrimp). To give you an idea, a glass of whole milk contains about 280 mg of calcium, the same amount is found in a cup of cooked spinach, or 3 ounces of sardines. Additionally, plant-based milks generally have about the same amount of calcium as cow’s milk, minus the saturated fat.
Several different kinds of calcium compounds are used in calcium supplements. The two main forms of calcium supplements are carbonate and citrate. Calcium carbonate is the cheapest and probably a good first choice. Other forms of calcium in supplements include gluconate and lactate. Some calcium supplements are combined with vitamins and other minerals, they may also contain vitamin D or magnesium. Check the ingredients of your supplement to see which form of calcium and what other nutrients it may contain. This information is important if you have any health or dietary concerns.
Calcium supplements are generally safe, but more isn’t necessarily better, and excessive calcium doesn’t mean you would get extra bone protection. If you take calcium supplements and eat calcium-fortified foods, you may be getting more calcium than you need. Check food and supplement labels to monitor how much total calcium you’re getting a day to achieve the recommended daily amount (RDA) without excess. The RDA of calcium for women who are 19 to 50 is 1,000 mg, and for women over 51 is 1,200 mg.
Supplements may help you meet nutritional requirements that you aren’t obtaining from natural sources. When choosing supplements, there are important points you need to consider. For example, the right amount for you, if your body will tolerate the supplement, and what form you like the most (tablets, capsules, liquids, etc). Getting a physician’s opinion is always a good idea to help you make the right choice. Talk with your doctor or dietitian about the supplements that are right for you and your lifestyle.
A lot of the information in this article is based on the research done by Lisa Mosconi who holds a PhD in Neuroscience and Nuclear Medicine and has dedicated her research on the female body. If you want to know more about women’s health (including menopause) and get scientific recommendations on nutrition specifically for women, you have to read Lisa’s book “The XX Brain”. A true revelation and empowerment for every woman who has decided to take the lead in her physical and mental health. Enjoy it and get healthier!
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.