Menopausal weight gain is often to do with hormone shifts but not only the ones you might expect.
Of course, when it comes to perimenopause and post-menopause estrogen and progesterone get a lot of press.
As well they should.
Because menopause is the end of your fertile years and these two hormones are major players in your ability to reproduce.
The hormonal changes that contribute to menopausal weight gain
However, there’s more to the story. As you grow older your reproductive hormones including estrogen, progesterone, DHEA and testosterone reduce.
Indeed, from about the age of 35 progesterone decreases and then through the menopause transition estrogen follows suit. (As do DHEA and testosterone.) But in many cases, estrogen doesn’t decrease quietly.
In fact, in perimenopause – the lead up to menopause – estrogen can go to super-high levels (hello estrogen dominance) and crash down to lows.
Estrogen dominance is when you have way more estrogen in relation to progesterone. One of the by-products can be heavy periods as well as weight loss resistance.
And those highs and lows are the reason for a lot of the unpleasant symptoms synonymous with peri. These include missed periods, PMS, palpitations, anxiety and hot flushes.
Furthermore, when the menopause transition comes to town, more often than not so does weight gain, particularly around the belly.
(This is sometimes called meno belly.)
Danger: Meno belly and menopausal weight gain
While that muffin top is super frustrating when you’re trying to fit your jeans it can also be life-threatening. There’s no sugar coating the seriousness of this.
Moreover, it doesn’t make you feel like a million dollars so that belly can put a strain on your mental, physical and emotional health as well.
Subcutaneous fat vs visceral fat
The jiggling jelly wobble is caused by subcutaneous fat that sits just under the skin. And while it may be giving you self-esteem grief what’s more important is the visceral fat that lies at a deeper level.
Visceral fat is invisible so even those of normal body weight can have it. This is a concern because visceral fat surrounds our internal organs making us more susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers.
How much is too much?
For women, anything over 90 cms or 35 inches is said to be a concern.
Take a look at the video below and learn how to measure your belly fat.
What causes menopausal weight gain & meno belly?
It’s complicated. The truth is menopause weight gain is usually multifactorial.
It can be to do with genetics and epigenetics, gut health, mood, portion sizes, ageing and the list goes on.
7 of the main culprits include:
Ageing. A slowing down of the metabolism and taking part in less activity can be one reason for menopausal weight gain. Additionally, declining hormones contribute to a loss of our muscle mass – muscle helps to burn more energy whether we’re at rest or working out.
2. Hormonal shifts
Meno belly is also partly due to the hormonal shifts of menopause. Declining estrogen is a contributor. Even if you don’t put on weight, evolution will redistribute fat deposits from your hips and thighs to your abdominal area.
Sleep can play a big role. If you’re being robbed of a good night’s sleep by night sweats or hot flushes it will be disrupted. A deficit of sleep can impact the two hormones that regulate appetite: leptin (satiety) and ghrelin (hunger). Indeed, the release of more grehlin can make you crave crap food the next day. What’s more, high leptin doesn’t pass on the signal to stop eating so you don’t feel full.
The side effects of some prescription medications can include weight gain.
Many women in midlife report feeling depressed which has been linked to menopausal weight gain.
6. Blood sugar
A big factor. Like BIG. The food you eat and blood sugar balance takes us directly to…
7. …Insulin, cortisol & thyroid
Intricately connected, when these three amigos are out of kilter it can create hormonal mayhem. Imbalanced blood sugar and high-stress levels lead to abdominal weight gain that’s hard to lose and a sluggish thyroid leads to a sluggish metabolism.
Insulin & menopausal weight gain
You may have heard us talk about the importance of stable blood sugar levels in relation to menopausal weight gain in the past.
That’s because insulin’s job is to escort the glucose released from eating food to the cells to be used for energy.
Every time you eat, blood sugar (glucose) increases so the pancreas releases insulin to take it to the cells to be burned for fuel.
As you grow older and enter perimenopause your body becomes less sensitive to insulin. This is partly because estrogen helps optimise insulin activity and declining estrogen levels contribute to higher blood sugar and low energy.
The effects are magnified if you eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugars, processed foods and/or alcohol. This will cause large spikes in blood sugar and send insulin haywire. And when you’re post-40 the number of processed foods that trigger this doesn’t equate to a lot.
Ultimately, this leads to meno belly and cravings.
If this happens continuously, eventually your cells will no longer absorb the glucose when insulin delivers it. This is known as insulin resistance. Consequently, you will have too much sugar in your blood and the liver will step in and convert it to fat.
We become insulin resistant when our bodies can no longer deal with a highly processed diet. Indeed, some of the most common food addictions are sugar and flour. In addition, stress (see cortisol below) and abdominal fat encourages insulin resistance.
Over time, insulin resistance in post-menopausal women can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Are you wondering if your blood sugar is a problem?
A few red flags are:
- if you become tired after you eat
- you’re prone to weight gain
- you’re addicted to carbs and sugar.
Which leads us to the link between cortisol and belly fat.
Cortisol & menopausal weight gain
For all of the hormones we’re talking about to be playing well they need to be in balance. So, for insulin to be happy, cortisol must be happy too because it helps to regulate insulin.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenals. Tiny endocrine glands that sit atop our kidneys.
Known as the stress hormone, some cortisol is essential to our circadian rhythm waking us up and getting us going. However, an excess can be detrimental especially when it comes to menopausal weight gain. Cortisol can disrupt digestion and metabolism making you store more fat around the belly.
When the adrenals release extra cortisol our levels of blood sugar increase to give us the fuel to run for our lives.
This is OK if we’re running from a tiger but long term it will lead to increased blood sugar levels (see above). That’s why it contributes to belly fat and causes sugar and salt cravings.
When do we produce more cortisol?
- Cortisol tends to be higher during menopause because we’re more sensitive to stress. And modern life sees us living with low-grade chronic stress – we seem to be stressed all the time! (NB: Stress also depletes the DHEA, progesterone, estrogen and testosterone that’s already lowering.)
- If we’re having disrupted sleep our body will produce more cortisol. An added twist is this could also be caused by high blood sugar from our diet (see insulin above) which can also cause sleep issues.
- When the brain/body perceives we’re in danger or during stressful events. And the body doesn’t differentiate between a lion or your annoying partner.
- Stress can also be caused by inflammation in the body as seen in autoimmune diseases, aching joints and gut imbalances.
This is why it’s so important to make time for self-nurturing once you hit perimenopause. It’s not indulgent, it’s crucial.
Thyroid & menopausal weight gain
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits in our throat. Thyroid hormones govern metabolism and how fast we burn through the calories (kilojoules) we ingest.
A hypoactive (or underactive) thyroid is very common in midlife women and will lead to a slowing of the metabolism and difficulty losing weight.
Some of the signs of this can be weight gain, bloating, depression and hair loss (and many more).
In the domino effect of all of the hormones we’ve mentioned stress (and cortisol – above) contributes to thyroid imbalance because the adrenals and the thyroid are directly linked.
Insulin imbalance can also be a factor in thyroid issues that trigger autoimmunity, fatigue and nutrient deficiencies.
Oftentimes, you may not have a problem with your thyroid until menopause so it’s a good idea for every 40+ woman to get her thyroid checked.
Bear in mind that many standard tests only look at thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). And while the results may read fine you could still have a thyroid issue. A full panel thyroid test including free T3, free T4, reverse T3 and thyroid antibodies gives a fuller picture.
What can you do to conquer menopausal weight gain & meno belly?
The good news is that now you know what’s going on in your body you can take control.
Here are some tried and true ways:
Plain, filtered water helps to keep blood sugar in check and flush out excess sugar in the urine. Keep a jug and glasses nearby, and have a selection of great water bottles. Add a cinnamon quill to your water because cinnamon helps to increase insulin sensitivity.
We’ve purposely avoided the word diet here because you want to choose a lifestyle rather than a diet.
Most menopausal women do well eating the Mediterranean way as well as low carbohydrate.
However, going very low carb or keto requires a trained wellness professional to be your accountability partner. This is because being too restrictive may impact your thyroid health.
Weight loss is a good idea for many health reasons and it will also help to regulate your blood sugar. (Big win!) But don’t starve yourself…eating too little may put your body into starvation mode. It can also decrease metabolism, trigger cortisol and put you at risk of osteoporosis.
- Front Loading. Eat your largest meal at the beginning of the day and close the kitchen three to four hours before bed. This gives your body time to break all of your food down. If you eat late your blood sugar will be raised when you’re trying to sleep.
- Include a fist size of lean protein with healthy fat and some soluble fibre at every meal. It’s a habit that will help keep blood sugar balanced and steady. It also makes you feel fuller for longer.
- Research shows that a 15-20 minute walk after meals can help regulate blood sugar.
- Snack on protein and fat i.e. hummus and veggies, boiled egg and avocado, nuts and seeds.
- Intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating has been found to improve insulin sensitivity and to be helpful for women in pre-and post-menopause. Click here to find out how to practise it SAFELY.
It’s especially important to exercise during menopause. And while movement is more about wellbeing and weight maintenance than it is about weight loss it’s vital for physical, emotional and mental health.
Moreover, physical activity such as walking for 30 minutes per day, strength training, dancing, and otherwise moving the body. This helps burn glucose and encourages insulin receptors to be more sensitive.
4. Stress Less
When it comes to managing menopausal weight loss avoiding stress is the secret sauce. When you’re stressed, the adrenals will release cortisol which can increase insulin resistance.
We don’t recommend meditation and me-time to be woo woo! Exercise, journaling, reading and long, salty baths are helpful relaxants too. In fact, you’ll find some wonderful practices here.
Follow our 7 Wellness Pillars:
You’re right if you feel like the tips and tricks that have worked for you in the past don’t now. Because the truth is, the rules of the game have changed!
A lot of factors contribute to menopausal weight gain. All of the hormones we’ve talked about need to work in harmony and to do this optimising your health is essential.
To achieve this, we often need to change the way we eat and live because if we don’t it’s unlikely we’ll conquer it.
Focus on resetting your hormones through diet, lifestyle and appropriate supplementation.
MenoMe® 40+ and 55+ can help you with this because both work with your body’s natural hormonal metabolism.
Overall, we suggest making one small change at a time.
Neuroplasticity shows that if you practice something enough the brain will alter and your new habit will then become automatic.
And the result is you’ll be empowered!