Menopause and Weight Gain- what's the connection?
Many women start to gain weight during their 40’s despite eating and exercising the same as they always have. It also tends to be stored around the middle, giving an ‘apple’ shape to the body rather than the ‘hourglass’ shape we may have been used to. Basically, we start to lay fat down in the same place as a man!
The natural reaction to this is eat less calories and exercise more, but it doesn’t work. Why?
Muscle mass typically diminishes with age, while fat increases. Losing muscle mass slows the rate at which your body uses calories (metabolism). This can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight. If you continue to eat as you always have and don’t increase your muscle mass, you’re likely to gain weight. Added to that, as oestrogen drops this has an effect on the rate of protein synthesis and it becomes more difficult for your body to synthesize the protein you eat into the muscle that you need.
Oestrogen and progesterone have an impact on some of the fat burning and fat storing hormones. Oestrogen makes the body more insulin sensitive so as oestrogen declines women become more insulin resistant; your body pumps out more insulin, which in turn triggers more fat storage. This puts you on the blood-sugar rollercoaster of surges and drops that can leave you fatigued and hungry all the time.
For those of you who have been pregnant or got weird cravings during your periods, guess what? It’s related to hormones! In the brain we have gaba (neuro relaxing transmitter), dopamine (focussing brain chemical) and serotonin (self esteem and relaxing chemical) which all fall during your period and during perimenopause. There are oestrogen receptors all over the brain and so this decline can cause mood changes and cravings which make it even more difficult for women at (peri) menopause to stay on the same diet and for it to work the way it once did.
Stress – Increased Cortisol
Oestrogen and progesterone together make women less responsive to cortisol (our stress hormone). Prolonged raised cortisol makes us increase fat storage around the middle. When we are stressed (emotional, or physical), our body goes into survival mode as it thinks you are in danger (it doesn’t know the difference between ACTUAL danger and emotional stress). All other hormones are inhibited as the body is in survival mode, therefore oestrogen and progesterone decline further which just spirals the situation further.
So what can we do about it?
You do need to work with your physiology to support its changing needs. You need to learn to balance your hormones, increase (or maintain) your muscle mass and change your diet and exercise to support this time of life. Here are my 4 top tips:
1) Do not go on a low fat diet
You do not want to lower your dietary cholesterol. All of your sex hormones are made out of cholesterol; cholesterol is a precursor. If you go on a low fat diet you will negatively influence the production of those hormones. We need to support them by eating healthy fats; think olive oil, oily fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon, anchovies), avocado, nuts and seeds, flax (seeds or oil).
2) Counter high cortisol
Focus on stress reduction techniques. Try adding daily things into your life like deep breathing techniques, walking, getting out into nature, meditation. Stop ‘dieting’ as this is a physical stress on your body and try and avoid prolonged exercise as this is also a stress on the body. Pick up weights or start bodyweight training! You need to increase your muscle mass, strengthen your bones and speed up your metabolism.
3) Significantly Reduce (refined) Carbohydrates
Choose carbohydrates that sit on the lower end of the glycaemic index (think more veggies and whole fruit, less bread, pastas and grains). Base your meals around veggies (half of your plate) and include high quality protein and good fats at every meal. Think of a Mediterranean type of diet. Cut out the refined carbs like white bread/rice/pasta, cakes and pastries, fizzy drinks and juice and try to balance that blood-sugar rollercoaster.
According to the national sleep foundation, post-menopausal women are less satisfied with their sleep and as many as 61% report insomnia symptoms. Progesterone has direct sedative effects and is a respiratory stimulant. Oestrogen increases REM sleep, assists serotonin metabolism and decrease the number of times you wake in the night and helps to regulate your body temperature. As these hormones decline, sleep is compromised. Lack of quality sleep triggers a cortisol spike, decreases insulin sensitivity and has adverse effects on overall well-being. Focusing on good sleep hygiene is paramount for weight loss
I hope you have found this article helpful. Let me know how you get on.