Why am I gaining weight during menopause?
Menopause can bring many issues and challenges, and weight gain can be one of them. Hormonal changes aren’t always the only trigger or cause for weight gain during menopause - ageing and lifestyle factors, and genetics also have a big role to play.
Simply put, your weight is dependent on the number of calories you consume, how many calories you store, and how many you burn up. These factors are influenced by a combination of genetics and environment.
Genetics and environment can affect your physiology (such as how fast you burn calories) as well as your behaviour (e.g. the types of foods you choose to eat). The interplay between all these factors continues throughout your whole life.
Some weight gain during the perimenopause is perfectly normal and most women will gain between 10-15 pounds during these years.
Weight gain is usually slow and gradual, but women who had an early menopause or surgical menopause can gain more weight over a shorter period of time.
In general women have a higher body fat content than men (25% as opposed to 15%), but women face lots of pressure from society, magazines and social media to look a certain way. This can result in women being obsessed about their bodies and turn to fad dieting and even end up with eating disorders.
The diet industry in the UK is worth around £2 billion, while the Health Survey for England 2021 estimates that 25.9% of adults in England are obese and a further 37.9% are overweight but not obese.
Starting at around the age of 35, most women start to lose muscle mass and gain more fat, the body shape changes so most fat will settle around the waistline instead of around the hips, thighs and bottom.
The metabolism slows down so we burn off less calories than we used to. Losing muscle mass slows the rate at which your body uses calories, so if you continue to eat as you always have done without increasing your physical exercise, you are likely to gain weight.
Genetic factors are involved in weight gain, if close family members are all bigger around the waistline, it is likely that you will gain weight around that area as well.
To protect yourself, increase weight bearing exercises.
This can intercept weight gain as you get older by building muscle mass in the body, combined with a healthy diet you are more likely to control weight gain.
The perimenopause can be a stressful time for many women, they may have a stressful job and lifestyle all which can increase the hormone cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol levels are usually higher in the morning and lower in the evening as it is released during stressful times. Cortisol can have a positive effect on the body when it is regulated giving us improved immunity, energy and a higher pain threshold, it maintains blood sugar levels and is involved in blood pressure regulation.
The constant or frequent high levels in the bloodstream due to stress is when the weight issues will start, reducing your stress is the best way to regulate your cortisol levels. Studies show chronic stress and constant high levels of cortisol are linked to abdominal obesity in women.
Poor sleeping habits can also contribute to an expanding waistline, lack of sleep disrupts hormones, as is linked to higher levels of cortisol. Some studies have shown sleep deprivation can impact negatively on the metabolism of carbohydrates, making it difficult to convert them to energy and easier for fats and sugars to be stored, which leads to gaining extra weight.
There’s concrete evidence to say lack of oestrogen causes weight gain. In fact the fat cells in the tissues can produce oestrogen by converting testosterone to estrone. It is said that declining levels of oestrogen can have an impact on your appetite, oestrogen can suppress appetite so having less of the hormone can increase appetite.
During the menopause the hormone progesterone also decreases, causing water retention and bloating which has the appearance of weight gain.
Androgens (male hormones including testosterone)
Androgens help the body create lean muscle mass from the calories you consume. As these levels drop during the menopause, lean muscle mass is lost, which lowers the rate in which you burn calories, resulting in weight gain.
The peri-menopause or even before, is therefore the ideal time to reflect on one’s diet and lifestyle. It’s vital that the circulating levels of cortisol are decreased by reducing the amount of stress in your life and getting a consistent, good night’s sleep.
Looking at improving your diet is key, the amount of calories consumed needs to be assessed as well as where the calories are coming from. Ensure you have a nutrient rich diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Increasing weight bearing exercises will all contribute to keeping off the pounds, building muscle mass and burning calories and ensuring a healthy mid-life and beyond.
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