Menopause is a turbulent time – your hormones do a not so happy dance and your mood fluctuates right along with them. As if hot flashes, anxiety, and fatigue weren’t enough, you’re also gaining weight. It’s frustrating, particularly when weight gain after menopause is linked with a higher risk of some forms of cancer, not to mention, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. You might wonder why it’s so much easier to gain weight at this stage in your life and so much harder to shed those extra pounds even when you’re doing the right things. Here are some possible reasons why you’re gaining weight.
One of the biggest culprits behind menopausal weight gain is hormonal changes. Your estrogen level takes a dive after menopause since your ovaries are no longer active and the other major sex hormone, progesterone, drops right along with it. There’s some evidence that a fall in estrogen slows resting metabolic rate so that you burn less energy. Plus, as estrogen decreases, you may find yourself eating more.
Even worse, cells lose some of their sensitivity to insulin after “the change” and your insulin level rises. Unfortunately, a higher insulin level makes it easier for your body to store fat. If you don’t exercise, you also lose muscle mass at a faster rate – and that means less metabolically active tissue to burn calories. That’s why strength training is MORE important after menopause than at any other time. Many people neglect this component of the anti-aging, after-menopause equation. Don’t be one of them!
Is Your Thyroid Gland Underperforming?
Before blaming the weight gain you’re dealing with on a drop in estrogen, get your thyroid function checked. Your thyroid is the master gland that regulates your resting metabolic rate. If it’s sluggish, you’ll struggle with your weight. An underactive thyroid, called hypothyroidism, becomes more common at this time and hormonal fluctuations around menopause can trigger it. One of the most common causes of hypothyroidism after menopause is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid condition. In some cases, hypothyroidism is subclinical, meaning you don’t have obvious symptoms. That’s why it’s so easy to miss!
Three thyroid tests that involve drawing blood can give you a better idea of how your thyroid is working. These are a TSH level, measurement of thyroid hormones (T3, T4), and whether or not you have thyroid antibodies. If testing shows thyroid antibodies, you may have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Fortunately, thyroid hormone supplementation may help you jumpstart your metabolism. If you haven’t had your thyroid checked in a while, make it a priority.
You’re Not Sleeping Well
Menopause can disrupt your sleep schedule in frustrating ways. One minute you’re sleeping soundly and the next you awaken drenched in sweat. It’s those darn hot flashes again! During menopause, hot flashes can awaken you from a dead sleep. Plus, you might find it’s harder to fall asleep around the time menopause sets in. In fact, more than 60% of women have problems falling asleep or staying asleep during or after menopause.
What does this have to do with weight gain? Quality sleep is critical to keeping your waistline slim Research links sleeping less than 6 hours a night with an increased risk of weight gain. In fact, lack of sleep boosts the release of the hormone appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin. Unfortunately, ghrelin makes sugary and high treats more appealing and sends you in search of higher calorie foods. Plus, you feel less like exercising when you’re sleep deprived.
How can you improve the quality of your sleep?
Cut back the temperature in your room or add a fan. It’s easier to sleep when you’re in a cool room.
Avoid exposing your eyes to blue light from electronic devices within a few hours of bedtime.
Avoid eating a few hours before turning in.
Sip a cup of herbal tea, like chamomile, rather than snacking.
Take a relaxing bath before heading to bed.
Go to sleep and get up at the same time, even on weekends.
Make sure your bedroom is completely dark.
Menopause is Stressing You Out
Menopause is a stressful time – so many changes are happening to your body all at once – and, yes, those changes can make you feel stressed out. When you’re under tension, your body produces more cortisol, the aptly named “stress hormone.” Cortisol can trigger sugar cravings and lead to weight redistribution – more weight around your waist and belly and less on your hips and thighs. In other words, it can give you a muffin top. In addition, an increase in cortisol can give rise to other symptoms, including difficulty sleeping, vague aches and pains, lack of energy, and mood changes. Plus, it reduces your body’s ability to mount an immune response and places you at a higher risk for infections. That’s not what you want during cold and flu season.
What can you do to tame the cortisol blues? Make sure you’re moving your body. Moderate amounts of exercise, without overtraining, can help lower your cortisol level over time. Lack of sleep also contributes to a higher cortisol level. That’s why menopause is a good time to focus on stress control strategies such as yoga and meditation. Studies show that both lower cortisol.
After menopause, your chance of being on one or more medications is higher. A number of commonly prescribed drugs and even over-the-counter medications are linked with weight gain. If you’re struggling to lose weight, review your medication list. Have you started on a new one recently? Here are some common drugs that can cause unwanted weight gain:
Antidepressants and other mood-regulating drugs
Some blood pressure & heart medications – beta-blockers are a good example
Some diabetes medications
Some migraine medications
Antihistamines used to treat allergies
Check with your doctor and make sure your medications aren’t contributing to your weight woes. Another medication that doesn’t cause weight gain might work just as well.
The Bottom Line
Yes, menopause can add to your “bottom line,” although in this case, it’s your waistline. Make sure one of these five causes of weight gain after menopause aren’t making it harder for you to stay lean and healthy.
WebMD. “Menopause, Weight Gain, and Exercise Tips”
J Med Assoc Thai. 2013 Jan;96 Suppl 1: S90-5.
Indian J Psychiatry. 2013 Jul; 55(Suppl 3): S405–S408. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.116315.
National Sleep Foundation. “Menopause and Sleep”
WebMD. “Sleep and Menopause”
Mayo Clinic. “Is Too Little Sleep a Cause of Weight Gain?
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