It’s not uncommon for women to gain weight after menopause. Menopause and peri-menopause is also the time when estrogen levels begin to drastically decline. Estrogen is the female sex hormone produced by the ovaries. It’s one of the two major female sex hormones, the other being progesterone. When a woman’s ovaries begin to fail around the time of menopause and stop producing eggs, estrogen levels decline as well. Yet, even after menopause, fat cells continue to produce compounds called androgens that can be converted to estrogen. The more fat you carry on your body, the higher your estrogen level will be after menopause.
This typically means that women who are obese have more estrogen in their bloodstream after menopause than women who are lean. With weight gain being so common after menopause when estrogen levels fall, you might assume that loss of estrogen is a factor and that it has some protective effects against obesity. Is there truth to this idea?
Does Estrogen Cause Weight Gain by Slowing Resting Metabolic Rate?
In terms of body composition, there are some pros to having estrogen around with regard to body composition. One positive effect it has on physique is it helps maintain a faster resting metabolic rate. Resting metabolic rate accounts for around two-thirds of the energy an individual burns in a day and determines how many calories your body burns at rest when you aren’t exercising and haven’t just eaten a meal.
Some studies show that as estrogen levels drop, resting metabolic rate slows too. On the other hand, it appears that the negative effect estrogen has on resting metabolic rate may be partially related to the changes in body composition that go along with menopause, particularly the drop in lean body mass. In other words, the drop in estrogen may not be as damaging to resting metabolic rate as the loss of muscle that goes with menopause. One way to reduce the decline in resting metabolism is to strength train to preserve muscle as much as possible.
Estrogen Impacts the Release of Growth Hormone Too
Another less appreciated way estrogen impacts fat burning is by enhancing the release of growth hormone. As you might know, growth hormone makes it easier for your body to burn fat. So, when you’re young and have more growth hormone, you’re less prone toward gaining body fat. Estrogen plays a key role in the production of growth hormone and also impacts how tissues respond to this anabolic hormone. When the ovaries are producing lots of estrogen, the pituitary gland in the brain releases more growth hormone and this creates more favorable conditions for fat loss. So, fat gain after menopause may be partially due to a reduction in growth hormone, mediated by the drop in estrogen.
Estrogen also impacts how cells respond to insulin. If cells in the body are exquisitely sensitive to insulin, the pancreas doesn’t have to produce as much of this essential hormone to get nutrients into cells. Low circulating insulin levels is beneficial for metabolic health as a whole and for avoiding weight gain as well. People who are insulin resistant and have low insulin sensitivity tend to have trouble losing weight as their insulin level is higher. This isn’t surprising! Insulin promotes fat storage by encouraging fat cells to take up sugar and also puts the brakes on fat breakdown. The net effect is difficulty shedding body fat. As a result, the risk of type 2 diabetes goes up after menopause as estrogen in the body declines. So, the decline in estrogen that takes places after menopause reduces insulin sensitivity. This, in turn, makes it easier to gain body fat, especially deep fat, called visceral abdominal fat, the type that deposits around organs. It’s this form of fat that is most strongly linked with developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Estrogen Opposes Cortisol
You’re probably familiar with cortisol, the so-called stress hormone that rises when your body is mentally or physically stressed. People who have higher levels of cortisol are prone toward fat gain, particularly around the waist and tummy. Estrogen helps keep cortisol in check and when estrogen falls, cortisol gains dominance. That’s why women have problems losing waist and belly fat after menopause and may experience weight redistribution so that fat accumulates around their tummy. That’s the impact of cortisol! In fact, research shows post-menopausal women are 5-times more likely to have abdominal obesity compared to pre-menopausal women. Plus, cortisol also causes loss of muscle and bone, especially if it stays elevated for a sustained period of time.
So, how can you reduce the impact cortisol has on your body composition? Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and that you’re managing stress. Exercise, but don’t over-train. Once you’re into menopause, use a little extra rest and recovery time between intense sessions. Make sure you have a way to keep stress in check. Meditation or a mind-body exercise, like yoga, can help.
What You Can Do to Avoid Weight Gain after Menopause
There’s no doubt that estrogen loss sets into motion a chain of events that can trigger weight gain. Loss of muscle mass, a decline in growth hormone, the decrease in insulin sensitivity, and the post-menopausal rise in cortisol all make it harder to stay lean. Plus, menopause can alter where you store fat. Muffin tops and abdominal pooches become more common as you enter the second half of life.
But, here’s some encouraging news. A study showed that staying physically active can minimize or even avert the weight gain many women experience in their 40’s and 50’s. The study that followed more than 3,000 women and found that those that stayed physically active did not experience weight gain during middle-age and that menopause was not correlated with weight gain among physically active women.
The Bottom Line
The drop in estrogen that happens after menopause is linked with metabolic and hormonal changes that make it harder to lose body fat. However, strength training helps to mitigate this effect and it also helps preserve bone mass after menopause. So, keep resistance training! It’s even MORE important after menopause.
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