Hot flashes and mood changes aren’t the only symptoms of menopause. Many women also say it becomes harder to control their weight around this time. This isn’t surprising considering the hormonal fluctuations that are taking place. As menopause approaches, the ovaries produce less estrogen, although estrogen levels don’t suddenly drop. They often fluctuate wildly during peri-menopause, leading to irregular periods, temperature intolerance and mood disturbances. Progesterone production by the ovaries also stops at menopause. Even though the ovaries no longer produce estrogen, fat cells continue to produce it. Even after menopause you still have estrogen floating around, although less than you did premenopausally.
Many women are just as concerned about weight gain around menopause as they are about hot flashes and other symptoms. Most women have a more difficult time controlling their weight but fat distribution changes too. Many women notice an increase in tummy fat, the dreaded “middle-age spread.”
Even more concerning is an increase in visceral fat, deep abdominal fat that increases the risk for health problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research shows that up to 90% of women gain weight during and after menopause. Why is weight gain so common at this time and what can you do to prevent it?
Blame It on Estrogen or Lack Of
One reason weight gain is common after menopause is related to the drop in estrogen that occurs. Estrogen plays a role in regulating body weight. How do we know this? Women who take hormone replacement therapy experience fewer problems with weight gain and redistribution of fat to the tummy region, although the benefits of taking it may be outweighed by an increased risk for breast cancer.
There are a number of ways the loss of estrogen makes fat loss more of a struggle. For one, it has a metabolism-slowing effect. In the absence of estrogen, you burn as many as 70 fewer calories a day. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it can add up to significant weight gain over time unless you compensate by eating less or exercising more.
Estrogen also regulates two hormones called lipoprotein lipase and hormone-sensitive lipase that directly affect fat storage. When hormone-sensitive lipase is active, fat is oxidized to be used as energy. When it’s turned off and lipoprotein lipase is active, fat cells take up lipids circulating in the bloodstream and store them as fat. Estrogen puts the brakes on fat storage by activating hormone-sensitive lipase and inhibiting lipoprotein lipase. Once estrogen levels decline, the balance of these two hormones shifts towards fat storage. The reason fat storage increases in the abdominal region may be related to a shift in the receptors that respond to these hormones.
You can have estrogen receptors throughout your body, including your brain. Estrogen binds to receptors in the brain and has a direct impact on appetite by suppressing the desire to eat. Mice that lack these receptors become obese because their appetite isn’t turned off as easily. Once estrogen levels drop, these “appetite control” receptors aren’t stimulated as much. This leads to overeating. Scientists involved in this research are hoping they can make an estrogen-like molecule that can bind to these receptors to reduce appetite in overweight and obese women who have gone through menopause.
As you can see, the decline in estrogen that happens at menopause makes it harder to control your weight in a number of ways – by making it easier for your body to store fat, by decreasing metabolic rate and by increasing your appetite. So what can you do about it?
How to Prevent Weight Gain During and After Menopause
One of the best things you can do to prevent weight gain during menopause is exercise. Research consistently shows that women who are physically active either avoid menopausal weight gain or significantly reduce it. What type of exercise is best? More vigorous exercise creates a more favorable metabolic environment for fat burning. Many people decrease the intensity of their workout as they age when they really should be increasing it. High-intensity interval training and metabolic workouts are better than steady-state aerobics for reducing body fat and increasing metabolism.
Don’t skimp on resistance training. It’s essential. As estrogen levels decline, loss of lean body mass accelerates. Resistance training helps to preserve lean body mass while giving your metabolism a boost. It also improves bone density. If there’s one thing every woman going through menopause needs to do its workout with enough resistance to build muscle.
What about Diet?
Limiting processed foods and rapidly absorbed carbohydrates helps to improve insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity declines with age and is a risk factor for weight gain and other health problems. It’s important to get enough protein and fiber to boost satiety as well. Choose more whole foods and fiber-rich vegetables along with monounsaturated fats in nuts, olive oil, and avocados along with omega-3s from fatty fish.
Other Ways to Reduce Menopausal Weight Gain
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, at least 7 hours a night, and are taking steps to control stress through mind-body exercise like yoga or meditation. Stress and lack of sleep increase cortisol levels and further add to the problem of visceral abdominal fat. Get your ZZZs. Cortisol is a weight loss “blocker” that’s activated by physical or emotional stress. It also makes it more difficult to control food cravings and your appetite.
The Bottom Line?
Menopause is a time of change – some good and some not so good but it’s also a time to re-evaluate your diet and exercise habits since it’s easier to gain weight, especially in your mid-section, once your estrogen levels drop. By making the right lifestyle choices, you can greatly reduce your risk of gaining body fat – and feel better too.
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Southwestern Medical Center. “Study shows estrogen works in the brain to keep weight in check”