Changing hormone levels can affect the way that we store fat. We begin to store fat around our abdomen instead of our hips and may find our shape-changing from a pear to an apple!
We know that people who carry fat around the abdomen are more at risk of other health problems, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, so it is important to take action to avoid this.
Also, you may notice an increase in digestive issues. The functioning of the digestive system is complex and depends on hormonal balance. Changes in hormone levels can influence the delicate balance of our microbiome - the millions of microorganisms found in our gut that support digestive and immune health. When our microbiome is thrown out of balance, we can then experience digestive symptoms such as bloating, wind, constipation, changes in bowel habits, and abdominal pain.
Many of us gain weight during this time of our lives. However, studies have not yet shown a clear link between hormonal changes and weight gain; and there are a variety of other factors that may influence why women gain weight during menopause.
Declining estrogen levels & the effect on our metabolism
The declining levels of circulating estrogen during perimenopause can cause rapid changes in the body’s metabolism, fat distribution, and insulin resistance.
Our bodies produce different forms of estrogen - estrone, estradiol, estriol, and estetrol. Estradiol is the primary form of estrogen and the most powerful. Studies have shown that it plays an important role in regulating metabolism and weight.
Estrogen interacts with other hormones that control our metabolism. For example, the hormone leptin, which helps to regulate energy production by inhibiting hunger. Estrogen and leptin have interacting and overlapping roles in the brain, which influence our appetite and the formation of body fat. Declining estrogen levels can affect how hungry we feel (and potentially how much we eat!) and change where our fat is deposited.
Cortisol is a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland and it is involved in the body’s stress response.
When estrogen levels fall, cortisol levels rise, which raises blood pressure and blood sugar. This slows down the release of stomach acid and the movement of digested food in the small intestine, resulting in digestive issues such as bloating, gas, and constipation.
Insulin is the hormone that controls blood sugar (glucose) levels. Made in the pancreas, insulin enables the body to use the sugars from carbohydrates in the food that we eat, rather than large amounts getting into the bloodstream. High levels of blood sugar can cause a variety of problems over time for our cardio-vascular system, our nerves, kidneys, eyes, and skin. One of estrogen’s many beneficial and essential functions is optimizing the action of insulin.
Inflammation in the body can also impair the effective action of insulin. Estrogen can help to fight inflammation, so when it declines, it may have a further knock-on effect on insulin efficiency and glucose levels.
Aging & Lifestyle Factors
While weight gain may be influenced by hormonal changes during perimenopause, it is also linked to the aging process and lifestyle factors such as lack of exercise, diet, and sleep.
Our bodies need less energy than when we were young or when we were pregnant. Often, we still eat the same number of calories - or more! - as we did then. This is all too easy in the modern world, with readily available convenience and fast foods which are typically high in fat and sugar.
As we age, our joints become less flexible, so we may find ourselves moving less as well. This means that we use less energy than we used to.
Often, we are also under more pressure at this life stage, due to work stresses and/or financial pressures, and sandwiched between looking after teenagers and caring for elderly parents. Add in the worry and confusion about our menopausal symptoms and that’s a lot to think about and juggle, even if we are the masters of multi-tasking!
However, there are many positive changes that we can make to feel more in control of our weight, diet, and lifestyle.
What can you do?
Exercise strengthens our bones and muscles and protects our joints. Exercising regularly can help you maintain a healthy weight, relieve stress, and improve your quality of life.
Consider aerobic activities such as swift walking, jogging, swimming, and cycling. Start with around 10-minutes a day and gradually increase the intensity and duration. Aim for 3-4 times a week.
Regular strength training can help reduce body fat, burn calories and strengthen muscles. Try hand-held weights or weight machines at the gym. Aim for around 12 repetitions of each exercise and increase gradually.
Don’t forget to stretch after exercise to improve flexibility, or practice yoga which will also improve coordination and balance.
Try to set realistic goals, such as a 30-minute walk three times a week. Exercising with your partner or a friend can also help with motivation.
Remember that you don’t have to go to a gym to feel the benefits of exercise - walking or dancing or even gardening is all things that can improve your health and are easily achievable. If you are unsure of what exercises you should be doing speak to a personal trainer who will be best placed to help you.
Hormone Replacement Therapy can help with symptom relief and this does not lead to weight gain. Please refer to your GP and they will be able to talk you through the process and any side effects.
Keep a Food Diary
Keep a food diary for a week. Are there any particular foods that trigger symptoms such as bloating and digestive issues? Are your symptoms linked to what you are eating or when you are eating?
Pay attention to your diet by serving yourself smaller portions - you need less food than you used to.
Make sure that you have lots of different food groups, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, oily fish, nuts, whole grains, and white meat.
Think about your sugar intake and try to reduce sugar and processed food.
Manage your Stress
Try to reduce anything that is causing significant stress in your life. Stress causes an increase in cortisol which can influence our weight and abdominal fat.
Next, we will be discussing sleep and how it is affected by menopause. Please feel free to comment on any experiences you may have had below!
Remember to do something that helps you wind-down and destress, find what works for you. For many art or gardening really helps too!