Weight Gain After Menopause

Causes and Solutions to Fight the Battle of the Bulge

If you know and understand the reasons for weight gain after menopause, it can help you to win the never ending war against the pounds.

weight_gain_linkMenopause weight gain settles around the middle – especially around the belly and hips: the dreaded “muffin top”. The belly fat that sticks like glue to your waistline is actually the most dangerous. It is an indicator of fat around your organs and of developing insulin resistance.

There are specific reasons why the extra weight grows right where you don’t want it. Here is a list of the reasons for your weight gain – menopause related:

  • Hormone changes and imbalance
  • Slowing Metabolism
  • Loosing muscle mass
  • Insulin resistance
  • Sleep disorders
  • Stress
  • Emotional problems and Depression

Most women experience their most rapid weight gain during the peri-menopause years because of declining and changing hormone levels.

It is not just estrogen that changes in menopause – all hormone levels drop and directly or indirectly contribute to the problem. But the drop in estrogen is the most important for the menopause weight gain.

You know that anything that is consumed over and above the amount that the body needs for proper functioning is stored as fat. And the drop in estrogen contributes to changes in the body chemistry that makes it easier for fat to accumulate around the organs.

The reason for the fat storage around the middle is the gradual accumulation of fat in the liver. The liver is the major fat burning organ in the body and with accumulated fat, the liver can’t function properly. This leads to more and more fat storage around the middle.

Belly fat is dangerous because it doesn’t just sit under the skin. Belly fat accumulates around your organs where it releases chemicals that causes havoc with your overall health and starts a vicious cycle of sluggishness, food cravings and additional weight gain.

The consequences are not just the muffin top but higher blood fat (cholesterol) and blood sugar levels. Both of these are risk factors for heart disease and other illnesses.

Hormone Changes

All sex hormones are involved in weight gain after menopause. Because the ovaries begin to produce less estrogen during perimenopause, weight_applethe body is looking for other sources.

Fat and muscle cells also produce estrogen. But, as you know, fat cells are much easier to come by than muscle cells. Estrogen also increases the activity of an enzyme that makes it more difficult for cells to store fat.

Testosterone on the other hand, helps to build muscle, and muscle cells burn fat. Unfortunately, the testosterone production for women begins to decline in their 30s. Lower testosterone levels play a role in the decreasing metabolism and in the loss of muscle tone.

Declining progesterone levels indirectly increase menopause weight. Progesterone is a diuretic and declining levels can lead to water retention and bloating.

Sleep Disorders and Stress

Stress and sleep disorders, two problems often associated with menopause, also contribute to the weight gain. Stress consumes energy and a lack of sleep does not restore it.

Women in menopause have often problems with sleep. Night sweats are partially to blame but low progesterone levels can play a big part as well. When you are not getting enough sleep you are looking for extra energy, often in the form of food.

Both conditions cause the body to look for quick and easy energy sources. Unfortunately, most people crave unhealthy and sugary foods because those provide a quick (and short lived) energy boost.

These foods lead to a quick jump in blood sugar that is followed by a crash that is just as fast. So within a short time of eating a sugary or starchy food, you are desperate for more food. Just another reason for weight gain after menopause.

Stress often leads to unhealthy eating habits. Neither emotional eating, nor time pressure make it likely that you choose your food wisely. But the main reason for stress related weight gain and the other health problems related to stress are due to the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is the main stress hormone. It is produced by the adrenal gland and responsible for many important body functions in the “fight or flight” response. In times of stress, the body tries to produce more energy.

Cortisol activates the conversion of fat and carbohydrates for quick energy boosts and triggers the release of insulin to increase blood sugar levels. This is the reason for stress eating – you are indeed always hungry. Cortisol is also partially to blame that the fat is stored around the belly.

Insulin Resistance

Another danger that shows up around the time of menopause is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance refers to the inability of insulin to control blood sugar levels. The body’s response is to produce more and more insulin until the pancreas gets tired and can’t respond to the increased demand.

Insulin resistance develops when the body is getting used to higher insulin levels and, when insulin is losing the ability to regulate blood sugar. This starts a vicious cycle of activity:

  • Carbohydrate and sugar cravings
  • Storage of fat cells around the organs
  • Higher blood sugar and blood fat levels

The fat cells around the middle are then producing hormones that make it more difficult to lose weight.

So the blood sugar levels are increasing and with time can cause type II diabetes. The causes of insulin resistance lie in our western diet with high carbohydrates, high sugar and low fiber content.

Emotional problems and Depression

Emotional problems and depression are other potential reasons for menopause weight problems. Depression is a risk factor for menopausal women who often have their first episode of depression during perimenopause.

During times of depressed mood or emotional problems women are less active and stop exercising, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. Additionally, healthy eating habits are out and “comfort foods” are in. The typical comfort foods are high in carbs and sugar, which, together with the stress response of the body, lead to extra storage of fat around the middle.

Dangers and Risks of Menopause Weight Gain

How do you know when your “spare tire” is getting too big (other than not being able to fit into your favorite jeans)?

Calculate your waist/hip ratio for a quick indicator.

Your Waist / Hip Ratio
  1. Measure around the widest part of your buttocks
  2. Measure your waist at its narrowest point
  3. Divide waist measurement by the hip measurement
  • A ratio of 0.75 or so is ideal.
  • Everything under 0.8 is okay.
  • Everything over 0.85 is a health risk.

Metabolic syndrome is a fancy medical term for the consequences of insulin resistance over time and another important reason to avoid weight gain after menopause. It is a key warning sign for some nasty illnesses ranging from heart disease, stroke, arthritis and diabetes.

Metabolic Syndrome (see link for more info, it will open in a new window.)
According to the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, metabolic syndrome is present if you have three or more of the following signs:

  • Blood pressure equal to or higher than 130/85 mmHg
  • Fasting blood sugar (glucose) equal to or higher than 100 mg/dL
  • Large waist circumference (length around the waist):
    - Men – 40 inches or more
    - Women – 35 inches or more
  • Low HDL cholesterol:
    - Men – under 40 mg/dL
    - Women – under 50 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides equal to or higher than 150 mg/dL

The body is getting so used to having “high density calories” readily available that it develops more and more hunger symptoms as soon as the blood sugar level drops. This occurs very quickly with the typical foods of the western diet (anything made with high levels of sugar – or even worse corn syrup, bleached flour or other refined products which is the majority of the foods we tend to eat in the US).

This is the “secret” to the low glycemic diet and the Southbeach Diet. Both of these approaches work on “re-educating” the body to avoid the “sugar and starch cravings” with the subsequent blood sugar roller coaster.

Losing Menopause Weight

There is no magic formula for menopause weight loss (Sorry!) It is the same advice you hear from doctors and nutritionists: a healthy diet, exercise and taking in less calories than you use in a day. When you follow the link to losing weight during menopause, you will find some ideas for easy diet changes, structured diets and also helpful supplements.

There are a number of great books on this subject:

  • The Wisdom of Menopause by Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D., who has an excellent chapter about the menopause food plan.
  • What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause (TM): The Breakthrough Book on Natural Hormone Balance by John R. Lee M.D. who opened women’s eyes about the importance of hormone balance.) He has great suggestions about a proper diet for menopause.

The importance of eating a healthy diet is not new. A diet for menopause consists mostly of the foods everybody should have eaten anyway, long before hot flashes made you look for natural and healthy solutions to your menopause symptoms.

Well, no time like the present to make a healthy change – plus you will help your menopause symptoms and be losing weight during menopause.

On a final note, women who are overweight are reporting worse menopause symptoms (such as hot flashes and night sweats) than their skinny counterparts. Because of the impact of the fat cells on our cognitive ability and nervous system, symptoms like fuzzy thinking, fatigue, joint pain and forgetfulness are also impacted.
Knowing the dangers and causes of weight gain after menopause, is the first step in making necessary changes.

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