I’ve worked with many patients who are approaching or have entered menopause. Many of these women are under the impression that once they reach this point, that they are in for a battle in terms of managing their health and hormones. It is important to remember that menopause is a normal process and that females are designed to enter this phase upon reaching a certain point in their lives. Menopause is not a problem as it is meant to keep you alive and well for as long as possible. Menopausal weight gain, however, is a bit of a problem.
Many women complain that once they reach this stage, that they are very easily able to gain weight due to increased fat storage. While this is very common, it’s important to realize that menopause itself is not responsible for weight gain. There are multiple factors that come into play and lead to the common effects of increased fat storage, once our bodily production of estrogen decreases.
Estrogen Levels Throughout A Woman’s Life
When females enter their teen years, estrogen production increases significantly, leading to activation of the ovaries and the release of eggs into the fallopian tubes. This continues to occur until the late 40’s and early 50’s, albeit with a slow decline as age increases. Finally, a phase is reached in which estrogen levels decrease enough that the release of ova is halted and the female body shifts its energy use from reproduction to maintenance of health. When this point is reached, it is very common for the body to become more sensitive to hormonal variations and changes, leading to potentially increased ability to store fat in the midsection. This is why so many people complain of increased fat storage in the midsection.
It is important to keep in mind that estrogen is not the only contributing hormone to this process. Our hormones require a very specific balance as a shift in any one hormonal level (stress, blood-sugar balance and sex hormone) can lead to an imbalance in all hormones in the body.
These include insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormones, and leptin.
Insulin is the hormone responsible for decreasing circulating blood sugar. In order to ensure insulin levels are balanced, it is important to eat a diet with lower glycemic index. If our diet is high in carbohydrates and foods with a high glycemic index, our insulin levels will spike and drop, leading to inconsistency over time, and leading to a situation called Insulin resistance, in which your body’s’ cells will show decreased sensitivity to insulin when levels are high in the bloodstream. This, in turn, can lead to increased weight gain as the blood glucose (sugar) needs to be removed from the bloodstream, so it is sent into the fat cells for storage.
Cortisol is our major stress hormone which is released by the adrenal glands. It functions by increasing our blood-sugar levels, allowing our body cells to have enough fuel available to perform their energy-requiring functions. Having a chronically high blood-sugar level can lead to cortisol resistance and adrenal fatigue as our bodies cells are unable to keep up with the demand of using the fuel sources, leading again to fat storage of the fuels.
Our thyroid hormones dictate how much energy our cells can produce. When thyroid levels increase, it tells our cells to burn more carbohydrates and fats to produce cellular energy (ATP, Adenosine Triphosphate) in our Mitochondria. Having altered thyroid hormone function can lead to energy production issues and an inability to burn enough carbs and fats, leading once again to a backup in the energy production and storage of carbs and fats in our cells.
Leptin is a hormone produced by our fat cells, sent to tell our hypothalamus (in our brain) that we are satiated. Leptin levels are increased in response to higher levels of sugars like fructose. Over time, high blood sugar and high fructose levels can lead to leptin resistance in the cells of our hypothalamus. This over time can lead us to believe that we are not satiated, when in fact we are already full. This is one of the causes of overeating due to a hormonal imbalance and resistance to leptin.
Preventing menopausal weight gain
Below are some steps you can take to ensure that you keep your hormones balanced and are able to optimize health to reduce and even entirely prevent weight gain once entering menopause.
- Stay Active
One of the most common issues affecting women age 50+ is muscle loss due to inactivity. This issue is also correlated to osteoporosis. Keeping active can be as simple as a 20-30 minute walk, taking a yoga class in the comfort of your own home with Yoga Download, or breaking a sweat at a Crossfit gym. Take note of what you are capable of doing and push yourself to stay active as often as possible. It’s amazing what 1-2 hours per week of slightly increased activity can do for you.
- Eat Green, Clean and Lean
Diet and digestion is an important component of remaining healthy. There are certain foods that can help you keep blood sugar levels balanced and thus balance your hormones. A general rule of thumb when at the grocery store is to choose foods that are green, clean and lean. Green in terms of vegetables, preferably of the dark green leafy variety. Clean in terms of chemicals so choose organic where possible. Foods that are genetically modified or sprayed with herbicides and pesticides can have unrelenting effects on various cellular and body systems. Lean is important as foods that are high in inflammatory fats can lead you down the path of increased inflammation and weight gain. Choose lean meats and foods that have good fats like Omega-3 fatty acids as well as nuts and seeds that are organic as well.
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