Being a woman is certainly not without it’s difficulties. From the second women hit puberty, we, are dealt some difficult cards. Not only do our bodies change drastically, but we begin the long, thirty-year (or more) journey of monthly cramps, mood swings, bloating, and bleeding… only to be greeted by menopause at the other end. Goodbye period, but hello even more mood swings, hot flashes, and weight gain.
Turns out, those extra few pounds women start to pick up when menopause kicks in is more than just weight gain. New science is pointing out that there may actually be a physical change change in the shape of their bodies – a move away from the pear shape associated with child bearing years, towards one that resembles more of an apple.
What Causes Weight Gain During Menopause?
When young women enter puberty, there is a large increase in estrogen levels in their bodies, so that their ovaries will begin working to form eggs (ova) that could potentially turn into a baby once met with a sperm. This continues until the woman is middle-aged and past her prime child bearing years, and estrogen begins to decline. No longer is the body focused on fertility, but instead on the maintenance of health.
This shift in hormones can then throw other hormones out of balance and cause weight gain. These hormones include:
Insulin: Responsible for decreasing blood sugar, when insulin is out of balance (usually due to a diet too high in refined carbohydrates), insulin resistance occurs. Since less glucose is able to get into the cells, this leads to greater cravings for carbohydrates, a stronger appetite and greater fat storage due to high circulating blood sugar levels.
Cortisol: This is the major stress hormone released by your adrenal glands, and it increases blood sugar levels so you have energy to perform physical tasks. Changes in this hormone, coupled with chronically high blood sugar levels, can cause cortisol resistance and adrenal fatigue. This leads to weight gain in much of the same way that insulin resistance does.
Thyroid hormones: Thyroid hormones control how much energy our cells produce. When these hormones are out of balance, it creates a decreased ability to use stored carbs and fats for energy, leading to weight gain.
Leptin: These are the hormones produced by your fat cells to signal the hypothalamus in your brain that you are full. Just like insulin and cortisol, when blood sugar is too high, leptin resistance can occur, which affects your brain’s ability to determine that you are full. This of course leads to overeating and therefore weight gain.
It’s hard to imagine that a process that is supposed to happen can wreak so much havoc on our cells, hormones, and bodies! Thankfully, researchers have found one hormone that could change the game for all women entering menopause.
Study: Blocking This Hormone May Fight Menopausal Weight Gain
Studies in mice have found the one hormone that is responsible for this shift from pear shaped, where women store most of their fat around their hips and reproductive organs, to the more dangerous apple shaped, where fat is stored around the abdomen and visceral organs. This hormone may also be responsible for the decrease in bone density that so many women in this phase of life face.
What is this hormone? Follicle Stimulating Hormone, or F.S.H.
What the researchers discovered, is that when you block the release of F.S.H, the mice saw an increase in calories burned, reduced abdominal fat, a slowing of bone loss, and even an increase in self-driven physical activity.
What is F.S.H. and what is it’s role?
It has long been thought that F.S.H.’s role was restricted only to reproductive matters, responsible for egg production in women and sperm production in men. As women enter menopause, F.S.H. levels in their blood increase drastically, while at the same time their bone density decreases at an alarming rate.
The Role of the Other Hormones Involved in the Reproductive Cycle
To understand how F.S.H. affects our bodies, we must also understand the role of some of the other reproductive hormones it is involved with and where everything fits in the reproductive cycle:
LH: Luteinizing hormone regulates the menstrual cycle and ovulation, and the production of eggs. It increases mid-cycle, just before ovulation. L.H. and F.S.H. rise and fall together throughout the month.
Estrogen: These hormones are responsible for the development of female reproductive organs and the menstrual cycle, and decreases as women reach menopause. Levels fluctuate throughout the month, and can effect mood and physical health, but also protect against nerve damage and bone loss.
Progesterone: Progesterone is produced by the ovaries, the adrenal glands, and the placenta (when pregnant). When F.S.H. and L.H. create a new egg to be fertilized, progesterone works with estrogen to thicken the lining of the uterus and prepare for potential pregnancy. Progesterone secretes important proteins during the latter half of the menstrual cycle so that is prepared to receive and nourish a fertilized egg. If pregnancy does not occur, levels drop along with those of estrogen, the endometrium breaks down, and your period begins.
How F.S.H. Can Increase Metabolism and Slow Bone Loss
Dr. Mone Zaidi, a professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, and his colleagues created an antibody that blocked F.S.H. in female mice whose ovaries were already removed, meaning that they were no longer producing estrogen. Normally, both in female mice and human women, as bone loss occurs, that bone is filled in with fat, which is why there is a decrease in the density and strength of the bones.
The mice in Dr. Zaidi’s lab, however, not only did not replace lost bone marrow with fat, but they also lost incredible amounts of unnecessary body fat. It took them two years to replicate the study, but they now know what might cause this increased fat metabolism: It all has to do with the type of fat.
How F.S.H. Increases metabolism
In our bodies, we have two types of fat: White, responsible for energy storage, and brown fat, which burns energy and creates heat. While adults only carry small amounts of brown fat, the blocking of F.S.H. appears to cause the mice to convert white fat into calorie-burning brown fat, allowing them to lose weight easily.
Currently, it is not clear as to whether the blocking of F.S.H. is the sole cause of the weight loss, however the results look promising and more research will continue to be done. This discovery could put us one step closer to solving the problem of abdominal fat.
Next Steps for Women and Menopausal Weight Gain
It won’t happen overnight, but getting rid menopause-induced weight is possible. As we said above, it will take time and further research to determine if F.S.H. is the determining factor for effective weight loss. But there are things we can do in the meantime to help move this process along and minimize hormonal fluctuations.
Improve blood sugar balance, by eating lower glycemic foods
Keep stress to a minimum by incorporating more ‘me time’ and taking part in relaxing activities
Maintain bone health and density (resistance training is great for this)
Naturally balance hormones other than estrogen