Weight gain is a frustrating part of the menopause for many women due to an interplay between four hormones: oestrogen and progesterone (our reproductive hormones), insulin (our blood sugar stabilising hormone) and cortisol (our stress hormone).
The first hormonal change that signifies perimenopause is the drop in progesterone. This means we have more oestrogen to progesterone ratio known as ‘oestrogen dominance;’ and this imbalance can cause weight to fluctuate wildly. The other imbalance that occurs with the reduction in progesterone is that cortisol also becomes more dominant as progesterone balances it out.
The main function of cortisol is to increase sugar (glucose) in our bloodstream. Too much cortisol causes our blood sugars to rise, meaning we produce insulin to bring our blood sugars back down. This increase in insulin also signals the body to go into ‘fat storage’ mode. During menopause some women start to become ‘insulin resistant’ which means that their body stops responding to it. When this happens their blood sugars remain high and they are in a constant fat storage mode instead of fat burning.
This is all happening because of the hormonal fluctuations – regardless of what we eat –and this is why weight gain is common at this time.
How to counteract these natural hormonal fluctuations
- Balancing your blood sugars. It’s essential to get the right diet during this time. Eating protein and good fats at every meal is essential for blood sugar stabilisation. Eating a diet that is heavy in carbohydrates means we produce more insulin; this is moderated when we eat protein and fats, so adding these two macronutrients helps to avoid insulin resistance. The best sources of protein are meat, fish and eggs or plant based protein powders.
- Avoid food intolerances. Common foods such as wheat, milk and sugar often cause food intolerances. When we eat these foods, we produce cortisol which contributes to weight gain.
- Support your liver. There are a lot of excess hormones for the liver to detox at this time, which commonly becomes sluggish during menopause. Eating protein and leafy greens helps your liver to clear out the excess. It is also important to make sure you drink two litres of water a day.
- Do the right exercise (but make sure you do exercise). Exercise is essential for reducing excess insulin and oestrogen from the bloodstream. However, doing too much high impact or cardio exercise can mean we create cortisol. Listen to your body. If you are tired, rest. If you still fancy moving your body then go for a walk in nature, a swim or do some yoga. Save the high energy workouts for days when you have enough energy and limit them to two sessions per week. Now is also the time to learn how to work out with weights properly if you haven’t before. Resistance training increases metabolism, builds muscle strength and contributes to bone density, which are all major concerns in menopause. Plus it tones your body helping to counteract the weight gain!
- Get enough sleep. This is easier said than done for many women. If insomnia is one of your main menopause symptoms then make sure you rest when you can in the day and speak to your GP or a menopause expert as there are many options to help with sleep. It’s essential for weight management as the liver does most of its detoxing whilst we are asleep.
- Be careful of alcohol. Alcohol is very high in sugar and therefore stimulates the production of insulin causing weight gain. Additionally, having to clear out the alcohol makes your liver work harder than it already is.
- Be gentle with yourself. Your body is going through a massive change. There will be good weeks and tough weeks. Battling it will just add more cortisol into the body and exacerbate the issue.
- Reduce stress. Stress surrounds us, but this is a time to learn techniques to reduce its impact. The more unnecessary cortisol that is produced, the more this cycle continues. Cortisol is made in the adrenal glands which also take over producing our oestrogen and progesterone once the ovaries stop. It’s essential to reduce stress so this balance is correct. Now is the time to learn boundaries and learning to say ‘no’ to put your health first. Many women report that learning to put themselves first is one of the most liberating aspects of the menopause journey.
- Clean up your toiletries and cleaning products. Many products contain ‘hormone disrupting chemicals’ (EDCs), such as parabens and phthalates. These have a major impact on all hormones but even more so at times when there is a big hormonal fluctuation.
- Review HRT. If you are on HRT and still getting symptoms it may be time to review it. There are many options available including body identical hormones which are a game changer for some women. Speak to your GP or a menopause expert to find out more information.