“I’ve been walking to and from work for years, but when my weight kept going up since my early 50’s, I joined the gym. But all the hard-out classes and Boot Camps I’m doing are not making any difference. In fact, I’m feeling even more exhausted and my weight has got worse.” (Phillipa, 52 yrs).
This comment from Phillipa sits in my doctoral thesis. I was travelling around the country interviewing women on their perspectives on their health as they aged. Many of them spoke about the role of exercise. And Phillipa wasn’t the only one who mentioned this conundrum, i.e. the fact that exercise wasn’t helping her weight management in her 50s.
But not once did she (or the other women I interviewed) mention menopause.
And at the time, I was the same. Exhausting exercise wasn’t helping my weight management – yet for decades, it had.
That’s why I knew I had to get to the bottom of why women like me were suddenly being thrown into increasing weight gain in their 50’s – which subsequently, sends us down the slippery slope towards post-menopause heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and movement-related problems as the weight piles on and the joints become more sore.
Needless to say, for numerous women breast size increases too. When the same thing happened to me, the neck and shoulder pain also increased, making exercise such as jogging, tough.
“How we manage our menopause transition, shapes our health for the rest of our life.“ [Harvard Health Review, 2018].
After doing my doctoral studies on women’s healthy ageing, as well as my own experience with changing health in my 50s and incredible weight gain, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why, when it comes to menopause weight gain, it’s not ‘just’ about exercise or nutrition …. the causes go so much deeper and over the next month, I’m going to have a focus on weight gain in mid-life. I hope you can join me.
The Science of Weight Gain in Menopause.
Understanding how our body burns fat and maintains its metabolism as we move into our biological ageing is an important issue for women wanting to manage their wieght.
Whilst I’ve taught university level physiology for years, interestingly, none of the lectures I taught were about menopause and the hormonal influences on our weight in mid-life. I would definitely change that now!
So, let’s explore what’s really going on and why exercise may not be working for you in terms of weight management.
- You aren’t sleeping. Menopause insomnia is one of the main symptoms that women complain about. I know the feeling. And when it comes to weight gain, we can put on an additional 0.5-1kg a week simply because we aren’t sleeping. However, when you are awake, especially between 2-4am, a hormone called insulin remains higher than usual overnight. The role of insulin is to shift glucose around your body, especially to your brain, liver and muscle cells where it gets stored in your cells. Overnight, your body likes your insulin levels to be low. When insulin is high, this may interfere with the production of your sleep hormone called ‘melatonin‘. This is why I teach women what to do to achieve the right balance between melatonin and insulin as part of the first module they listen to in their private learning area on the 12 week online MyMT™ Transform Me programme. The emphasis is on sleep and not exercise.
- Your chronic stress hormone called cortisol is too high at night. High cortisol production causes more hormonal chaos during peri-menopause and into post-menopause (when your periods have stopped for a year or more). Cortisol is one of your stress hormones. When it remains high all day long and into the evening, then it interferes with insulin and testosterone production (yes, we do have testosterone being produced in menopause). For those of you who have been reading my newsletters for a while, you’ll know that I’m always talking about how all of our hormones are connected and ‘talk to each other’. Well, this is one example of what happens to the hormone chaos when we can’t sleep AND we are going through menopause. It’s why I keep saying that oestrogen and progesterone aren’t the only culprits affecting our weight and our symptoms in menopause! It’s other hormones, such as cortisol, insulin and testosterone that get out of balance too. This is why exhausting, high intensity exercise on top of all your other life-stress, can increase your cortisol levels during the day and evening, when in fact, cortisol production should be low.
Increased fat gain under your diaphragm, around your waist and on your stomach. Very annoying for many of us who have worked hard at our nutrition, exercise and weight management over the years!
There’s another issue contributing to your weight gain too and it’s a well known phenomenon during menopause – the decline of muscle tone and size. I call it, the forgotten factor in understanding menopause weight gain.
- When we lose oestrogen as a normal outcome of our changing biology, we also lose muscle size and density. It’s a condition called sarcopenia, or muscle loss.
The decline in muscle size and tone is problematic for women as they age, not only because of the loss of strength, but also because we are losing powerful cells called mitochondria, where fats are burned and turned into energy. In menopause and as a natural part of our biological ageing, sarcopenia results in the loss of precious mitochondrial cells. This wrecks havoc on menopause fat-burning potential.
All of these factors combined – not sleeping, increased insulin and cortisol and loss of muscle tissue – have the greatest impact on our changing health as we age.
It’s also why my first two learning modules focus women on what to do to turn around the quality of their sleep and to prevent insulin chaos and a condition called ‘oestrogen dominance’. When we aren’t sleeping, and cortisol is high, then we are also at risk of lowering progesterone levels. This means that progesterone is low in relation to oestrogen. Excess oestrogen, sourced from foods or converted from testosterone, then move to fat cells.
Clearing excess oestrogen from fat cells, through improving liver function and improving sleep, is crucial to menopause weight management and fat loss. This is the starting point for stopping weight gain.
It’s such a challenging time for all of us as so many people rely on us to ‘cope’ but with menopause symptoms and weight gain, the ability to ‘cope’ may also go out the door! That’s why sleeping all night and restoring insulin chaos and the increase in oestrogen dominance is so important for our healthy ageing.
Most other practitioners think that it’s just nutrition and exercise that solve our weight issues in menopause, but this is incorrect.
It’s lack of sleep – which includes turning around hot flushes, night sweats and bladder control, which are what typically wake us up!
Through my doctoral studies on women’s healthy ageing, I’ve discovered that there are simple, but highly powerful daily lifestyle solutions that we can use, instead of sleep medications, hormone therapies or endless supplements that are putting oestrogen back into our body at a time when our liver is trying to clear excess oestrogens.
For example, the women already underway will be discovering that what they eat and drink in the evenings during their peri-menopause transition, seriously affects their ability to get to sleep.
This includes how much protein they have for dinner. This is because of the link between protein metabolism, heat production and insulin release in the hours before bedtime. When insulin is too high, then the production of our sleep hormone MELATONIN is reduced so timing and type of food for dinner matters to our sleep.
For over 30 years I’ve seen the numbers of new members visiting the gym swell in the New Year. With promises of weight loss and improved fitness, Personal Trainers and Group Exercise Instructors would implore those attending to sweat hard for their weight management. When I used to be that young Personal Trainer too and I was motivating my mid-life female clients to work harder, I had no idea about menopause.
I also had no idea that if these women weren’t sleeping, none of this exercise mattered for their weight loss. Three months later, it was all back on – and more! I also didn’t know that a good night’s sleep was what was needed instead.
Nor did I understand what was really happening with my menopause belly fat, sore joints, worsening insomnia and endless hot flushes, until I explored the powerful connection between not sleeping, intense exercise and our symptoms in menopause.
The more I researched, the greater the realisation that women going through their menopause transition into post-menopause, are forgotten when it comes to looking after ourselves with our weight management. Too many women end up taking endless expensive supplements, protein powders and doing all sorts of exhausting exercise routines, until they get to the point where they realise that none of these interventions work into the longer term.
When women on my doctoral studies told me similar stories about doing lots of exercise, but not losing weight, I knew I had to examine what was really going on more closely. I hope you’ve enjoyed discovering why.
Brady, C. . Liver disease in Menopause, World Journal of Gastroenterology, 21(25), 7613-7620
Cabot, S. & Eanelli, T. . Fatty Liver – you can reverse it. Amazon Publ.
Edwards, B. & Jin Li, . Endocrinology of menopause. Periodontology, 61, 177–194.
Ford, C. et al. . Evaluation of diet pattern and weight gain in postmenopausal women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. British Journal of Nutrition, 117, 1189–1197.
Harvard Health, . Lose weight and keep it off. Harvard Health Online Publications. Boston: MA
Kendall, B. & Ester, R. . Exercise-induced muscle damage and the potential protective role of estrogen. Sports Med., 32 (2), 103-123
Lerchbaum, E. . Vitamin D and Menopause: A review. Maturitas, 79, 3-7.
Moudi, A. et.al . The relationship between health-promoting lifestyle and sleep quality in menopausal women. Biomedicine, 8(2), 34-40.
Rizzi, M. . Sleep disorders in fibromyalgia syndrome. J. of Pain & Relief, 5:2.
Ryan, M. Itsiopoulos, C. et al. (2014). The Mediterranean diet improves hepatic steatosis and insulin sensitivity in individuals with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of Hepatology, 59(1), 138-143.
Santosa, S. & Jensen, M. (2013). Adipocyte fatty acid storage factors enhance subcutaneous fat storage in postmenopausal women. Diabetes, 62,3, 775-782, ProQuest Central.
Theorell-Haglöw J, Berne C, Janson C, Sahlin C, Lindberg E. (2010). Associations between short sleep duration and central obesity in women. Sleep. 33(5):593-8. PMID: 20469801; PMCID: PMC2864874.
Wacker, M. & Holick, M. . Sunlight and Vitamin D: A global perspective for health. Dermato-endocrinology, 5:1, 51–108.
Woods N. et al. . Cortisol levels during the menopausal transition and early postmenopause: Observations from the Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study. Menopause, 16(4): 708–71