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Why are we taking oestrogen in menopause HRT if we are putting on lots of belly fat? You see, our fat cells store this oestrogen too.

I’m so proud of Leann. I’m not entirely sure how much weight she has lost, but you can see the incredible transformation in this amazing rural woman from Australia. 

Leann and hubbie, Neil, live in a beautiful location in Queensland, Australia and yes, life is busy. In fact, over the years, there has been so much going on not only with the farm, but also with bringing up kids. When you have a lot going on in your life, it’s easy to look after everyone else but yourself. It’s also tough, when you are preparing meals for family and farm-workers alike. But it’s tougher, when you have developed a condition called ‘Oestrogen Dominance’

Leann learnt about this when she came on board into the MyMT Transform Me programme nearly two years ago now. I was so excited when she came to my Brisbane seminar recently and I got to meet up with her in person again after meeting in New Zealand earlier in the year. 

As Leann told me, “my greatest challenge was changing my diet to suit ‘me’ especially living on the farm.”

But as I explained to her, when your weight around your abdomen keeps increasing in menopause, this means your fat cells are storing excess oestrogen, so we have to be careful about high oestrogen foods in our diet and in our environment. Even though our body is trying to lose oestrogen, we get it from other sources in our environment and this includes our exposure to pesticides and chemicals. But there’s another reason as well. Fat is metabolically active and oestrogen has a role to play in this. As well, women have enzymes that make them store fat around their abdominal region – this is part of our ancient ‘survival’ physiology. 

If the liver can’t clear excess oestrogens, including from HRT, and if our fat cells store additional oestrogenic compounds as we move through menopause, oestrogen becomes the ‘dominant’ hormone in relation to it’s opposing hormone, progesterone. This makes us ‘oestrogen dominant’. 

What happens then, is what happens to millions of women around the world in menopause – including myself and Leann. Progesterone becomes too low in comparison to oestrogen. We begin to feel bloated, heavy and sore. Like me, Leann’s breast size was increasing too. They become heavy and uncomfortable too, making exercise that much harder to tolerate too. Don’t even mention the expense on new bras. 🙂   

But there’s more to oestrogen dominance and this is my greatest concern for women moving through menopause. It’s not just the fat cells in the abdominal area expanding with excess oestrogen – fat cells are expanding around the heart muscle as well. It’s called paracardial fat and this type of fat increases our risk for heart disease as we age. Furthermore, our cardiac health also suffers if we aren’t sleeping. It’s a double-whammy of health chaos as we get older. 

As I slowly pieced together the menopause-misery jigsaw I pulled together cardio-vascular research, diabetes and heart- health research as well as physical activity and longevity studies and of course nutrition and exercise research that was focused on mid-life women’s health.

The more I read, the more I began to understand that the greatest concern for women as they age, in terms of their expanding waistline and belly-fat, wasn’t necessarily to do with hormonal changes (this is a normal life-stage which I describe as the ‘book-end’ to puberty), but instead, there are a cocktail of changes that relate to our changing physiology in menopause and the accumulation of inflammation that has been building up inside us for decades.

When we aren’t sleeping, when our joints feel sore and we are losing precious muscle and becoming oestrogen dominant, then our metabolism changes too. It’s why I loved this insight from research out of the Australian National University, recently published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

If I had this research a few years ago, it would have saved a lot of lonely research of my own. In a review of studies that included more than 1 million pre- and post-menopausal women, the researchers learnt what I and many other women, have discovered in real life – that our waist circumference increases during and after menopause and the amount of fat that we have in our legs decreases.

It’s important to understand how women’s bodies change as they age because women have higher rates of some diseases than men”, said Ananthan Ambikairajah, a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, who led the study. The implications are important, because central fat has been linked with dementia risk, and central fat is linked with cardiovascular disease risk.”

More attention needs to be paid to central fat accumulation, because that’s the bad stuff,” mentioned Ambikairajah.

Every extra kilo of weight is an added burden on your joints, heart, liver, cholesterol, muscle function and insulin levels as you age. That’s what was concerning Leann too. 

It’s also the reason that I know that many of you can’t do the exercise necessary to ward off changing heart-health and Type 2 diabetes. Whilst there is an emphasis on more vigorous cardio and strength training as we age, in order to battle the bulge, I know myself that we are often too exhausted from not sleeping to tolerate this type of exercise. That’s how I felt myself – and for someone who has been at the forefront of the exercise industry in New Zealand, I was as disheartened as many of you are as well. 

As I often say in my online 12 week Transform Me programme menopause itself isn’t the issue. This is a natural life stage that we all go through. The issue is that we are ageing. And because we are ageing, we are losing our precious muscle and when this happens, we gain fat, especially the fat that is centralised around the abdomen. This changes our heart-health and it’s why, in post-menopause women, the risk for cardio-vascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) are higher than men. 

Incredibly, because of our muscle loss as we move into post-menopause, we can add 1-2 kg  a week during menopause when we can’t sleep, with much of this going on our belly and under our diaphragm. Dianne was the same and when both she and Leann met at the Brisbane seminar, there was much exchanging of delight about how far they had both come in their renewed health journey. 

The women who join me on the MyMT Transform Me programme, know that turning around post-menopause belly-fat has nothing to do with hours spent exercising, or low carb, high protein, high fat, hard-to-adhere to, popular diets. It’s all to do with sleeping all night so that, first and foremost, we stop gaining fat. Then it’s about balancing our blood-sugar levels and reducing the impact of insulin, our blood sugar regulation hormone. Along the way, we also need to focus on giving ourselves a liver rescue so that excess oestrogens are metabolised. As we go into post-menopause, our body doesn’t need as much oestrogen any more. In fact, it’s the excess oestrogen that’s the problem. If we have high levels of oestrogens in our diet and through environmental exposure (xeno-oestrogens), then our fat cells store the excess. Our fat cells love oestrogen and store this readily.

When we store excess oestrogens in our fat cells (including liver and breast tissue) then we can develop a condition called oestrogen dominance. What this means is that oestrogen becomes the ‘dominant’ hormone to the detriment of progesterone as we move through menopause and into post-menopause.

I never knew about oestrogen dominance when I went into menopause – nor did I realise how much muscle can be lost when we are too exhausted to exercise properly and aren’t sleeping. These two factors combined are a menopause and post-menopause weight gain nightmare.

I only learnt about the powerful combination of these factors when all the exercise and nutrition strategies that I had done for years no longer worked for my menopause weight loss. It was the same too, for so many women who I was interviewing for my women’s healthy ageing studies at the time. When I heard their stories, I knew I had to look into what was really going on in our menopause transition because if we don’t, then menopause weight gain becomes a ticking time-bomb for our health as we age.

 

 

So, if you are as bewildered as I was, here’s the real (and new) science behind your menopause weight gain:

  1. Not sleeping increases your blood-sugar hormone called insulin – both overnight and during the day. 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. But when we don’t sleep, our blood pressure and heart rate remain higher during the day, which in turn increases two hormones which impact weight gain – insulin and our chronic stress hormone, called cortisol. To lose belly-fat and change our risk for Type 2 diabetes in post-menopause, both insulin and cortisol need to be low, especially at night.  If they remain high, they interfere with the production of your sleep hormone called melatonin‘. As we prepare to go to sleep and stay asleep, then melatonin levels should be as high as they can be. This is why I teach women what to do to achieve the right balance between melatonin and insulin production as part of the first module they listen to in their private learning area on the 12 week MyMT Transform Me programme. If you want to start losing weight, you must sleep. 

 

2. In post-menopause, testosterone production increases if you still have  your ovaries – this disrupts insulin and cortisol. Your body is amazing. Never forget that. As women going into post-menopause, if we still have our ovaries, we are producing some testosterone. We all have varying degrees of testosterone in us and some of you stronger, larger ladies with an adrenal or pituitary body-type might produce more as well. But levels of this hormone go UP when you are feeling stressed, causing even more production of your stress hormones and the one that we don’t want called cortisol. The powerful combination of higher testosterone and high cortisol keeps your belly fat going up. Add to that not sleeping and fat cells then store the extra testosterone which your adrenal glands are busily making because you are feeling stressed!

Testosterone is an androgen, or sex-related hormone. It is produced in your ovaries, adrenal glands and fat cells and in women, testosterone contributes to over 200 actions in our body, from muscle development, to growing facial hair on our chins, to influencing anger and frustration. In natural menopause, androgen levels don’t suddenly drop, but at this time of life, you are producing about 50% less than in puberty, which is often the cause of women losing their libido and mojo at this time as well!

But there is something else affecting your weight gain during menopause as well – your loss of muscle. I call it, the ‘forgotten factor’ in understanding menopause weight gain.

3. Muscle loss in post-menopause contributes to lowered metabolism and fat 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, which is a fancy name for muscle loss. If we aren’t sleeping, then the muscle loss speeds up as your metabolism changes because you aren’t getting the benefit of muscle recovery overnight – even for those of you doing weights. When we don’t sleep however, as I said earlier, one of our chronic stress hormones, called cortisol remains high. One of the outcomes, is that as you lose muscle density, then you also lose the number and size of mitochondrial cells. These beautiful cells store oxygen and this is where fat is burned. In menopause and as a natural part of our biological ageing, we lose precious mitochondrial cells and this wrecks havoc on menopause fat-burning potential. It’s why your fitness sessions, diets , HRT and intermittent fasting may no longer be working for you in menopause. Jo discovered this too. “Nothing I do is working” is the cry I hear all the time until they join me of course. 🙂  

 

 All of these factors combined –

  • not sleeping,
  • increased insulin,
  • high stress levels,
  • testosterone changes and
  • loss of muscle tissue –

have the greatest impact on our changing health and weight gain as we move into post-menopause. 

If this is you, then will you let me help you? The 12 week online programme is everything I needed to know when my health and weight began to change as I moved through menopause.

Check out what you receive in your private learning hub when you join the MyMT Transform Me programme. Leann’s still with me too. When nothing she was doing worked for her weight management in menopause and she became so confused about how to lose weight, she took the plunge too. 

Dr Wendy Sweet, [PhD/ Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Founder]

 

 

“If you have ever wondered if there was a clear easy plan to follow to sleep all night, reduce hot flushes and prevent or reduce your weight gain during menopause, then ‘welcome’ – you’re in the right place now.”

Discover how either of my two Menopause Transformation programmes might help you too or take my Symptoms Quiz below… 

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