"If your waist is ‘thickening’, your body-shape is changing and you are going into or through menopause, then let me explain why!"
[Dr Wendy Sweet, Women's Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Coach]
When my own mother reached mid-life, it wasn’t spoken about, but thinking back I now realise that this was when her health started to change. She put on weight around her middle, her knee joints and ankles became sore and her Doctor prescribed “heart pills” for her.
For a rural woman who was fit and active all her life, I never gave her changing health a thought. But I wish I had. Because as I began to head down the weight gain and changing health pathway myself I knew, through my women’s healthy ageing studies, that she could have turned all this weight gain and changing cardiac health around. If only she had known how to change her lifestyle to match her declining reproductive hormones in menopause rather than going on endless medications and listening to all the dieting hype at the time.
You see menopause is not just about our ovaries – declining oestrogen affects our sleep, blood vessels, heart, liver, muscles, insulin production, joints and ligaments too. All of these factors impact on our weight gain in mid-life. It’s a puzzle that I was determined to untangle.
I’m so pleased that I decided to explore the real science behind our menopause weight gain. Because, for a generation of women who are told that we need endless supplements, medications, exhaustive exercise and diets to lose weight, what I learnt astounded me.
Poor sleep, changing liver health over our life-time, nutrition and exercise advice that hasn’t been researched for women in mid-life and the fact that as we lose oestrogen and progesterone in our menopause transition, we also lose muscle tone and size too – all these factors impact on our sleep, thyroid and blood sugar hormones as well as our liver health, contributing to weight gain in menopause. It’s why, our menopause transition, which is the biological gateway to our ageing, leaves us vulnerable to other health changes in mid-life.
If you are putting on weight that you are struggling to manage, then please have a read when you have time and below, I have a short 6 minute video for you about the Science of your Weight Gain in Menopause.
5 Reasons for your Menopause Weight Gain
- NOT SLEEPING – Incredibly, because of our changing hormone levels in menopause, we can add 1-2 kg a week during menopause when we can’t sleep. And we know this thanks to a Swedish study of 400 middle-aged women who recorded shortened sleep duration and weight gain. The problem is that this is what changes our health as we age – my mother included. When we lose our precious deep sleep between 2-4am, then much of this weight becomes dangerous fat that goes on our belly and under our diaphragm. As I often say to women who are trying to exercise off their weight gain, “If you aren’t sleeping, then you aren’t losing.” So forget the gym for a while, because when it comes to reversing weight gain, a good night’s sleep is the answer instead. I know that’s easier said than done when you’re suffering from increased cortisol, hot flushes, restless legs and joint pain. But when you’re awake night after night, this means that our glucose-carrying hormone called insulin, remains higher than usual overnight. When this happens, this interferes with both melatonin and another sleep hormone called Adenosine. As sleep deprivation accumulates, it can increase the risk of heart problems, anxiety and depression; resulting in even more sleepless nights and worsening night sweats.
2. OESTROGEN DOMINANCE – Have you heard of this condition? I know that I hadn’t when my weight blew out to an all-time high in menopause. This refers to the fact that when menopause hormonal changes arrive and women don’t adjust their lifestyle to suit these changes, our fat cells turn towards storing any excess oestrogen that arrives from our diet and hormone-agents in the environment. When this happens, there is more oestrogen stored in our fat cells and this ‘dominates’ the internal environment. Then as oestrogen becomes the dominant hormone and our liver isn’t clearing excess oestrogen efficiently, the role of progesterone changes too. It’s why liver health is important to us as we age. We clear excess oestrogens via our liver and during menopause, our liver changes in structure and function as part of our normal biological ageing of our organs.
3. MUSCLE LOSS – When we begin to lose muscle, our metabolism drops off. Skeletal muscle has the most effect on our metabolism. Muscle loss is highest for women during menopause and the rate accelerates when we aren’t sleeping. Losing muscle means that we don’t ‘burn’ as many calories as we used to either. This muscle loss is normal and is a condition called sarcopenia. But the effect of this is that we lose mitochondrial cells which are the location for fat-burning and energy production in our body. But there is more to the menopause weight loss story too – and it’s about our sleep, changing liver function and our sore joints and muscles which can increase a stress hormone called cortisol and this leads to more inflammation in our body. Increased fat storage is another sign of a body that is inflamed.
4. LOW VITAMIN D LEVELS – Low oestrogen levels may cause low Vitamin D levels, which increases fat storage. Our skin is our largest organ and is full of oestrogen receptors. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and is produced in the skin with the help of oestrogen. Therefore, many women are at risk of low vitamin D levels and because Vitamin D is now recognised as a hormone, low levels have an effect on other hormones in the body too. This is due to the feedback system that operates with all of our hormones.
When Vitamin D is low, hot flushes are increased and memory loss/ foggy brain becomes worse. We also experience more muscle soreness because Vitamin D is involved in the production of calcium and our bones and muscles require calcium to help them to remain strong. Vitamin D is such a powerful hormone for women to monitor in menopause because it is also implicated in melatonin production. This is our sleep hormone, and when Vitamin D levels are low, our insomnia increases and our mood hormone, serotonin, is reduced. Serotonin works with dopamine to help our mood and motivation. So, if you are on menopause-related anti-depressants, then ask your Doctor to also check your Vitamin D levels too. Restoring Vitamin D and sleep is crucial to your ongoing health and weight.
5. HIGH STRESS LEVELS – My number 5 reason, is for you not to forget that even though you still ‘feel young’, your internal cells, tissues and organs are ageing. This means that our body doesn’t resist stress as well as it used to, so blood pressure, heart rate and temperature go up more readily when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed as we continue our busy lives. Some stress is good for us, but the problem in our menopause transition is that too much stress (and this includes from not sleeping and/ or too much exercise) increases cortisol levels. This powerful hormone is one of your stress hormones but it works in conjunction with melatonin, your sleep hormone. Too much stress (emotionally and physically) interferes with your sleep. When you don’t sleep, your insulin levels stay high and you resist overnight fat-burning. It’s a vicious cycle as so many women find.
The combination of ALL of these changes in our body during menopause is important.
- Not sleeping
- Changing liver health
- Loss of elasticity in our blood vessels
- Muscle loss
- Sore joints and
- Stress from our busy lives
All of these factors interact to create the ‘perfect storm’ for weight gain during our menopause transition and of course, our health starts to change as well.
When we don’t get on top of turning around these changes with our lifestyle, then the weight creeps on and stays. Exercise may not help to shift it either but once you lose weight, research shows that the right exercise can help to maintain your weight loss. I talk about this in my Rebuild My Fitness programme.
Millions of women transition towards changing heart health as they move into post-menopause. But we mustn’t ignore it. Because if we don’t stop the menopause weight gain mayhem, then we already know from our mother’s generation, that weight gain around the trunk at this time of life sends women into post-menopause heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
For a generation of women who have enjoyed good health all their life, it can be a confusing time. This is why I’m passionate about you all understanding that turning around your weight gain and changing health as you transition menopause matters to your health as you age. If you are struggling, then please join me on the 12 week online menopause weight loss programme that is scientifically evidenced for you in menopause.
This powerful programme teaches you how to use scientifically evidenced lifestyle change allowing you to lose weight and age healthily. It puts menopause into ‘wellness’ not ‘sickness’. I called the 12 week programme ‘Transform Me’ because that’s what it did for me. Using research from women’s healthy ageing studies, this taught me how to change my own lifestyle to shift 15kg, improve my cholesterol and reduce hot flushes, restless legs and sore joints. My story is HERE …
During this Covid-19 public health crisis, I know that many of you are feeling stressed and this can interfere with normal eating patterns, sleep and menopause symptoms, including weight gain. With this in mind and because there is never a better time for some online learning, I have put ALL of my 12 week programmes ON SALE with NZ$50 savings. This makes them NZ$249 instead of NZ$299 [AUS$233 or UK£130]. Monthly payment options are available. Please use the promo code ATHOME20 when you purchase. I would love to support you.
Wendy Sweet, PhD/ Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Creator & Coach/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine/ NZ REPS Registered Exercise Specialist
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