Women’s bodies experience many substantial physical and hormonal changes during their lifetime, from puberty to pregnancy and beyond. As women grow older, their reproductive cycle comes to an end, and the menopause stage begins. This natural stage in every woman’s life comes with a series of often uncomfortable symptoms such as:
- Night sweats and hot/cold flashes
- Frequent urination
- Vaginal dryness
- Racing heart
- Changes in sex drive
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Trouble Sleeping (1)
Hormones and Menopause
A woman’s body goes through significant hormonal changes during menopause. In this stage, at some point, the ovaries will stop ovulating altogether, and the woman’s monthly periods will cease. Consequently, the ovaries produce lesser amounts of estrogen and progesterone.
What is Estrogen?
Estrogen is one of the two sex hormones that women produce, responsible for the physical developments during puberty. Changes like:
- The beginning of menstrual cycles
- Growing breasts
- Presence of pubic and underarm hair
Estrogen plays a crucial role in :
- Keeping cholesterol within normal levels
- Maintaining healthy bones
- Influencing brain, heart, skin, and other tissues health
Also, estrogen helps keep the vagina moisturized, elastic, and well supplied with blood.
How Does Estrogen Work?
The primary source of estrogen in a woman’s body is the ovaries, where eggs are produced. A minor amount of estrogen is produced by the adrenal glands or suprarenal glans – small triangular shaped glands – located above the kidneys. As a hormone, estrogen permeates the whole body and has influence in nearly every part of it.
During the reproductive life of a woman, estrogen levels are constantly fluctuating. It’s at its highest in the middle of the monthly menstrual cycle, lowest during menstruation, and drops dramatically during menopause.
The most common issues associated with lower levels of estrogen due to menopause are:
- Infrequent or absence of menstrual periods
- The decline in sexual drive
- Mood swings
- Dryness and thinning of the vagina
- Hot flashes
- Migraines before the menstrual period
What is Progesterone?
Progesterone, also called the pregnancy hormone, is a female sex hormone created mainly in the ovaries and in lesser amounts in the placenta and the adrenal glands. It is produced following ovulation during each menstrual cycle, and it plays a crucial role in pregnancy and a woman’s monthly period.
In the course of the menstrual cycle, the egg is released in the first 14 days, more or less, which causes the ovaries to start producing progesterone and oestradiol in minor amounts. The presence of progesterone prepares the body for a possible pregnancy if the eggs become fertilized. In the event that the egg is not fertilized, the production of progesterone drops, and the new menstrual cycle starts.
When menopause arrives and the production of progesterone ceases, estrogen can become dominant, causing a series of health problems such as:
- Gallbladder problems
- Breast tenderness, fibrocystic breast
- Lower sex appetite, mood swings, and depression
- Weight gain
Weight Gain During Menopause
We are aware that one of the consequences of aging is weight gain, especially in women that are entering the menopause stage. From puberty up to the end of perimenopause, hormones induce the woman’s body to store fat in the hips and thighs. Although this type of fat can be challenging to lose, it does not represent health risks like weight gain during menopause.
During menopause, due to the low estrogen levels, fat starts to accumulate around the midsection as visceral fat, which various studies link to heart disease, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. (2)
Even if menopause is one of the reasons for weight gain, other factors also play a crucial role, like:
- Lack of exercise, sedentary lifestyle
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Lower muscle mass
- Genetics, obesity present in the family
- Having children
- Slower metabolism
- Use of antidepressants
What Can You Do to Manage Your Weight During Menopause?
Despite the fact that hormonal changes during menopause can cause weight gain, following certain guidelines can help minimize the effects of hormone changes and regain control over your weight. Like everything else in life, no particular solution works for everyone. It is better to focus on trying different things and finding what works best for you.
- Lower your carb intake. Becoming aware of how many carbs you consume can help you stop gaining weight in your abdominal area. Carbs turn into sugar in our bodies which may cause metabolic problems.
- Exercise more often and increase intensity. As a way to combat mid-life weight gain, you can incorporate exercises like running, power walking, swimming, and bicycling into your workout routine.
- Incorporate weight training. Building muscle mass is essential in midlife. It will not only make you look better, but it will help to protect your bones, increase strength and maintain lean muscle.
- Consume more Fiber. A diet rich in fiber can improve insulin sensitivity. Good sources of fiber are flax seeds, nuts, avocados, berries, etc. (3)
- Schedule your meals and avoid snacking. Being aware of when you eat it is as important as what you eat. Some physicians recommend eating only within a window of 8 to 12 hours each day to regulate your weight, especially during menopause.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol is full of excess empty calories that only increase the propensity to gain weight.
- Get better sleep. Insomnia is a common problem for women entering and during menopause. Not enough or restless sleep can alter your hunger hormones, ghrelin, and leptin, making it harder to stick to your weight loss goals. Create a sleeping routine, try to go to bed at the same time every day, and avoid any stimulation, like being on your electronic devices right before bed. (4)
Menopause is a phase in a woman’s life that can be challenging. However, it can give you an opportunity to reimagine yourself and continue to lead a joyous life. Finding support from friends and family is essential, as well as accepting that a new phase is at your doorstep. Be open and let it in with hope and delight!