by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
As women, we spend so much of our lives comparing ourselves to other women – whether it’s our friends, our co-workers, our sisters, or the many women who stare back at us from the pages of magazines or TV and film screens. We use them as models of what is good and beautiful, and what is not. Many of us struggle to accept that our nose or our thighs are just never going to look like Gisele’s.
Finally we make peace with our bodies and learn to love them as they are and then BAM! Perimenopause shows up with all its challenges, from hot flashes to headaches to the dreaded weight gain. Suddenly we find ourselves looking in the mirror wishing we could have our old bodies back. Perimenopausal weight gain is very common; it’s our bodies’ way of adapting to our new hormone levels and supporting us during the changes that nature intended to occur as we leave our reproductive years behind.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean its mandatory. We all have a metabolic set point, and that set point can change, but it does not need to change after menopause. Weight gain is another symptom of imbalance in your body and with some effort and care, you can maintain — or restore — your ideal weight in perimenopause and menopause and beyond.
Let’s look at what is going on that is encouraging your body to store more fat and what we can do to help our bodies to let it go.
Causes of Menopausal Weight Gain
While we are all unique and we each face our own weight challenges, there are some common causes of menopausal weight gain that many women struggle with. Our hormones and our fat cells are part of a complex and comprehensive network responsible for metabolism, appetite, digestion, heat regulation, and detoxification. Any breakdown in communication will result in symptoms like hot flashes, food cravings, and yes, weight gain.
In order to prevent weight gain, we need to ensure that the network is communicating regularly and effectively so that there are no breakdowns. There are many connections and links between hormones and fat and we are still learning about all of them. But one absolutely critical link is the connection between insulin, metabolism and body fat.
Our bodies have three primary hormones: insulin, adrenaline, and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol manage our stress response while insulin controls our blood sugar levels. In other words, food and stress directly affect our hormones! Insulin is driven by the food we eat and when we eat too much sugar, white flour and processed foods, insulin levels will rise. When we are exposed to high or chronic stress, adrenaline and cortisol will increase.
Whenever our body is out of alignment and struggling with a primary hormone, it does not have the resources or the ability to produce optimal levels of secondary hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Many of us eat too much white sugar and white flour, too many processed foods and carbohydrates and not enough healthy fats.
Whether your weakness is bread, pasta, sugared coffee drinks, alcohol or dessert, if your blood glucose levels are high and you are approaching insulin resistance, or have insulin sensitivity, your body will convert every calorie it can into fat. That’s because even though you may be gaining weight, your cells are actually starving for the healthy nutrients they need!
In addition, whether you have been diagnosed with diabetes or insulin resistance or not, many of us have insulin sensitivity and have glucose levels that are higher than they should be. Heading into perimenopause, this is a recipe for weight gain. Your body will store fat to ensure it has what it needs, and your hormonal imbalance and sugar consumption may lead to cravings that are hard to resist. If you do choose a high sugar option, be sure to add some protein to help stabilize your blood sugar levels.
For more information, read our numerous articles about this topic in our Insulin Resistance category in our Health Library.
On a side note, I just want to say that the answer to sugar cravings is not artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet ’n Low or Sugar Twin) have toxic effects on the body that can bring a host of side effects including headaches and digestive problems and can also exacerbate your underlying hormonal imbalance issues. For more information on this topic, read our article, “Sugar Substitutes And The Potential Danger Of Splenda“.